Deconstructing the Garmin Etrex Vista

After having opened up my iBook without thrashing it I felt brave and decided it was time to perform some work on my Garmin Etrex Vista handheld GPS.
The Vista is a nice unit and I quite like it (mainly for biking and hiking) but it must be said that Garmin’s service and repair policy stinks. There is a default warranty of one year, and after the warranty has expired, you are charged a flat rate for any repair. The flat rate depends on the model and for the Vista it will set you back about $150. Right, that’s half the price of a new unit.
Now I find over and over that reliability issues with electronic devices and gadgets usually appear about right after the expiration of the warranty period – and the Vista was a prime example of this. The problem that struck me, after about a year-and-a-half of use was the following: just like the other Etrex models, the Vista sports the ‘click-stick’, a small joystick that also can be clicked (as with a computer mouse) and that is indispensible to navigate the menus and maps. So one day, the ‘north’ direction on this click-stick stopped working; that had a couple of annoying consequences, for instance, the fact that I couldn’t increase the contrast of the display any longer, or navigate, yes, north on maps any more. Some googling learned that problems with the click-stick are fairly typical. It seemed very likely that the problem was caused by some bad electrical contact and thus rather simple. No way I was going to pay $150 for this – shame on Garmin for not acting in a more customer-friendly way with a known issue like this – so the Vista was going in for surgery...

(procedure and pics in the extended post)

My partner-in-many-crimes Franz, who also has a Vista with a click-stick problem of his own (!), pointed me to this site, which, besides being a nice Garmin Etrex resource, shows how to open up the device.
First, remove the batteries; then, the rubber band that runs all around the Vista has to get off. It is glued to the unit with some rubber cement or epoxy; pry it off carefully, this isn’t too hard, just very gooey. Underneath, some sticky transparent tape is revealed that seals off the seam between the two case halves. It has to go as well; the Vista now looks like this

and the sticky mess that you must have accumulated like this:

Now the two parts of the case have to be separated. They just latch into each other, so no screws are involved. It took me some time to get it open, you just have to exercise some patience and resist the temptation to apply brute force, as the latching tabs are all plastic and not looking too strong. The tab at the bottom part of the device was playing hard-to-get on me, but a lot of wiggling around did the job.
There is a ribbon connector connecting the upper half of the case (with the display) to a board in the lower half, so when the case halves separate, care has to be taken not to rip out this ribbon; once you feel the upper case half come off, gently rotate it 180 degrees and put it down.
The ribbon should be detached by carefully pressing on the plastic latches at the edges of the connector that keeps it attached to the board in the lower case half. When you’re done, you should see this (no photo of the unit with the ribbon still connected as I didn’t have extra hands available):

Here’s a close-up of the flimsy ribbon connector – another typical problem with Vista’s is the ribbon becoming loose, so keep this in mind when you reassemble it:

Two screws attach the board with the display and the click-stick to the upper case. Undoing these reveals the probable culprit:

The click-stick is essentially a spring-loaded bidirectional switch; crap build-up and contamination on the metal surfaces is propably causing a bad electrical contact so I figured to use some contact cleaner spray on it:

It ’s also possible that the ribbon connector itself is responsible for a bad contact – the metal pads on the ribbon should be cleaned as well, and often times just the act of detaching it and then reconnecting it again may solve things. After giving the click-stick a good coat and cleaning off the excess, it was time to put things back together.
The tricky part turned out to be fixing the ribbon back to the connector in the lower case; this worked best by initially leaving the display board detached from the upper case, guiding the ribbon in the plastic connector and latching it; then, while carefully holding the board with the ribbon in the connector, the two screws fixing the display board to the upper case can be inserted – having three hands here would definitely ease things, but again, with some patience it will work.

