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When used in reference to consumer electronics, a "brick" describes an electronic device such as a smart phone, game console, router, or tablet computer that owing to a serious misconfiguration, corrupted firmware or a hardware problem, can no longer function. The term derives from the vaguely cuboid shape of many electronic devices (and their detachable power supplies) and the suggestion that the device can function only as a large, heavy object.
In one common sense of the term, "bricking" suggests that the damage, often a misconfiguration of essential on-board software, is so serious as to have rendered the device permanently unusable.
However, another use of the term "bricked" is understood to describe a situation where a device is unable to function even when the device does have potential to be recovered later to a working state. In this sense, the damage may be reversible; it is only during the period that it's unable to function that the device is deemed "bricked". This is often referred to as a "soft brick" whereas an unrecoverable device is a "hard brick".
Cause and prevention
Bricking a device is usually an unwanted consequence of an attempt to update the device. Many devices have an update procedure that must not be interrupted; if interrupted by a power failure, user intervention, or any other reason the existing firmware may be partially overwritten and unusable. The risk of corruption can be minimized by taking all possible precautions against interruption.
Installing firmware with errors or for a different revision of the hardware, or installing firmware incompetently patched such as DVD firmware that only plays DVDs sold in a particular region can cause bricking.
Devices can also be bricked by malware (malicious software), and sometimes by running software not intentionally harmful but with errors that cause damage.
Some devices include two copies of firmware, one active and the other stored in fixed ROM or writable non-volatile memory and not normally accessible to processes that could corrupt it, and a way to copy the stored firmware over the active version even if corrupt, so that if the active firmware is damaged it can be replaced by the copy and the device will not be bricked. Other devices have minimal "bootloader" firmware, enabled usually by operating a switch or jumper, which does not enable the device to work normally but can reload the main firmware.
Some devices "bricked" because the contents of their nonvolatile memory are incorrect can be "unbricked" using separate hardware (a debug board) that accesses this memory directly. This is similar to the procedure for loading firmware into a new device when the memory is still empty. This kind of "bricking" and "unbricking" occasionally happens during firmware testing and development. In other cases software and hardware procedures, often complex, have been developed that have a good chance of unbricking the device. There is no general method; each device is different. There are also user-created modifier programs to use on bricked or partially bricked devices to make them functional. Examples include the Wiibrew program BootMii used to fix semi-bricked Nintendo Wii's or ClockworkMod on various Android devices.
In principle any device with rewriteable firmware, or certain crucial settings stored into flash or EEPROM memory, can be bricked. Many, but not all, devices with user-updateable firmware have protection against bricking; devices intended to be updated only by official service personnel generally do not.
Amongst devices known to have bricking issues are: older PCs (more recent models often have dual BIOSes or some other form of protection), many mobile phones, handheld game consoles like the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS, video game consoles like the Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, many SCSI devices and some lines of hard disk drives and routers.
At least some older consumer market router models can become unresponsive when the user tries to define a subnet mask that does not contain one contiguous run of 1's and then 0's. If even a single bit is set so that it breaks one of the runs, the router may become bricked, unresponsive to any standard troubleshooting or resolving procedures listed in the manual. Unbricking the router may require opening the case, shorting some jumper pins on the board, then connecting the router by the USB cable to an old PC with USB 1.1 hardware, running a special DOS level program supplied by the manufacturer, and powering the router up. This procedure will flash the router to factory settings and original firmware.
Sometimes an interrupted flash upgrade of a PC motherboard will brick the board, for example, due to a power outage (or user impatience) during the upgrade process. It is sometimes possible to unbrick such a motherboard, by scavenging a similar but otherwise broken board for a BIOS chip, in the hopes that the BIOS will work even halfway, far enough to boot from floppy. Then it will be possible to retry the flash process. Sometimes it is possible to boot from floppy, then swap the old presumably dead BIOS chip in and reflash it.
Online and mobile services
Many newer systems capable of accessing online services (such as the Xbox, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and iPhone) have internal hardware-based unique identifiers, allowing individual systems to be tracked over a network and banned from accessing certain online services. Such systems usually continue to operate for purposes unrelated to the online service, but they are often considered "bricked" by users of the online service.
Mobile telephones have a fixed identification code, the IMEI; a telephone reported stolen can have its IMEI blocked by networks—effectively bricked—although anyone with the necessary expertise and equipment can usually change the IMEI.
In 2011, US Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) proposed that phones be "bricked" when reported stolen. Some local police chiefs agreed. In April 2012, the FCC announced that the service would be available later in the year.
- CATB.ORG Jargon File
- Neo1973 Debug Board v2/Unbricking - Openmoko
- Helmbreck, Valerie (2011-08-23). Senator wants stolen cellphones "bricked". Finance Tech News, 23 August 2011. Retrieved from http://www.financetechnews.com/senator-wants-stolen-cellphones-bricked/.
- Segraves, Mark (2012-02-10). MPD fights robbery surge, seeks new FCC rule to 'brick' stolen smart phones. WJLA-TV News, 10 February 2012. Retrieved from http://www.wjla.com/articles/2012/02/mpd-fights-robbery-surge-seeks-new-fcc-rule-72491.html.
- Hilton, Shani (2012-04-10). Lanier: FCC and Wireless Carriers To Allow Customers To "Brick" Stolen Phones. Washington City Paper, April 10, 2012. Retrieved from http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2012/04/10/lanier-fcc-and-wireless-carriers-to-allow-customers-to-brick-stolen-phones/.