Thursday, April 18, 2024

My Adventures in Replacing the Left Joystick on a PS5 DualSense Controller

I don't recommend this for a beginner at soldering, and yes, it involves soldering.  And yes, I'm a beginner.

I didn't think it required soldering to install when I ordered the part.  I thought maybe it snapped in or something.  Most controller analog joystick modules come with a bit of board and a ribbon cable.  You plug it in, screw or snap it in, and you're done.  What really fooled me was that this came with tools to disassemble the PS5 controller: a screwdriver, a couple of pry tools, and hefty tweezers.  

Once I realized I would need to solder, I scoured the listing page for any mention of it, and at the bottom of the description, it says, "The PS5 controller analog stick replacement to replace need to weld".  So there you go.

The analog stick kit I bought [Link]

As kits go, this is a good one.  It comes with four joystick modules: three more than I needed, but there were similarly-priced kits with 8 or a dozen modules.  Again, I only needed one and the tools were nice to have, though I already had what I needed to take apart a DualSense, since a few months earlier I had replaced the battery.

Anyway, I get the part, I open up the controller, and I find out it's soldered to the board.  No problem, I think, soldering is perfectly doable.

The joystick modules

Each joystick has 14 solder points, not counting the red and black wires in the middle that go to the haptic motors

I do some Google searching, and read some articles. I open up YouTube and watch some videos.  Everyone says that soldering is great and I should try it.  I should try it!  It's definitely a skill that I would like to have, and it'd be great to have some equipment for it... for future tinkering.

The soldering kit I bought [Link]

So I fire up Amazon and buy this kit.  It's cheap, but not the cheapest.  It comes with most of the essentials, and even includes a multimeter so you can verify voltages across your welds (not that that will be helpful for this project, but again... future).

I also posted about my project on social media and did some more reading, and one thing people recommend is Flux.  I watch some videos about flux specifically, and indeed it seems to be very important to dissolve the oxidation layer on the surfaces of metals so they can actually mix. So, I additionally order a tube of the stuff.  The kit, as it turns out, does come with some flux, but it's very gelatinous, stored in an open-ended tiny box.  What I ordered comes in a syringe for easy and precise application.  I was glad that I got this.  I could have managed without it by scooping it on from the little box using tweezers, but it was pretty convenient to use, and not very expensive.

Flux tube [Link]

Finally, everything arrives (I used next-day shipping, so it was pretty fast).  I set myself up outdoors in the carport for good ventilation, plug in my shiny new soldering iron, and settle in to work.  The first thing to come off are those wires for the haptic motors.  They're definitely in the way of accessing all of the other welds, and removing all four wires allows me to work on just the board, without the rest of the controller tagging along.

My soldering setup

I touch my soldering iron to the welds, and they melt like butter.  I take the wires out, and the board is free.  That was so easy.  Now for those welds that hold the joystick module in place.  I liberally apply the flux to all of the welds.  

I touch my soldering iron to one of them, and wait.  And wait.  Nothing is happening.  The flux is vaporizing, but the metal is not melting.  At all.  I turn my soldering iron up to its maximum setting, 450 degrees.  Something is happening, but not much.  I use the solder wick to soak up the melted metal... barely.  The YouTube videos I had watched of people removing this specific component had used a heat gun and melted another metal onto the solder welds.  I don't have a heat gun, but I try melting some of my kit solder onto the welds.  It helps, a little.  I am able to soak up the spare solder with the solder wick, but it is hardly making a difference, especially down below the surface of the board, and after a while I can see that I'm not making much progress.

My progress after the first day

I had read something about Sony using non-lead solder for these components, so I once again did some searching around.  It turns out that for a job like this, you need to melt in a special alloy that lowers the melting point of the existing solder.  

Great, yet another thing to buy.  Would this end up costing more than if I had simply bought a new controller?  I don't want to do the math yet, but it seems to be approaching that point.  It's a sunk cost, though, and the only way out is through.


Removal Alloy [Link]

After more research, I bought some removal alloy.  Was this the last step?  Would I be able to melt away enough to remove all 14 pins at once?  Would I need to use a heat gun, or get some sort of mechanism to clip the board in place?  Time would tell.  Not much time, though, thanks to overnight shipping.