(the photo shows the display board with the screws attached to the upper case, but it should preferably be detached of it while refitting the ribbon as it’s close to impossible to close the latch otherwise)

The rest is easy: the two case halves can be simply pressed together; at this point I tested out the device and I found myself pleasantly surprised to see that everything was working again, including the click-stick, in all directions. So it was time to wrap up and I used electrical tape to seal the seams, then put a little bit of epoxy on the rubber band and put it back on… voila, the Vista was running like new again!

Update 9/8/06: as Tim mentioned in the comments below, you can buy a new click-stick if necessary on Digikey, search for part number 401-1131-1-ND. Replacing it will require some desoldering and soldering…

Update 3/29/07: Make sure to check Tom’s comment below in case you have a problem with the connection from the LCD itself to the board (as opposed to a problem with the ribbon connector).

54 Responses to “Deconstructing the Garmin Etrex Vista“

  1. Ayatola Hombre Says:

    Misschien kunt ge een link sturen naar Make?

  2. PhastPhrog Says:

    is the unit still as waterproof, or will opening it up possibly cause some problems ?
    I have the model below this one (looks very similar) and have a problem with the little joystick too.

  3. AxsDeny Says:

    I tried to use epoxy on the rubber band thingy and didn’t have luck. It only stayed for about a week. I’m thinking rubber cement might be a better approach. Thoughts?

  4. bgrier Says:

    Good overview! A few of our members have eTrex Vista GPS units and will likely read this.

    Thanks for documenting it!

  5. El Hombre Says:

    PhastPhrog: I used insulating electrical tape that I wrapped around a couple of times – should give decent resistance to rain/water

    AxsDeny: rubber cement should give better results indeed – I didn’t have it lying around so I used epoxy; what helps probably is if you try to leave as much as possible of the originial goo on the rubber band and reuse it.

  6. DT Says:

    Nice1 Now if someone could just write up how to add a memory card, since Garmin seems to so slow at it…

  7. JabbaTHutt Says:

    Well I took mine apart to see if it was fixable. Its a real pain getting the ribbon cable back into the connector. Put it together and nope still bad, so apart it came again, tried this like 5 or 6 times and now no display.
    It does though still work with the laptop, but that is no good for geocaching.
    So now it sits on the shelf waiting till I can afford to send it to garmin or buy a new unit.
    From what I read on another site about taking these apart the 2 halfs are supposed to be grazy glued together, I could see on one little spot where mine had been done, the rest of the unit had no glue on it.
    Someone wanted to know if it was still water proof? Well I doubt it was water proof to start with, if they were I would think we would have see the unit screwed together with a rubber seal.

  8. Franklin Says:

    I had trouble with mi e-trex vista, last december i was traveling across south of venezuela (Gran Sabana) the wheather was raining and the GPS did resist but I had to cross a river (Kukenan) swiming at midnight, the GPS did not resist and now i’m tryng to repair – conclusion – e-trex vista is hard rainning resistant but not river resistant

  9. dan Says:

    Your fix saved me big bucks! I did break the tabs so I had to use superglue. If it can last 2 more years then I am happy with it … don’t mind sealing it up with superglue

  10. Tim Says:

    This part can be purchased from the Digikey part number is 401-1131-1-ND it costs $2.10 in quantity 1 It is an ITT part P/N TPA513GLFG You will have to desolder the old part and put the new one on but that’s pretty easy.

    Just type in 401-1131-1-ND into google, you’ll find it

  11. El Hombre Says:

    Thanks Tim, that’s a good tip…

  12. theoldman Says:

    I dropped my Legend and blacked the screen out. I could down load waypoints to my computer so I knew it must just be the display. I took it apart, but couldn’t get the ribbon back in the connector so I put it in a desk drawer. While surfing, I saw you blog entry on the Vista. Your blog encouraged me to get it back out of the drawer and try again.

    I was able to reinsert the cable by taking the two screws out of the LCD panel, but couldn’t get the screws back in without pulling the ribbon back out. So I left out the screws. Any tip on replacing the screws without pulling out the ribbon? ;-)

  13. El Hombre Says:

    @theoldman: that’s indeed the ‘crux’ of the repair and quite tricky. I needed a couple of attempts (connect cable, after this put in the screws that attach the LCD) to do this. A third hand/second person and/or using tweezers may make things easier.

