Apple iPhone 13 and the nearly impossible screen repair

22-11-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

The new Apple iPhone 13 has seen millions of sales worldwide, and its impressive list of features clearly demonstrates why Apple products continue to be popular in the Smartphone industry. However, a new discovery made by repair shops shows Apple’s resistance to creating hardware that is easy to repair.


Right to repair – Why is it important?


Today, modern consumers will almost always buy new electronics, rarely purchase refurbished hardware, and replace electronics when they fail. Going back several generations, the world is a very different place; only the rich would buy electronics brand new, many would try to get them second hand, and devices that failed would be sent to a repair shop.

Of course, electronics in the past were considerably more expensive compared to today (when considering inflation and buying power), which is why it made sense to get them repaired. However, modern electronics are now so cheap that it is more economical to simply throw away a smartphone if the side button fails or when it begins to slow down, and a newer model is available. In fact, this throws away culture is almost encouraged with companies turning out new and improved devices every year, the increasing minimum requirements for operating systems, and the social pressure to get the latest gear.

Throwing away devices frequently would not be a problem if most e-waste could be recycled, but the truth is that most e-waste can’t. Old PCBs have virtually no use, and components cannot be reused; the only materials worth extracting are precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum.

This means that large amounts of waste are committed to landfills, and this waste very often contains harmful chemicals that can leak underground. From there, they can find their way back into the environment through underground water sources and soil, potentially contaminating the environment.

So how does all of this link to the right-to-repair? Simply put, many companies go out of their way to produce products that are intentionally difficult to repair or simply do not provide spare parts. The result is that the company can increase sales on newer devices while preventing users from repairing their devices from unauthorised repair shops. The company may offer their own repair service to make matters worse, which can charge extortionate amounts.

Thus, the right-to-repair is the concept that a device owner has the legal right to repair their device. This typically means that a user has the right to require parts for the product, schematics, datasheets, and repair manuals that would otherwise be available to the manufacturer. This right can help keep devices in use for longer, reduce the amount of e-waste, save customers money, and most importantly, reduce the environmental impact of e-waste.


Apple iPhone 13 screen repair challenges


Apple is famous for its high-quality, cutting-edge products, including its iMac computers, Macbook air laptops, iPhone smartphones, and the Apple Watch.

Personally, I have refused to touch Apple products my whole life because they are overpriced and have poor repair services. Despite this, I recently moved entirely to the Apple ecosystem due to the sheer brilliance of the 4K retina display, which provides a smooth and crisp writing experience and the ability for all Apple products to communicate with each other very well.

However, Apple is also known for its poor practices, inexpensive repairs, refusal to work with independent repair shops, and designing its hardware to be extremely challenging to repair. Recently, repair shops have reported a new design change made in the iPhone 13 that makes device repair extremely difficult.

The design change involves placing the face ID chip onto the underside of the screen, meaning that replacing the screen with a third-party screen will disable this feature. Authorised service providers can get around this feature using proprietary software, which essentially allows Apple to approve or deny repairs. One solution for non-authorised repair shops is to transfer the valid Face ID chip to a new display, but this is a highly challenging task considering the size of modern electronics and the tight tolerances involved.

What makes the change unusual is that screen repairs are by far the most common repair work done on smartphones meaning that the screen should be designed to be easily removed and replaced. Moving the Face ID chip to the back of the screen, which is required for the system to activate Face ID, requires effort and careful planning.


Will right-to-repair change this?


There is no doubt that the right-to-repair will encourage manufacturers to design their products with repairability in mind. Easy repairability could even be a selling point (easy repairs, upgradability etc.). However, unless right-to-repair becomes required by law, companies can continue to manufacture products with little concern for the end-user or the environment.

But we should also consider that many electronic products are designed to be as compact as possible, meaning that they may not be easy to repair. In the case of Apple, they certainly could have done things better, but also consider that Apple products are at the forefront of technology, and their compact size and high specifications may mean that they are required to sacrifice repairability. Essentially, form over function.


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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