Apple last month released its first self-repair program that gives people access to the parts, tools and instructions to fix our own iPhones. It made waves when it was announced last year because it was a turning point for the right-to-repair movement, which has urged tech companies for more than a decade to provide resources so we can revive our electronics.
It was also music to my ears. As someone who became a do-it-yourselfer during the pandemic, I was excited to try Apple’s new program with my iPhone.
“How hard can it be?” I thought.
Very hard, it turns out.
For people like me who have little experience repairing electronics, the self-repair setup was so intimidating that I nearly wussed out. It involved first placing a $1,210 hold on my credit card to rent 75 pounds of repair equipment, which arrived at my door in hard plastic cases. The process was then so unforgiving that I destroyed my iPhone screen in a split second with an irreversible error.
Apple’s repair machines came in two pelican cases.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York TimesOur columnist working with Mr. Taiyab at his repair shop in South San Francisco.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times
The catastrophe unfolded even though I called in an expert, Shakeel Taiyab, an independent phone repair technician in South San Francisco, for help. After reading Apple’s manuals and trying the tools with me, Mr. Taiyab said he applauded Apple for trying to empower iPhone owners but had a harsh verdict.
“They set up the customer to fail,” he said.
The self-repair program, I concluded, is impractical for most people. For starters, the cost of renting the equipment and purchasing parts from Apple — $96 to replace my iPhone 12’s battery — was more than the $69 an Apple store charges to do the job. And as my experience shows, the process was challenging even with Apple’s tools.
Apple discourages most people from trying self-repair. “For the vast majority of customers, the safest and most reliable repair is achieved through an Apple Store” and thousands of authorized repair centers, the company said in a white paper last month. “Repairing modern electronic devices that are complex, highly integrated and miniaturized isn’t easy.”
This raises the question of why Apple rolled out the self-repair program in the first place. It is probably no coincidence that it made the move after the Federal Trade Commission said last year that it would ramp up enforcement against tech companies that made it hard for people to fix their electronics.
And now, my tale of defeat.
Preparing for repair
I started by visiting Apple’s self-repair program website, selfservicerepair.com. There I found the service manual for the iPhone 12 I wanted to repair and ordered the tools. (Apple’s program currently includes manuals for iPhones released in the last two years.)
I perused the instructions for my iPhone 12, which was working fine but was probably due for a new battery. The steps seemed straightforward enough: Use a machine to melt the glue and pry off the phone’s screen, remove the screws and battery, use another machine to install the new battery, then put everything back together and use a third machine to press together the phone.
I made the charge for the self-repair program to my credit card. It included a $49 rental fee for the tool kit, the $69 battery, $2 for glue and 15 cents for some screws, along with a $1,210 hold for renting the repair machines. After seven days, those tools would have to be shipped back to Apple with a prepaid label, and the old battery could also be traded in for a $24 credit.
With no experience repairing phones, I decided to get some practice. I ordered a $45 kit from iFixit, a site that publishes instructions and sells D.I.Y. tools to repair gadgets, so I could first replace the battery in my wife’s four-year-old iPhone XS.
The iFixit kit arrived with some tweezers, a screwdriver, plastic picks and a suction cup to remove the screen.
The process to pry open my wife’s iPhone, replace the battery and reassemble the device took about five hours over two days. I ran into some snags — the iPhone wouldn’t turn on, which made me think I had destroyed something. It turned out a tiny connector inside the phone was loose. When I pressed it down more firmly with my fingertip, the phone powered up and everything was back to normal.
I was ready for the real thing, I thought.
A shaky start
Days later, a UPS truck pulled up to my driveway. When the delivery man wheeled two bulky containers to my door, he asked what was inside.
“It’s equipment for people to repair their own iPhones,” I said.
He looked incredulous.
While iFixit’s repair kit is lightweight, Apple’s self-repair program rents out the same machines that the company’s technicians use at Apple stores. That’s heavy-duty gear, and when I unpacked the equipment, I had a bad feeling. The three machines — all angular and industrial — looked like serious business. I had never used anything like them before.
