Electronic Covid Test Tear Down Shows Frustrating Example Of 1-Time-Use Waste

The latest video from [TheSignalPath] is a result of his purchase of a home COVID-19 test. He found an electronic version that connects to your cell phone and displays the results on the phone. The device is an antigen test and, internally, works like the home tests that show the results using lines similar to a pregnancy test. So, somehow, the phone version reads the lines and communicates with the phone. But how? That’s the point of the video, which you can see below.

In a traditional test, there’s a control line that has to appear to show that the test was done correctly. Then a line under that indicates detection of the virus. The circuit board inside the electronic test has a plastic unit onboard that contains a similar strip and has optical sensors for both the reference line and the detection line. Since it is essentially an optical device — there are some lenses in the strip assembly that look like they are detecting the dye as it moves through the strip with LEDs onboard to shed light on the situation.

Under the microscope, the CPU is a typical Bluetooth-capable ARM chip from Nordic. The board did power up, but the device is made to only operate once because of the test strip. The video notes — and we agree — it seems wasteful to create an entire Bluetooth-enabled microcontroller board with optical components just to read a strip one time that is pretty easy to read to start with. We’ll stick with the simple test strip. Still, it is interesting to see the insides.

If you want to read more about antigen tests, we covered that. We also talked about PCR testing.

68 thoughts on “Electronic Covid Test Tear Down Shows Frustrating Example Of 1-Time-Use Waste

  1. Why does this even exist? Especially in the current semiconductor crisis, this is completely ridiculous, it’s wasteful, more complicated then the normal test strip, and apparently, a lot less reliable.

    Maybe there can be re-used, if the chip can be erased and reprogrammed?

    1. The semiconductors here will be made on really old and widely available processes like 130 nm. The shortage only really affects 16 FF and finer processes.

      Why do we need a PCB to read test strips? Miseducated consumers will pay for them. Digital HCG pregnancy tests are less accurate than the dual stripe test, but people want them, and this is the very same thing.

      1. Try buying ARM Cortex M3 or M4 right now, in particular if they contain CAN bus. The shortage has a severe effect on exactly this kind of microcontrollers, to the extent that some car manufacturers have to stop their lines. Wasting production capabilities for throwaway optical readers is a huge waste which can totally be prevented by making the substrate detachable.

    2. This test– Ellume– is a VERIFIABLE antigen test. A BinaxNOW lollipop could be an hour or a month old, so it’s not valid for any situation requiring a verified test. Ellume is.

      Yes it’s an awful waste, but it’s what we get for having dismantled so many public testing programs at the same time things “opening up” require verified tests.

      Ellume is a valid technological solution, and it just highlights how wasteful the electronics and medical industries are.

      1. The BinaxNOW solution is to proctor the test with video (for example from a phone camera propped up so the proctor can view you swabbing your shnozz and then NOT interfering with the test, and verifying that your face matches your ID)

        Which is STILL needed for Ellume tests to be valid for travel, because this test doesn’t solve the fundamental problem with non-proctored tests: Was the swab done correctly, for the person that is travelling?

      2. There’s a few things you could do to make a verifiable test with no disposable electronics.
        You could have a unique QR code that can be scanned by an app to verify it’s only used once, and add spot that reacts to either light or oxygen to change color over a certain period of time to verify that it’s not old.

        1. Those don’t solve the fundamental problem:
          Was the schnozzle properly swabbed?
          Did the schnozzle actually belong to the person who is seeking a verified test?

          There’s really only one solution to these: Telehealth proctoring, which is available for BinaxNOW test, and also available/required for an Ellume test to actually be considered legitimate for travel.

          Ellume’s test is notorious for false positives, which is why United Airlines sends customers to eMed – https://www.emed.com/products/covid-at-home-testkit-six-pack – who sell kits that include telehealth proctoring.

    3. Because they didn’t spend a dime in R&D since it was made before for a pregnancy test to make them look more precise and justify the pricing… so they just used that same electronic and optics to build this one to fool a different set of people who are willing to pay more thinking that they will get a premium reliability…

  2. I agreed… until I discovered this: https://www.healthcentral.com/slideshow/common-pregnancy-test-mistakes-to-avoid

    It seems that there are A LOT of causes for error, and that includes reading the output too early or even too late; to assume that all tests work the same and, thus, don’t read the instructions and misinterpret the results; don’t check the expiration date…

    This paper says that one of four women can misread line-based pregnant tests… https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119102/ and that in an experiment, 230 of 478 urine samples were wrongly identified when using line-based pregnant tests…

    Based on these numbers, I can see why these products do exist.

    1. Yeah, maybe this particular one isn’t the best in a silicon shortage (when accuracy of these antigen tests is pretty lousy even in best conditions and molecular tests are the standard), but you nailed it. Identifying what counts as a positive for third style of test is a lot harder than folks tend to think, and if your interpretation varies from whoever was reading them for approval, you won’t see the same performance they were approved for. A computer can be totally consistent, and they can tweak it so it’s consistently good.

