The OnHub is Google's latest weird experiment. It's a $US200 router stuffed with fourteen antennae that's being marketed as a cure-all for people who have a zillion wireless devices with different network needs. But what does that actually mean? I tore down my OnHub with the hardware hackers at iFixit to find out.
Images by Samantha Lionheart
For those of you who don't know iFixit, they're a small California company devoted to the idea that every device should be repairable. Founded in 2003 by Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules, iFixit sells incredible tool kits and replacement parts for every manner of gadget -- but most importantly, they tear down new devices as they hit the market, carefully document the process, and post free repair manuals for all of them online. If you have a new device like the OnHub, which is notoriously undocumented, iFixit is there for you with everything you could want to know.
Except when I contacted Wiens to ask about the OnHub, it turned out they hadn't gotten one yet. So I volunteered to sacrifice the one I had pre-ordered, in the name of greater knowledge. And the more we ripped it apart, the more bizarre things got.
I watched as iFixit teardown masters Andrew Goldberg and Samantha Lionheart got to work. As you can see above, the OnHub comes in a fitted plastic cowl, and has a glowing LED ring around the speaker on top to let you know whether your device is in distress or working normally. There is a tiny light sensor embedded in the speaker, which we speculated was probably for dimming the device in darkened rooms.
Also, what you're seeing in that picture is actually the back of the device. As we quickly discovered, the main directional antenna is located on the other side, so you want that power cable, your USB 3.0 port, and your network cables facing away from whatever room you're in. Which -- that's annoying if you ever want to, I dunno, plug things into it easily.
Hot Naked Antenna Array
If you look at the image at the very top, you'll see what the OnHub looks like naked. It's ribbed for your pleasure, and behind those slats lurk a machine in search of a purpose. Opening the thing up -- with a special tool just for prying open cases -- left Goldberg with at least one bloody finger, and left the casing with several broken clips. Not for the last time, we all wished the OnHub had been designed to be taken apart easily.
Our wish became even more fervent when it began to dawn on us that this device wasn't meant for ordinary people. Above, you can see the motherboard snuggled between two dramatic heat sinks, a double-diamond directional antenna clipped to the casing, and a ring-shaped antenna board at the top amplifying no less than twelve antennae. And you're not even seeing the "congestion sensing" antenna that was sitting on top of all that. So yes, we're talking fourteen antennae stuffed into this weird device with a speaker and a light sensor ... but no microphone, and only one network port. The whole thing, manufactured by router maker TP-Link, reeks of prototype.
Below, take a closer look at the connectors between the antennae and the motherboard. Yep, all those little gold connectors lined up nicely are for the antennae (six of them do 2.4 GHz and six do 5 GHz). Each of those black squares holds two antennae, mostly for regular wifi -- but one is for bluetooth, and another for a smart home networking protocol known as 802.15.4.
Below, you can gaze in fetishistic awe at the antenna board again, ringing the speaker. Why the hell does this device need so much antenna power when it can do almost nothing? "It's experimental antenna club!" Lionheart quipped as she shot pictures.
Below you can ogle the motherboard, free of its heat sinks, helpfully labelled by iFixit in their teardown after we did some research. Nothing super remarkable here, other than the ZigBee confirming that we're looking at a hub that's partly purpose-built for smart homes. (ZigBee is a nonprofit consortium that develops open standards for connected devices like the ones you'd find in a smart home.)
A Device for a World That Doesn't Exist
But let me linger for a moment on the phrase "partly purpose-built" above. Because yes, the OnHub is partly for a smart home or any space with a forest of connected devices. But it's also for run-of-the-mill wifi. And bluetooth. But it only has the one measly network port, which means it's basically useless for any wired network -- which, let's face it, most of us still have a lot of wires in our lives. And without a microphone for voice commands, the only way you can control it is via Google's OnHub app.
When Wiens and I peered at the motherboard more closely, we realised that some of the chips had been fabbed late last year and some earlier this year. Contrast this scenario with what Wiens says is typical of an Apple device, where the chips have often been fabbed just a week before he gets it. What this suggests is that the OnHub was not manufactured at scale, and was cobbled together out of off-the-shelf components over many months. It was indeed experimental antenna club, and experimental everything else too.
In some ways, that's because OnHub is made for a gadget environment that doesn't quite exist yet. In five years, when many more people are controlling everything from lights and locks to pet feeders and cameras via wireless -- well, then it might be obvious why OnHub is needed. (Even then, I would raise my eyebrows at the lack of a microphone and paucity of ports.) It's a hub for a world of wireless things that speak many protocols.
But for now, this is a device that does not yet have a purpose. My guess is that Google is hoping that developers and hardware hackers like the iFixit crew will do exactly what we did -- tear it apart, assess, and give them ideas for the next iteration. Indeed, the next iteration is already underway, at Asus rather than TP-Link.
Often when we experiment with new devices, we forget to ask a very basic question: How easy is it to take this thing apart? Most consumers worry about usability and apps, but those are actually beside the point for the teardown masters at iFixit. In fact, they didn't even turn the OnHub on at all. They just want to know about its raw hardware capability, and whether its parts can be removed, replaced, or recycled.
As you can see above, iFixit scored the OnHub a 4 out of 10 on repairability. This device seemed almost perversely designed to prevent people from taking it apart easily. That means if you shell out $US200 for an experimental ribbed cylinder that shoots radio waves, you probably can't fix it. Which means you probably won't be using it for very long. And when you throw it out, recycling centres will have a hard time reducing the OnHub to its constituent parts quickly enough to make it worth the money to recycle.
So Google's OnHub is designed fancifully for a device ecosystem that doesn't exist. And its unrepairability will almost certainly harm the ecosystem that does. So I guess that means the OnHub is from a dystopian future? Let's hope that Asus can change the timeline with the next version of this device by giving us something genuinely useful that can be repaired by anyone with the right tools. Perhaps we're lucky that there's still no word on an Australian release.
Visit iFixit to see the full OnHub teardown in all its glory.