The next day, removal alloy in hand, I jury-rigged a binder clip to a semi-flattened aluminum can to hold the board in place.  This freed my hands so that I had better control over what I was doing, and my fingers could also be further away from the hot tip of the soldering iron.

Board clipped in place, I once again applied the flux, then melted the removal alloy onto the contacts.  It melted readily, and I was able to use the spring-loaded suction tool to get a significant amount of solder out of most of the pins.  There are four big, hefty-looking pins that look like they are for structure rather than connectivity, and these were more stubborn.

It took a few applications of the flux, the alloy, and wicking, but I could see I was making progress.  The smaller pins I could get to wiggle, but the larger structural ones took a bit more work.  I went and got a vice grip to assist in pulling the component free.  Finally I got enough of the solder off that I was able to pull it out.

Yanked out like a tooth.  Not that I've ever used vice grips on a tooth.

The site was pretty gunky with flux, and I wanted to make sure it was clean, and also free of the residue of the removal alloy.  A quick raid in my wife's our medical supplies yielded some 91% isopropyl alcohol and q-tip cotton swabs.  The video I had watched recommended 99%, but I was not about to buy yet another thing if I could avoid it.  The flux gunk and metal residue came off easily enough with a few alcohol soaked q-tips.

All cleaned up

During the desoldering process, I had made a mistake that would later come to bite me:  I nicked the corner of one of the plastic pieces sticking out of the board, and it melted a little bit (the black piece in the center of the right edge in the photo above).

Next I put the joystick component in place, making sure the pins all came through (one of them was bent down, so I gently unbent it with pliers.  First I welded two of the structural pins diagonal from one another, and in doing so I found out why they had been so difficult to desolder:  they are indeed structural, and in heating them up to the melting point of solder, they take quite a bit longer than the other pins.  This is because they are connected to all the other structural metal in the component, which acts as a big heat sink.  I think it was less than 15 seconds, but it was significantly longer than any of the other pins, which heated up to the point of melting my solder in two to three seconds.

My beautiful solder welds

The joystick component in place

Nubs on, reassembling the controller.

Melted ribbon cable plug, fixed enough to work.

Here is where I discovered the gravity of my melting mistake earlier.  This is where one of the ribbon cables plugs in.  My nick with the soldering iron had deformed the opening and the ribbon cable would not insert.  Thankfully, I was able to heat up the tip of the pointy pliers and bend the edge back out enough to make room for the ribbon to go in.  Crisis averted.

Haptic wires re-soldered, board screwed down, and battery compartment in.

With the controller re-assembled, it was time for the testing!  I powered on the PlayStation 5 using the controller, opened Assassin's Creed Mirage, and observed the stick movement, or rather, the lack of controller stick drift.  It worked!  My reticle is no longer constantly pulled to the left, and Basim doesn't dive to the left out of the bush he's squatting in to avoid the guards he's about to murder (seriously, he kills a lot of guards in this game).

The cursor is not moving when I don't move the joystick (yay!)  It also does move when I move it (double yay!)

Basim is now free to move about Baghdad without randomly veering to the left.

So, what have we learned?  How to solder, and various pitfalls thereof.  

I shied away from adding up the cost earlier, but I would like to know how it came out:

  • Joystick kit: 11.99
  • Soldering iron kit: 17.99
  • Extra flux tube: 7.99
  • Removal alloy: 14.95
    • Total price of components: $52.92 + tax
  • Doing it yourself: priceless?

Was it worth spending all of that money, and all of that struggle, and potentially being exposed to dangerous metals and fumes to get a working PS5 controller?

I mean, I could have bought a new DualSense controller for $69 MSRP (less, if it's on sale), and if you include the replacement battery I bought for it a few months ago, if I had just bought a new controller instead, I would have spent the $69 instead of the $67.04 I spent replacing both the battery and the joystick component.  It wasn't drifting that bad in February, at least not so consistently as recently.

But it's not like I got nothing out of the deal.  The next soldering I do I basically have everything I need (except maybe a heat gun--and those heat shield strips to go with it...).  I just don't know when that'll be.  I've made it to the ripe old age of 43 without soldering anything, who knows when the occasion will arise again?  Of course, now I'll be looking for opportunities.

And hey, I do have three more analog stick modules for a PlayStation 5 controller.  Is your controller drifting?