      (That said apparently some of the digital pregnancy tests have worse accuracy than the cheap ones, no idea why, but there’s plenty of evidence that computer read tests are good.)

    2. “This paper says that one of four women can misread line-based pregnant tests…”

      My controversial opinion on this: Then one in four women should not have kids, for the good of the planet and humanity.

      But well, having kids is an undisputable right. So that’s the death of my opinion.

    3. Someone else raised the issue of verifiable antigen tests:

      BinaxNOW solves this with video proctoring. You connect to a telehealth system, and someone verifies in a video conference that your face matches your ID, that you properly swabbed your schnozz, and that you did not interfere with the test card during the “development” time, and that the card was read with proper timing.

      All of these things are requirements for verifiable (aka allowed-for-travel) antigen tests that the unproctored Ellume does NOT solve on its own.

      The only advantage Ellume has is pure paperwork – Ellume will sell you addon proctoring services for OTC tests, while you must specifically buy proctored versions of the Binax test and those are mail-order only. (You can’t upgrade an OTC Binax to a telehealth-proctored test.) Of note – there’s nothing about this technological solution that improves those aspects of the paperwork.

  3. I just don’t get it. Usually I am not the authoritarian type. But in this case I feel the urge to see some people in jail over this idiocy.


    Now don’t get me wrong. A device for reading an antigen test strip makes sense in some conditions — for example it’d go a long way to make blind people more self-sustained.


    (You could try to gather support from the industry to put some calib data on a QR code on the strip itself, for example; then we’d be talking).


  4. > This is such a waste of resources.


    > How sustainable is this???

    Not sure what sustainability has to do with a COVID-19 test.

    > So how many Megawatts did it take to make a Gross (144) of them?

    Why mix up unit systems in such a weird way? Why counting energy use to build 144 pcs in Megawatts?

    > A stupid test about nothing.
    > I’ll bet it can’t tell the difference between the Flu and so-called COVID-19.

    Ah, now you’re making things political (see also your other post). Please don’t. I don’t come here to read this kind of garbage, there’s enough other sites for that.

    The article was about the absurdity of a one-time-use piece of electronics+plastic, which will end up in a landfill, for reading something that humans are perfectly able to read themselves.
    Selectivity of the test has nothing to do with this waste of electronics+plastic.

  5. Seems like the majority of people don’t realize that there are some of us that cannot see the line. For the logging requirement, some people suggest taking picture of the line; Are you so sure that everyone would do that?

    1. Taking a picture of the line isn’t a big deal when you have the following other requirements:
      Telehealth proctor to verify that you swabbed your schnozz correctly
      Telehealth proctor to verify that the person who they viewed self-swab has a face that matches their ID (e.g. not taking the test for someone else)

    1. But then people will question “Why am I paying so much for this”. Don’t forget, the average buyer has no idea they are just buying a normal test strip.

      By keeping it all internal it will seen ‘magical’. And you can extract your $$$. And waste precious resources.

  6. I’m not sure how clear the thresholds are in these antigen tests, but in many cases making the reading digital goes a long way towards making it repeatable. But of course no excuse for not making it reusable.

    A lot of medical quick test machines are basically “controlled shake, controlled wait, controlled optical reading”. All of those could be done by hand, but machine does it more repeatably.

    1. Antigen tests benefit from repeated testing (say, once per day from onset of symptoms or known contact). A $30 test sort of goes against that idea. It’d be better to have a box of 5 simple test (even if they have marginally worse sensitivity) for the same price.

  7. It does make some sense.
    The antigen test itself is incredibly low cost.. however it has the limitation of only being optical, hence people with decreased visibility or one of a myriad of altered visual abilities are prevented from successfully using the tests without additional assistance.
    Hence the ability to have the test couple via bluetooth to a phone would allow such altered vision people to utilise these same tests (albeit at a slightly elevated price).

    So it’s not a terrible idea.
    The idea of a re-usable antigen test is great, but is much harder to implement.
    The lateral flow tests are incredibly ‘simple’ technology and fabrication. Just a permeable substrate, and some reagents ‘printed’ onto them.

  8. This is pretty much the same circuitry used in electronic pregnancy and ovulation tests: nothing else than a source of pollution locked to a limited number of use to push more sales.

  9. I was just reading another story (on an un-named non Hack-a-Day site) on the chip shortage.

    Chip shortage. Sited as insurmountable production problems. As this story shows we’ve got absolutely no problems relating to how the IC production’s being used!

  10. I’m not going to say this isn’t wasteful, but I think it’s worth a second thought before everyone piles on. If this encourages just a few more people to take a test while they otherwise wouldn’t (perhaps they’re unsure about interpreting the lines? perhaps this appears somehow more “convenient” to them?) it could be worth it in some way.

    We live in a world full of people buying new laptops with 4GB of memory just for word processing simply because their old machines have been junked up and they don’t know how to clean them up or how to run a lean system in the first place. Let’s rage about *that* if we’re mad about common everyday ignorance causing wastage.

