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Freeplay Zero build process--challenges and tweaks
#1
TLDR: Great experience building a Freeplay Zero--encountered some challenges in the process but found solutions and have a great working project now with more little changes to come!

First post for me on the forums and first time builder, so if I am sharing redundant details, thanks for understanding! I have been wanting to take some time for the past couple weeks to get some of my thoughts on here, to possibly help other first time builders. Seems like a relatively small active community to me, so I wanted to jump in and support where I could.

To start off, let me just say that Ed has an awesome product on his hands, backed by stellar service and a great outlook. This has been a joy to explore so far, and I can only imagine it improving from here.

I was thrilled to be able to order my Freeplay Zero kit a few weeks ago and even more thrilled to get it in the mail just a few days after ordering. I had been thinking about building one for months now, and I couldn't hold myself back any longer. I had been considering doing a DMG Gameboy Zero build, but it seems like it would be a tough leap to make with all the requisite knowledge and parts. Freeplaytech is a great stop-gap between a one-off full custom build and off-the-shelf emulation devices. I purchased a cheap 3rd-party shell on Amazon [Shell], a Raspberry Pi Zero W kit, Micro SD card, and the Freeplay Zero kit from Freeplaytech.

When I got the shell and Pi first, I immediately jumped into the setup guide, as I knew the shell mods alone would take a big chunk of time. I also wanted plenty of time to get the GPIO pins soldered right on the Pi, since I am still relatively new to soldering. The soldering job wasn't great (I had trouble with one pin soaking A LOT of heat and not taking solder, so the plastic at the base of the pin melted a bit), but it was functional. All went well with the case mods--I would HIGHLY recommend a pair of flush cutters [flush cutters] and a hobby knife. For me, the flush cutters did 98% of the work. The hobby knife was useful for trimming excess sprue off the 3rd party buttons and case to clean it up. I also found myself wishing I had bought the recommended the flat-tipped blade (like a #17 X-acto), but I got by without it.

I took my time with the shell mods and probably had about 3 hours in the build before I even got my Freeplay Zero board. I couldn't drill for the x/y buttons without my board, so I did everything else I could. When I got the package from Freeplaytech, I was disappointed to see that the glass screen lens had been left out. I sent a request through the support link on the website and had an email from Ed with a solution to the problem in literally less time than I have waited on a support phone line with retail stores before even talking to a human being. Great customer service experience--plus, bazooka bubble gum with the screen lens that arrived a couple days later!

Once I had some time to dive into fitting the screen, board, buttons, etc, things got interesting. Making the minor mods to get the screen fitment just right took the better part of 30 minutes to an hour, fitting the board in the shell took easily the same, and drilling for the x/y buttons (I opted for the long clicky build) took more than an hour. I lost track honestly. But I was taking things very slowly and enjoying the process. For me, it was just as much about the build as it was about the final product.

I hit my first snag during the process of getting the holes drilled for the new buttons. I used the template but didn't have much luck getting things aligned great for the button caps. So I widened the holes toward the tension on the posts and eventually got things actuating properly; it just took time, patience, and a willingness to have a pretty botched looking x button hole. Y is okay... but I am not super happy with either. I swapped back and forth between a drill bit and the hobby knife. If I had to do it again, I think I would try using a stepper bit instead. From what I understand from reading on the forums, this part is tricky no matter what you do. The best piece of advice I can give is to screw the board to shell before marking for the caps. This seems to be the most understated part of the process.

Once I could screw the board into the front of the shell, I hit my second snag. Try as I might, I couldn't get the board set correctly in the shell to align the screw holes in the board with the screw posts in the shell. While sliding the board back and forth, I heard something catch and snap. When I moved the board a little more, a tiny piece of metal slid onto my table. I thought it was a loose bit solder that broke free. Thank goodness I looked closer--it turns out that a lip near the micro USB charging port was catching on capacitor C20. It is surface mount, and it is TINY! I was dismayed and thought I had killed my board. I immediately set about trimming back the lip to avoid the problem a second time around.

I looked up how to solder surface mount parts on Youtube and found a Ben Heck video on the topic. With a lot of patience, I managed to get the capacitor soldered back on its proper pads on the board. However, some stray solder bridged a couple pins on the micro USB port. Some soldering wick and more patience had that sorted as best as I could get it.