  14. Charlie Says:

    First of all, thanks for posting these instructions – very very helpful. Having successfully completed the operation, I have a few valuable (I think) suggestions.

    I was very careful when removing the several layers of tape – and was able to replace them instead of shaping new ones. I cut the tape at the bottom, so there is a potential weak spot re: leakage, but I don’t use my unit in the pouring rain, so I am comfortable if I am a bit more careful it should be fine.

    Second, based on the discussions about the challenges of reinserting the ribbon cable I decided not to disconnect the ribbon cable – the LCD unit could be positioned off to one side so that the screws were accessible. I cleaned the unit as described in the instructions and tested it out before resealing the tape edges – it worked fine. So in my case I don’t think the connector was causing my problems with the joystick.

    Ohter notes: it was not clear where to spray the contact cleaner into the joy stick – but whatever I did seemed to work.

    And when opening the unit after removing the tape, it seemed like one should press in the latching tabs – however they do not bend but could easily break (as mentioned in the instructions) – next time I would try to lift the chassis over the latching tab – if that is possible

    Thanks again!!

  15. Joe Says:

    Very useful instructions indeed, Thanks. I was about to purchase a new unit, but fortunately found your post and now have my GPS working again.

    In my case, the problem was that the screen displayed horizontal blank lines most of the time, due a faulty connection of the ribbon cable. But I had not excessive trouble reconnecting the ribbon cable, as you mentioned, it is better to detach the LCD panel first, then I reinserted the cable and gradually pushed the latch using a thin rod while maintaining ribbon inserted.

  16. Don Says:

    Thanks alot.

  17. Tom Says:

    Thanks very much for the helpful information. In my case, however, the problem was the connections between the actual LCD glass panel and the display circuit board (not the ribbon cable). There’s an elastomeric connector of sorts that makes these connections. The glass LCD panel and the circuit board are pressed together and connected (electrically) by an elastomeric connector. The force keeping the pieces together (electrically and mechanically) is applied by, you guessed it; yet more tape; black in this case! I was able to apply uniform (and careful) pressure to the tape thusly reestablishing the connection. Care must be taken here because the LCD glass panel is very fragile. I did not attempt to disassemble the LCD / pc board or remove or replace the tape because this section of the device is very delicate, I merely pressed the tape down. For now it works but I imagine that it may fail again in time as the tape once again looses it’s grip. I suspect that subjecting the unit to higher temperatures may hasten the failure.

    After having removed the display board from the front (top) plastic shell of the unit to work on it I found it pretty easy to reassemble the unit by putting the two screws in last as was noted in the original post; this worked great and is the best way. In other words; connect the ribbon cable, orient the display board on top of the main pc board (as it would normally sit), place the plastic shell (top cover) on top, and flip the unit over so that it sits face down on the table. You can now lift the back of the unit (which is now facing up) and twist it slightly to expose the holes in the display board that accept the screws. You may have to move the display board slightly into position so that it seats properly and the screw holes line up. Use needle nose pliers to place the screws in the holes and tighten. You can then snap the case together and continue assembly.

  18. Fred Says:

    Any idea how to add a connector for an external antenna?

  19. Michelle McCarroll Says:

    Thanks for the info on the Garmin Etrex VIsta. I have an Etrex Legend that has a click stick that stopped moving North a few months ago. Today, (one week before I leave for vacation to geocache) the click stick (still clicks-sound), but it won’t move my cursor. I think I’m going to have my husband try and take mine apart following your instructions. Thanks.

  20. elhombre Says:

    @Fred: no idea, really. Although one would be tempted to say, just hook up the external antenna in parallel to the existing one (you’ll need to find the contacts for the latter).

