damaged ilok

PACE ilok dongle

for those of you that have been in the music industry for some time, you will recognize the familiar shape of the ilok dongle.  it’s a long, protruding USB key used to help with copywrite protection for protected software such as avid’s pro tools recording software.

the official definition is:

a dongle is a small piece of hardware that connects to another device to provide it with additional functionality. in relation to computing, the term is primarily associated with hardware providing a copy protection mechanism for commercial software—in which the dongle must be attached to the system that the software is installed on in order for it to function.

the one above came with a system purchased by my brother in law rayborn huff for his recording studio bRAY! productions.  many of you know brother rayborn from david and the giants music.  although excited about the new addition, the dongle was wrapped in tape and had to be adjusted to work properly.

after looking at it, i could tell that something had been broken and needed to be corrected to work again without any interruptions.

i know that most of you that are familiar with this dongle have imagined accidentally bumping into this key and breaking it.  you can’t look at it without thinking – what a horrible design.  i can’t imagine the R&D team signing off on this design without asking the question, “do you think anyone will accidentally bump into this long object protruding from their computer?!” it’s practically begging to be snapped in half.  it’s so long, i’m surprised the dongle doesn’t snap itself under it’s own weight – hanging out of it’s USB port home.

well, the teal green case was sealed very tight.  i tried to pop it open without destroying the case, but there was absolutely no way to do it elegantly.  so out came the destructive tools.  eventually, the internal hardware was exposed.

exposed ilok motherboard

the first thing i noticed was the large gold wings that seemed to me to serve no purpose.  the only thing i can think of is that it may be a heat sink of sorts.  if any of you know exactly what purpose those serve, please leave a comment below.

time to dig out the microscope and do some inspection.  one of the first areas that i look is the main initial points of connection – and what do we see, but our first break.

first break

we dig a little deeper, turn the board over and find 2 more breaks underneath – breaks that provide stability for the USB connector and grounding.  one break on each side.

grounding break 1

2nd grounding break

so, let’s break out the soldering iron, put on the proper tip and begin the repair process.  we apply some flux, heat and solder and reflowed the broken pathway.

fixed first angle

fixed 2nd angle

then moved on to the underside to reflow those grounding braces.

grounding brace reflowed

grounding brace reflowed

now that the hot work was done, time to think about how to put this dongle back into working shape.  since i had destroyed it’s original protective shell, i would now have to come up with another solution.  as i was working on the unit, a plan began to come together a-team style.

i wanted to provide a protective shell (enclosure) with a flexible USB extension.  so i began to look around the shop for some parts to use.  i pulled apart some things i had and began to re-purpose them.

repurpose definition

i mounted one end of what was basically a shortened USB extention into a shell i had roughly crafted out of three layers of ABS plastic.  the bottom and top layers formed the basic shape of the enclosure and the middle layer was cut to provide room for the dongle hardware which was wrapped with some protective tape – leaving the area i’m assuming is some sort of heat sink, open.

ABS shell 2

i crafted in such a way that it could be opened and the dongle removed if needed.

ABS shell room to remove dongle

i then added some foam to provide stability and cushioning in case of an impact.


i used some computer screws to seal the top cover of the enclosure, sanded it to it’s final shape and took some photos.

end result

end result

the encloure is solid and with the USB extention, i think an improvement on the original dongle design.  i turned it over and added some rubber feet to provide some grip.

rubber feet

and the final shot

finished enclosure

it felt rewarding to bring new life into this critical part of the recording process for this studio.  avid does provide an option for broken, lost or stolen dongles, but we would be in that same boat as before – how to protect this long, awkward extension from being snapped in two by accident, possibly shutting down a paying project because of a situation that could have been avoided.


if you have a dongle story, please leave it in the comment section below.  i would love to hear it.  thanks for tagging along.  btw – you get 100 points if you say “dongle, dongle, dongle” 10 times as fast as you can.

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