Putting it all together from here was relatively easy. I had soldered the GPIO pins to the Pi without having the pins in the header on the Freeplay board (since I soldered before I had the board), but it didn't seem to cause much trouble. I did have some issues with the standoffs being out of level with the case, but a little cardboard to make a washer between the standoff and the Pi fixed that. I could only use one of the screws with the standoffs--the other was hitting something on the shell that couldn't be modified. I added the glass screen lens, attached the ribbon cable for the screen, slid the speaker, buttons, button pads, etc. into place and screwed the board in. A few more minor trims were needed in the shell--the power switch was hitting the board and the volume wheel was binding. After a few more screws (loosened to allow the shoulder buttons to actuate) things were together and booting up nicely.

That was when the disappointment hit me--the D-pad felt abysmal. I had an original GBA downstairs, so I tried the D-pad to see if I was crazy. I wasn't--the force to actuate the 3rd-party D-pad was tons higher than the OEM GBA. I tried a lot of different things to fix it--nothing worked great. So, I went on ebay and bought a "for parts" GBA for about $15 and swiped the buttons and button pads from that. I believe it is a combination of the pivot point on the 3rd-party D-pad being too short and the button pad being too stiff. With that change, things are starting to feel pretty good.

I have a couple more tweaks to try. First, I ordered a few new x/y caps from Retromodding, so I can try to take the old ones off the switch posts (I figured I would have to destroy the ones I glued on to get them off without damaging the switches). When I was gluing the x/y caps on, I decided to trim the switch posts down a hair. I am glad I did--they would have been way to high without the change. I just wish I had trimmed them more. They still feel a hair too high to me. I know it is nit-picky, but I figured that this is kind of the point of these builds: do what you want to get the result you are looking for. I am looking for the cap to sit even enough with A/B so I can comfortably hold down Y and push B with the pad of my thumb--the necessary motion to run and jump in Super Mario World on the SNES. 

The second idea is to try using the L/R shoulder switches from the scavenged GBA instead of the super clicky ones on the Freeplay board. It looks to me like the anchor points are different and switch height from base is slightly shallower. I will need to tinker with this one more to see if I really want to give it a shot. In the meantime, I managed to desolder the original GBA shoulder switches from the other board, so I am ready to go if/when the time comes.

All in all, I am very happy with the build. It has been great to explore ideas and options and gain new skills along the way. I would estimate that I currently have 8-10 hours in my Freeplay Zero build, with probably more to come. If you are still reading, thanks for coming with me to the end. I hope some part of this helped!
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#2
I am sorry, I have almost read all of what you wrote but not all, it is really long but at the same time really complete Wink

I have gone thru similar things during my first built:
- Made 75% of shell modification without even having receive the motherboard, Freeplay team made a great job with there documentations.
- Same problem with the Dpad, I solved this but removing almost 1mm on the flat surface (where the silicone touch) and adding small sheet of plastic one by one to get the best feeling.
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#3
There was a lot too share, so you are right--it was a long post. Thanks for reading some of it. 

I have heard of other people that did what you described with the D-pad. Seems like a decent solution. I was really intent on getting the OEM GBA feel, so I figured the best way to do that was with original parts. I definitely don't regret the $15 I spent for the parts, especially if I end up pursuing my idea for swapping the shoulder button switches with the OEM ones. We'll see if I get around to taking that plunge soon.

Definitely the biggest surprise to me was breaking off that capacitor near the charging port. I wanted to get the word out there about that problem to avoid anyone else making the same mistake. I have no doubt that it is due to differences in the manufacturing process of 3rd-party GBA shells, but it is still good to be careful. Test fitting everything multiple times and looking for contact between parts to trim plastic in stages helps A LOT. 

I got my replacement x/y button caps from Retromodding yesterday, so I am looking forward to trying to trim the x/y posts down soon so I can get a better height relationship between the ABXY cluster. If I get it working well, I will try to post some pictures of the end result.
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#4
For the D-pad, I just removed the center part of the rubber (the little raised circle that the D-pad would stick into) I then cut some cardboard (cereal box type) in a circle the size of the D-pad and then cut a hole in the middle of it for the nub on the D-pad. This seems to give me a real good feel, you get a solid feedback in each direction with no mushiness and I've had zero issues with button presses (missed or extra ones). I've done this on my personal ones I've built and it always give a better feel than if I just leave it stock.
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#5
I tried the cardboard circle trick before I bought the OEM parts. I did not cut the rubber membrane down, so maybe that would have made the difference I was looking for. Without modifying the membrane, the force required to actuate the button presses was abnormally high... to the point that it was uncomfortable to use. 

Thanks for the suggestion!
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