So I called Mr. Taiyab, who had fixed my family’s devices in the past, and told him my conundrum. He invited me to try the machines on a spare broken phone in his office.
Apple’s disassembly machine heating up an iPhone to soften its adhesive before separating the screen from the case.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times
So I drove to Mr. Taiyab’s office in South San Francisco with the bulky Apple machines. There, he provided a broken iPhone 12 for practice.
Then we walked through the steps together. We removed the two external screws at the bottom of the broken iPhone 12 that helps hold the screen in place. We placed the phone into a frame that we inserted into the first machine. The machine heated up the phone to melt the glue, and a suction cup pried the screen ajar. After that, we used a plastic cutter to slice through the adhesive and remove the screen.
From there, we followed the instructions on disconnecting cables and removing screws and strips of glue to extract the old battery. We breezed through this, and I was pumped.
A repair nightmare
Now it was time to follow the same steps with my actual iPhone 12. With gusto, I loaded it into the frame and inserted it into the machine to melt the glue and begin prying off the screen.
Mr. Taiyab stopped me immediately. “Did you remove the security screws?” he asked.
“Oh, shoot, no,” I said. We backed up a few steps to remove the two tiny screws from the bottom of the phone to start over. The screen looked normal.
We repeated the steps to remove the battery. After installing the replacement battery, we used a roller machine to apply even pressure over the battery to glue it in place.
Mr. Taiyab removing the glue strips beneath an iPhone battery.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York TimesOur columnist using Apple’s rolling machine to press the new battery onto its glue strips.Credit…Ulysses Ortega for The New York Times
Next, we used a third machine — a battery-powered press — to smush the phone together while heating up its glue to create a waterproof seal.
Finally came the moment of truth. We plugged in the phone and powered it on. White lines flickered on the screen. It had been destroyed. Because we had not initially removed the two security screws, the screen had been held in place while I was trying to pry it open, which had caused damage.
Fortunately, Mr. Taiyab had plenty of spare Apple screens. In minutes, he took the phone apart again, replaced the screen and sealed it back up. I watched sheepishly.
The nightmare continues
To my surprise, the final steps were the most infuriating. When we powered on the phone again, a warning message said the battery and screen had been replaced with unknown parts. This was annoying because the battery was a genuine part ordered from Apple. The screen was also authentic, because it came from another iPhone.
Yet to finish the repair, Apple requires anyone who uses the self-repair program to run a “system configuration,” which involves calling a remote customer support representative to confirm the serial number of the part and pair it with the phone. Only then is the repair authenticated, which makes the warning message disappear.
Apple’s self-repair website directed me to an online app to chat with a representative. There, a worker named Carlos asked me to plug in the phone and press and hold three buttons to go into a diagnostics mode.
I tried this step several times. Nothing happened.
Carlos pasted the same instruction with the buttons. I tried again. Then again. Only after consulting an online forum where someone had published a different step was I able to start diagnostics mode.
More than 30 minutes later, we were done. The warning message about the unknown battery went away.
Feedback for Apple
Apple said it welcomed feedback as it continued evolving the self-repair program. So here’s mine. Like any new tech gizmo, this program is a fledgling product with pros and cons and the potential to be much better.
There are some benefits that will lead to higher-quality, cheaper repairs for everyone. Now all independent repair technicians, including Mr. Taiyab, have access to Apple’s tools. (He said he would probably buy Apple’s press for sealing up iPhones.) And everyone can now read the official instructions on how to do repairs, which eliminates guesswork.
But the entire experience was far from simple, and even for those who try, Apple exerts too much control by requiring approval of its repairs. If we install Apple parts, like a working screen taken from another iPhone, they should work — period.
To this day, I still get a warning about an unknown part on my iPhone because the new screen came from Mr. Taiyab, not Apple. Just what I needed to remind me of this repair experience.