Hacking a “California Apple N99”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really see the point in watching videos on a postage-stamp sized screen (and I really don’t get why some people get so obsessive about trying to watch high-def 720p video on a 2.4″ screen). By the time you get up to about a 3.4″ screen, MP3 players that play video – i.e. “MP4 players” – start to make a little more practical sense, and by the time you up the size to 4.3 inches, you’ve got my serious interest.

If you hunt around right now (September 2009) for a 4.3″ MP4 player, you’ve got a few options – players from fairly well-respected brands you’ve never heard of – Ainol, Onda, and RAmos (that’s how they capitalize it, don’t look at me like that) are the ones that come immediately to mind. Got $125 to spend? Just get the RAmos T9, already. It’s a really nice player.

…or you could save some money and go with a sort of no-name copy from China, for $60 or $70 USD.

Guess which one I did? 🙂

If you hunt around on eBay, for example, for 4.3″ MP4 players, you’ll see a lot of RAmos clones being sold for $60-65 with free shipping. They’re easy to spot, because almost all the listings use the same stock photos:

Sometimes they’ll admit they’re selling a “T8 clone”, but most of the time they want you to think you’re getting a real RAmos T8.

You’re not. You’re actually getting something made in China as the “California Apple N99”. It looks a lot like the RAmos, but it’s not.

Here’s what you need to know:

It’s powered by a RockChip RK2706 processor, and will have 4GB or 8GB – depending on the model – of Hynix flash memory. It’s got a 4.3″ 320×240 TFT LCD display with a 16:9 aspect ratio and a very nice, very sensitive resistive touch screen.

It plays MP3, WMA, RMA, and WAV files, as well as FLAC, APE, and Ogg Vorbis files.

It plays RealMedia videos – RM and RMVB – as well as .avi files (encoded with DivX or XviD codecs with MP3 audio) at at least 24FPS and at least 1900kbps (audio and video). It also plays Flash (.flv) files, including those grabbed from YouTube.

It probably plays other formats, but I only have so much to test it with. 🙂 Things it doesn’t appear to handle: Matroska video (.mkv), Ogg Vorbis video files, video files with AAC audio… actual MP4 files. Hardcoded subtitles display fine; I haven’t tried external subtitle files, and know that “softsubs” don’t work, sorry otakus…

The screen is bright and clear, the touchscreen is responsive and easy to use, and the audio quality is surprisingly good, either through the headphones or the built-in one-watt (!) speaker. The user interface is pretty generic, but decent enough. It supports most of the world’s major languages, has a very usable e-book reader (.txt only), and the memory can be expanded with up to a 2GB MicroSD card.

Build quality is surprisingly decent – both the front and back of the case are aluminum, and the fit and finish are really quite nice. The LCD is evenly illuminated and has no dead or stuck pixels.

For $65 or so, it really is a great little player, and (IMO) could probably sell quite well if people stopped misrepresenting them as RAmos products.

There’s just one tiny little catch – battery life. On the factory battery, it’ll manage almost three hours of music playback, or about two hours of movie playback, before going dead. This is a bit ironic considering almost half the player is battery:

Yes, it can charge from USB, but what’s the use of having a portable media player if you have to constantly stop and recharge the damned thing?

I thought to myself “I can do better than this”.

Some quick measurements later, I was on eBay, hunting through rechargeable lithium-polymer batteries. Before too long, I’d found generic no-name 1200mAh replacement batteries for fourth-generation Ipods, with dimensions of 49x35x4mm, which would fit perfectly in the N99 with room to spare. The cost? 6.23 USD, including free shipping from New York.

Two days later, I had the battery in my hands, and it was time to perform surgery:

I desoldered the old battery, cut the connector off the Ipod battery, and soldered it into the player; it was a perfect fit.

It powered up just fine, and has been working perfectly for the past two weeks now. Run time on the new battery? About six hours playing MP3s, and – in theory – around four hours playing videos. (I generally don’t watch a lot of videos at one time, but I measured current draw in video mode at right about 200ma, with the backlight on the highest setting – rising to about 250ma if you turn the speaker up loud. While it’s sold as being “1200mAh”, I’m fairly confident the battery is no more than 1000mAh, and probably more like 800 or 900. The factory battery, despite being larger, is probably around 450mAh actual capacity.)

Just because it’s an “Ipod battery”, doesn’t mean there’s anything to really prevent you from putting it inside something else – for the most part, a battery is a battery is a battery, and if it physically fits, you should be good.

So, for about 60 USD (the seller made a partial refund after I complained about the battery life and having not received the advertised wall charger), I’ve got a pretty decent MP3 player with a huge touchscreen, which can play a good percentage of the video files out there, and has a fairly decent battery life. Is it an Ipod? No, but neither does it cost an arm and a leg. Is it a RAmos, from which it takes its appearance? No… but, honestly, given how rampant counterfeits are on eBay, I figure you might as well just save your money and buy the clone – you could spend $45 more on “the real thing”, sure, but I can guarantee that several of the “Ramos T8” players on eBay right now are fakes. (Look at the photos carefully – the real RAmos T8 has two speakers on the back; the “California Apple N99″ has one.) For $65, this isn’t a bad media player at all, especially if you can swap the battery for something better – hello, 4.3” touchscreen! Hello, FLAC, Ogg Vorbis, DivX and XviD support! For $100, though… not so much.

I know nobody can fathom how the Chinese electronics industry works, but if the people who make this thing spent the extra buck or two to put in a decent battery, and the people selling the thing online stopped pretending it was a RAmos player, it could be reasonably popular and everyone who bought it would, I think, be quite happy. Probably never going to happen, but, still…

(Incidentally, if you have one of these players, whose mainboard is marked CR43TFTPMPV1.4, and need a copy of the firmware, let me know. There are some un-populated locations on the PCB for components, so it’s probable there is more than one model out there with this PCB in it, but if you’re desperate…)

Published in: Geekiness, General | on September 4th, 2009| 5 Comments »

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5 Comments

  1. On 1/11/2010 at 6:07 pm MP4 man Said:

    Just bought one of these on the Ebay. I’m interested in changing the battery out. It looks like the battery you bought on the Ebay has three wires and the battery you took out of the N99 only had two. Is that right? If it is, what did you do with the third wire?

  2. On 1/11/2010 at 6:16 pm Nemo Said:

    Yep, a lot of Li-ion batteries have three wires – red is positive, white is usually also positive, and black is ground. I cut off part of the white wire and covered the stub in electrical tape so it wouldn’t short against anything.

  3. On 1/11/2010 at 7:32 pm MP4 Man Said:

    Sweet. Thanks.

  4. On 1/19/2010 at 6:12 pm MP4Man Said:

    Worked!! Thanks

  5. On 9/14/2011 at 6:31 am Pavol Rak Said:

    Hi! I have this player and i need datasheet for this PCB CR43TFTPMPV1.4, problem is with this component:
    http://t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTtcUxcmwGho53vwnJkUU14cMT-TCbRCD6WeeSHJO7bg_C6GHc-rQ
    i need alternative component for this, you can help?