Repairing Broken iPhones

Everyone loves their iPhones, and until they drop their iPhone and smash the glass screen, they won’t know just how much they really love their iPhone and how much they can hate Apple and AT&T.  The iPhone isn’t engineered to be repaired, and its especially not designed for the average user to repair.  It could have been.  Until people get addicted to smart phones, and learn how easy it is to break them, and how expensive they are to replace, they’ll never ask why they can’t be repaired.  They should be easy to repair, but they aren’t.  Our throw-away society doesn’t promote that.  It’s a shame, because these elegant devices could have been easily engineered to allow owners to replace a broken screen, or a broken screen/LCD combo.  Actually, the glass touch screen and LCD should be one unit that could be quickly replaced with only a small screwdriver, for about $30-40, or at a repair shop for $60-70.

I’m a computer guy at work, so people tend to bring me their smart phones to configure for the Exchange server or ask for help and advice even though it’s not part of my job.  And some people have a knack for breaking their smart phones repeatedly.  The other day a young woman brought me her shattered iPhone and a repair kit she had bought online.  I told her I had no experience at repairing iPhones, couldn’t guarantee my work and iPhones weren’t designed to be opened by users.  She had seen several films on Youtube and urged me to try.  So I did – and we almost succeeded. 

It’s an extremely tedious process to replace the glass touch screen on an iPhone, and we succeeded, but unfortunately, in the process we damaged the LCD.  One online repair site kept telling us to use a hair dryer to soften the glue that holds the glass screen to the frame.  They should have warned us not to use the hair dryer before we had gotten the frame off the phone.  Here’s the best Youtube video we found.  It runs 5 parts.  Watch all 5 parts before thinking about doing this repair.  This video does cover the missing steps that other videos and web sites don’t cover, which is how to carefully remove the broken screen from the thin frame, and then how to remove all the old adhesive.  Even if you don’t need to repair an iPhone, these videos are an education in how smart phones are put together.

The iPhone I was working on was the third one this lady had dropped, and understandably AT&T wasn’t going to replace it.  They wanted $199 and two more years.  But since this woman is a poor graduate student, she couldn’t afford the price of replacement.  She started looking around the net and found various repair kits and videos.  Don’t be fooled, these are not easy and cheap solutions.  You can also shop around and find repair services that run $60-250 to repair an iPhone, including at your Apple Store for $199.  I would really advise using one of these services before going to the do-it-yourself route unless you are very patient, have great skills dealing with small parts, and are willing to risk failure.  We got everything back together and working but the LCD was blurry because of heat damage, so she had to order a replacement LCD. 

The young woman I was helping is buying a second touch screen now because the first one got a tiny crack in our first repair that got much larger in the second LCD repair, which she had found a Mac repair guy to help her with, and then got completely damaged in her day-to-day use.  I’m not sure these glass touch screen replacements are as sturdy as the original Apple screens.  She wants me to help her with the third repair, but I’m mentioning this because they teach another lesson.  If you start fixing iPhones, you’ll probably have to keep fixing them.  I’m urging the young woman to hone these skills herself if she remains poor and keeps breaking her phone. 

Another warning, it takes a lot of careful pressure to disassemble an iPhone and reassemble it, and you’re working with two very delicate parts:  the touch screen and the LCD.  If you break your iPhone regularly, developing the skills to replace the touch screen or LCD might be worth pursuing, otherwise, I’d recommend paying a service company to do the job and hopefully get a repair warranty.

Also the repairs are iffy at best because they require taking glued together parts apart, and then reassembling them with bits of two-side adhesive, and the results aren’t as solid as the original glued assembly.  They phones really were NOT meant to be repaired, but sadly they are easily broken.

The iPhone is a beautiful device on the outside, but on the inside its just a bunch of ordinary parts.  It’s a shame that it wasn’t designed in a modular fashion so replacing the screen/LCD only involved a few screws.  Ditto for the battery and memory.  If we’re going to save mother nature we need to build machines that last and are repairable.  The current design of the iPhone is obviously meant to sell more iPhones, and keep users tied to contracts.

What’s needed is a smart phone that’s completely modular in design so it can be easily repaired and upgraded, and one that isn’t tied to any phone service.  Phone and broadband data service is expensive because the cost of the phones are subsidized in the contracts.  We need to separate the phone from the service.  Remember when AT&T owned your household phones?**  Remember how cheap phones got once we got to own our own phones?  There’s no reason why smart phones should cost as much as they do other than that’s what the industry wants.  Cell phones are a commodity sold in the millions, so they should be cheap to make.  I’m hoping Android phones will bring down the price of the smart phone and the monthly cost of broadband service. 

I hope we can get phone makers to go green by making their phones repairable.  The iPhone I worked on should have had the touch screen and LCD as one solid piece that snaps onto the phone body, held in place by four tiny screws.  If the user breaks their phone, just buy that piece and replace it.  That way the phone could last years, making it a much greener device.

JWH – 2/6/10

**Kids, a long time ago phones were rented from Ma Bell, the affectionate name we gave AT&T, and when you cancelled your phone service you had to give back the phone.  This was before cell phones.  Most homes had only one phone, and it was tied to the wall with a stout wire.  Kids and parents would fight over sharing the phone.  Oh, and it came in one color, black.

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