    @Michelle: good luck with it. If it doesn’t work, you can always blame this site instead of your husband, I will probably not mind as much as him ;).

  21. Mario Says:

    Good site, thank you, it saved me 150$ for a new GPS.

    I still have one issue though – rubber cement does not work well for me. What is the original goo that was used? Is is possible to buy that stuff at some place?


    P.S. In case that you rubber band expands for some reason, and / or is too lose, I found that gluing some tennis racquet grip tape underneath works great. And unlike for the rubber band, rubber cement works great for the grip tape (cut the grip tape appropriately and glue it to the housing).

  22. elhombre Says:

    @Mario: no idea. There are hundreds or thousands of different epoxies or glues out there, you could try ask someone on the Gamin (or MotionBased) user forums.

  23. John Lasseter Says:

    Update on the switch part. As of today, the digikey part number is now 401-1130-1-ND (C&K part TPA511GLFS).

  24. Johnny Edmundson Says:

    Amazing! Did exactly as written and it worked!! The ribbon cable was a bear—especially the black locking thingee. The patience of JOB is required but the results are great. Getting the screws in after that were not a cake walk, especially with old hands that Author has worked on. Thanks for the great instructions.
    Johnny Edmundson

  25. Mike Smith Says:

    Scotch make a permanent double-sided tape. catalog number 137.

  26. Tyler Says:

    Thanks for this page! I was just able to repair my Legend using this information. The best method of reassembly was to attach the LCD to the mainboard first, then just set the LCD loosely in the front case. Now, fold the mainboard and LCD together and gently move the mainboard to the side (still parallel to the LCD) a little bit —there is some play in the flex cable which allows this. This exposes the two clickstick screw holes. Using a magnetic screwdriver (or turning the unit upside down), you should now be able to easily reinstall the screws.

  27. Brian Says:

    So I forced the case apart and the battery ended up in my lap, any ideas or Pics where it goes? anyone know any other good websites? Thanks, Brian

  28. kevin Says:

    broke my screen. any suggestions? can i buy a new one?

  29. elhombre Says:

    @Brian: sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve opened it up (btw it still is working fine today, over two years after the fix) and I don’t remember how the battery fits in (the pictures I have don’t show much of it). I assume though it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.

    @kevin:I think a new display, separately, would be hard to find, expensive, or both. You could look on Ebay or other places, e.g. for an Etrex that has an intact display but is broken for other reasons and cheaply for sale, then swap out the displays.

  30. desgized Says:

    I only see one post here that seems to describe my problem. It has to do with the display blacking out or displaying vertical black lines and blanking out the display. I think the fix is to affect a better connection with the ribbon connector. Can you confirm this, and is it just a matter of pressing it in tighter or do I need to secure it somehow?

  31. elhombre Says:

    Yes, probably the ribbon connector as far as I can tell. The plastic latches keep it in place; try to secure the cable / press it in a little tighter.
    But I’d be careful with the latches: if they are somewhat bent or deformed, they may not keep the connector in place very well and you may need to bend them back a little, if at all possible.

  32. Dennis Says:

    Great instructions! The pictures are a great help. My Etrex Legend is displaying horizontal bars and the line in the middle of the compass needle sometimes shifts to one side. At this point the problems can be fixed with a gentle tap on the side of the case but I suspect it will only get worse. My guess is that the problem is with the ribbon cable and will attempt to fix it. My biggest concern was how to open the case. You have explained that in your post. Thanks again and I will update the blog on my repair results.

  33. Dennis Says:

    I have completed the repair. The only thing I found different from the instructions above was there was two layers of tape around the unit. The inner most layer was solid and appeared to be a seal. The outer layer had holes for the buttons and was make of a thicker and stronger material. I suspect this was added to aid in keeping the unit from separating. I took extra time to slowly remove the outer rubber and each of these layers of tape. This kept most of the glue on the rubber and tape. I did not need to add any extra glue upon reassembly.
    The repair went well. The lines are gone. I found that by shifting the back pc board over slightly and twisting it by about 15 degrees, the screws holding the screen were easily accessible. The entire repair only took about 1/2 hour.