  11. Not supporting the waste, but I can see this might have been intended for use in an organisation as a way to *prove* that people had taken a test and got a negative result. App on phone reads result, phones home.

    My daughter’s school gave everyone test kits and the pupils were supposed to test themselves before returning after a break (as well as twice a week during term time). One family didn’t bother, happened to be positive, result was entire year was off with covid.

    1. Problem with these self administered at home tests. You’re assuming the person properly collected their own sample and did not collect in such a way to create a purposely negative result.

  12. Someone should publish alternate applications for used (presumably negative) tests.
    The optical components as with pregnancy tests can likely be recycled and so can the micro and RF components.
    Interestingly some of the newer ones don’t even have a battery, its got a strip of zinc and copper that is just enough to run the sensor for a few hours and keep the LCD running.

  13. Medical stuff can be applied ncredibly “wasteful”. But where do you draw the line between not being wasteful, and being safe?

    When I was temporarily on dialysis, every time they connected me, and every timethey disconnected me, there was a whole kit that I assume was medical waste afterwards. I suppose some of it could have been sterilized and reused, but that take stime and money. The kit basically means it’s right there, defining the ritual that seemed to include cleaning that connector a specific number of twirls. No steps can be forgotten.

    When Iwas in the hospital, and one point they issued a disposable digital thermometer, cheap but it makes sure no contamination. There were things like tape used in my room that were tossed after I left.

    Theywere worried abkut my blood sugar, so endless piercing of a finger to get a drop of blood for the strip. The reader wasn’t disposable thiugh I don’t know how that was done. But the piercing tool was discarded after every use. And think if the needles discarded after the vaccineprogram.

  14. Have any of you actually seen the instructions for the strip tests? They say any line, no matter how faint is a positive result. I tested my kid four times in one evening because I could see the faintest of lines, but I couldn’t tell if it was just the area the line should appear looked slightly different or if it was a faint line. Testing myself showed no line at all. I would have purchased something like this if it definitively could tell the difference between a very faint line and a negative result. In the end, it turned out my kid did not have it, as confirmed with a pcr test. Or maybe they did have it, but by the time we did the pcr the next day it had cleared. Point being, this could have been useful.

  15. Pandemic exploitation, just like WWII war profiteering. We need to call it out for what it is if we care at all about ethics, the environment and even equal access to resources for all humans, it is flat out wasteful and evil.

  16. Nobody seems to understand why Ellume exists: tests need to be verified. Both of my previous comments have been removed, but I will say it again.

    If you take an at-home BinaxNOW test, it’s proof to you and to people who trust you, but it’s not a valid negative test for any situation that requires a negative test.

    I’ve used Ellume and it works– it provides a verified result at a certain time.

    It’s an awful waste, yes! But with so many places “opening up” requiring proof of vaccination or negative test, that test result needs to be verified, and that’s what a PCR result print-out or an Ellume result provide.

    Please, look deeper into why Ellume does what it does. It’s a valid technological solution to the requirement for a verified negative test when so many public PCR test programs have been disamantled.

    1. How does that test prove anything if you assume malicious intent of the user? They could just skip the nose swabbing part and directly “test” the buffer solution to get a negative result. Or test their dog, their kid, their neighbor, …

      So much waste and complication for something that can be outwitted by a three-year-old.

      1. Yup. The solution for the Binax is the same as the solution for the Ellume (which is still necessary even with all of the digital hocus pocus here, because that digital hocus pocus does not solve the most notable issues) – telehealth proctoring.

        All of this fancy hardware solves nothing when you still need a telehealth proctor to verify that someone swabbed their schnozzle correctly.

    2. Neither of your previous comments were removed, I can find them.

      But Ellume’s digital wastefulness achieves nothing. Just like BinaxNOW, a telehealth proctor is required to make sure that:
      The user swabbed their schnozzle correctly
      The user that swabbed their schnozzle is the one that is seeking a verified test and not someone else

      Ellume’s digital waste achieves nothing here (other than being rather notorious for false positives). The only advantage Ellume has over BinaxNOW is that you can purchase proctoring as an addon for OTC products, but you must explicitly mailorder proctorable BinaxNOW kits. There’s nothing about this digital waste that contributes to that difference, just BS paperwork, since both tests require telehealth proctoring.

  17. Many Ellume tests have been recalled. I was told today mine was “incorrectly” recalled. So, assuming this was similar to an optical pregnancy reader I turned to the internet to get some tips on how to take it apart – and found this awesome site!

    As I am typing this I am waiting my 15 mins to then try and figure out which is the control and which is the test. Assumedly no lines is bad (didn’t work) 2 lines is really bad, and 1 line is good

    Wife and are both boosted, but she’s also pregnant and we have an unvaxxed toddler.

    If anyone has guidance for reading the results (since it seems there are a bunch of experts here who do not need the help of technology), I’d appreciate it

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