  34. Emrol Ed Says:

    I followed these procedures a few years ago and it cleared up the joystick problems and the screen lines. The problems happened again now, and I found that one of the “hooks” on the black ribbon clamp was bent, and it broke off while trying to straighten it. While trying to use it anyway, the clamp fell and got lost. I ended up cutting thin strips from a plastic tray that small vegetables were sold in and, after several tries, pushed one into the connector. I think it is a tighter fit than the black clamp.

  35. shannon Says:

    You guys are ALL champions

  36. shannon Says:

    If ever you find yourself with a cracked cover glass, simply grab a fine flat screwdriver and pry off the old glass (Plastic) one and replace it with a Welding cover lense, the ones with the peel off protective layer i think were the best. You’d expect to pay up to $3 for them If you can get the old cracked glass off in one peice, (I did) simple trace it directly as close as you can using a sharp knife tip. I have a Linisher at home wich worked a treat in sanding the shape out. My e-trex legend has a new lease on life now. I scraped old sticky glue off with a knife and wiped it over with contact cleaner. then used that 5 second glue to hold it down. I am happy with the finish quality. Hope you find this helpful as I found previous postings hany myself!
    Regards Shannon Parnell

  37. Ben Says:

    I need advice on something.

    I removed the rubber band and fixed the battery contact with a contact cleaner.

    Now I’m trying to assemble it back and I have a problem. I’ve kept the elastic tape that keeps the device water proof so I used it and it’s fine.
    The layer that was on top of it that kept the rubber band glued to the device was lost during the dis-assembly and so I’m trying to replace it.
    I have a problem with the rubber band. It seems to be too large for the device now, I haven’t stretched it or anything and it’s really strange. I’m wondering if this is normal. I tried to glue it back using a silicon material but I haven’t managed to make it stick well so I would also like to know which material you used to glue it back.

    A photo to illustrate my problem:

    Thanks y’al.

  38. elhombre Says:

    @Ben: this is bizar. Either the rubber band must have stretched, or the device shrunk ;). To glue it back in place, you could use Loctite Black Max 380, which is a rubber cement designed for this kind of thing. If there is too much of a gap, I guess you could wrap some electrical tape around the device as a spacer…

  39. Ben Says:

    @elhombre: Thanks!

    In the end (Before reading your post) I decided to use the silicon adhesive I already had.

    I considered the solution you suggested (using electrical tape as a spacer) and decided that it would make pushing the side buttons almost impossible so what I did was wrap the two layers of black electrical tape and on it smear a thick layer of silicone.
    Then I put the rubber band on and waited 24 hours for it to dry completely.

    At that point there we still points where the rubber band did not attach completely (Due to it being to big for some bizarre reasons :-) ) so I “Injected” Silicone into these spaces. Then I waited another 24 hours planning on doing this again If i had to. Didn’t have to, the band seems to be attached to the device just fine now.

    Right now the unit looks ok. Don’t know if it would win any good looking device awards but it works nice.

  40. todd Says:

    Did the repair, great instructions. Got everything re-assembled and checked the unit before messing with sealing and putting on the black rubber gasket. The unit will start it’s boot squence but shuts down about 2 seconds after showing the owner screen. must have something wrong. I have reassembled 3 times.

    Any ideas?

  41. elhombre Says:

    Did you solder the wires to the battery?
    If so, does the unit work OK before you put the two parts back together (you should be able to power up at this point)?

  42. todd Says:

    I didnt replace any parts just cleaned them. Upon powering up I get the owner screen then it shuts itself off. I think I am bitched.

  43. Blair Says:

    I think I fried my Legend hooking it up to my quad battery. Is there an internal fuse to replace or is is a lost cause to repair?

  44. e trekker Says:

    Thank YOu

    its so nice that people who mange to crack these problems (like removing the black rubber to open the unit!) then take the time to post their results, and save us all a LOT of effort.
    Very clear, descriptive and helpful.
    THANK YOU so much ;-)

    (and yes Garmins post sales support/warranty does such !! :-))
    uk etrex user

  45. e trekker Says:

    PS* I found it easier NOT to remove the ‘sticky stuff’ (sellotape) under the black rubber band, just cut it cleanly around the join mark with a very sharp, fine surgical blade.

    Replace with (new) tape to form a new seal when finished.

    With regard to reinserting that fiddly little ribbon cable..
    be VERY careful as its very short and will easily tear;
    when trying to reinsert it, patience is THE key..
    I found it helpful to bend out the ribbon Very slightly to gain another mm or two, and place some very fine foam behind it;
    just enough to bend it towards the multi pin connector, but thin enough to remove after the successful connection has been made.

    Good luck, take GREAT care ;-)

  46. eugenio Says:

    Hi evryone,
    great useful posts, I came upon this page looking for a solution to my problem.
    During a work trip in Africa the rubber band around my Vista Hcx got loose, making hitting the side buttons difficult as the band slips out of place very easily.
    I guess that when exposed to high temperatures (above 38C, 100F) the material expands and the glue melts, a colleague of mine had the same problem with his unit.
    I’ll try to use some silicon glue as suggested.
    If anyone had the same issue please share…


  47. J Daigle Says:

    I also experienced the joystick malfunction along with the horizontal lines across the screen. I wouldn’t have attempted this repair if it wasn’t for this post. I was able to reuse both tapes that seal the unit and the “glue” that holds the rubber band on, although the tapes picked up some sawdust from my workbench, I managed to salvage them. I was able to work on the joystick without disassembly of the ribbon/connector. I just sprayed it with CRC contact cleaner and blew it off, made sure the ribbon was in the connector and put it back together. The joystick is working fine and the screen looks OK but the lines across the screen I experienced was sporadic so more testing will be in order. Thanks to all who submitted pics and informative suggestions.

  48. John Says:

    Wahoo! I was all ready to donate/chuck my etrex Venture, but your instructions saved the day!

  49. Tom Robinson Says:

    Many, many thanks.

    Used the info to repair a non functioning click stick on my old etrex legend. Slightly different layout but a blast of air and drop of WD40 has cleared the fault. The backlight doe not seem to work properly now (screen goes blank rather than lights up) but I can live without that as I don’t use it at night.

    Thanks again

  50. Bill Says:

    Many thanks to all for the very clear explanations.
    I had a display problem, it was missing entire lines to the extent that the display was unreadable.
    As “Tom Says: March 29th, 2007 at 7:09 am ” this is a very delicate area, don’t try to remove the tape.
    The very fine conductors (wires) will certainly break rendering the display useless.

    Really, this failure is quite predictable thus THIS IS A BUILT IN FAILURE BY GARMIN TO RIP YOU OFF.
    I, for one do, not accept this and will never buy another Garmin as well as tell everybody about my experience.

  51. Leah Says:

    thanks for your help! I fixed my GPS with only a little eyeglasses screwdriver. I didn’t even detach the ribbon cable—I was able to get my fingers and the screwdriver in there to remove (and put back!) the little screws for the joystick. I used the screwdriver to scrape out any stuff around the joystick, and now it works great.

    I’m looking forward to geocaching again. I was worried I’d have to buy a new unit, but I think this one will keep going strong for awhile yet.

  52. paul ledouche Says:

    my clickstick wont work left or right, I tried alcohol , Hold the clickstick push in and power and you get a button test screen. etc info

  53. Bob Says:

    What is the trick to getting the ribbon to slide all the way in?

  54. Dirk dB Says:

    The trick? It’s been a while, so I have a hard time remembering, but I figure patience and doing things slowly and carefully helps…

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