Why Repairability Matters

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There’s little like those first moments you have with a brand-new smartphone: the sound it makes when you peel back the screen protector, that first boot-up, and the honeymoon period where that hardware feels like the fastest thing man ever has or will design. Of course, those halcyon days only last for so long, and before you know it, your baby’s going to start showing some signs of wear. Maybe it starts as just a ding here or there, or a little scratch on the glass (luckily, not on the screen itself – for now).

Now, you can take control of the situation, up to an extent. Slap a beefy case on your handset and treat it with kid gloves, and you could help it avoid tragedy. Not everything that can go wrong with your phone is so preventable, however. Mechanical contacts can and do degrade over time, and after plugging your headphones in on a daily basis, your smartphone’s 3.5mm jack could eventually give out. Batteries are complicated chemical cocktails, and over time those chemicals react to give your phone less and less power on each charge.

Knowing full well all the myriad ways phones can fail, it really bugs me how difficult some can be to repair. While there can be some very good reasons why a manufacturer might create such a repair-unfriendly smartphone, I think it’s a shame, because it unnecessarily limits a phone’s potential service life.

tools1I got started thinking about this issue last month, after a teardown of the HTC One revealed that, unless you were glutton for punishment, the company’s latest flagship was NOT a phone you could approach with a jewler’s screwdriver and hope to end out on top. In fact, it might just be one of the least conducive smartphones to repair work we’ve ever seen.

But why would you even want to repair a phone in the first place? Based on the comments that HTC One story got, it seemed clear to me that there’s a significant divide among smartphone users and their attitudes towards phone repair.

If your phone’s still under manufacturer warranty, then by all means, don’t even think about repairing it. The risk that you’d mess something up, while simultaneously voiding said warranty, just isn’t worth it.

How long that coverage is good for will vary based on a lot of factors – you might even get extended from the retailer you purchased the phone through or your credit card company. Just don’t go out on your own and buy an “extended” warranty – as I’ve talked about before, phone insurance is a sucker’s bet.

For the HTC One, HTC covers the phone against defects for one year. I don’t know about you, but I usually plan on keeping a new phone for a lot longer than twelve months.

After twelve months, though, you’re in the no-man’s-land. When the phone stops taking a charge next summer, what do you do? Sell it for what you can get and buy a new handset? Pay for someone to repair it for you? Both valid options, but wouldn’t it be so much nicer if you could spend half an hour unscrewing your phone, gingerly removing a couple components, and swapping-in a brand-new battery you bought online?

Even on a phone which you can disassemble without destroying it, just how easy certain repairs are will vary. Usually you won’t need to solder anything, but that can still be a possibility. Luckily, some designs are so modular that, if, say, the headphone jack fails, you can replace the entire headphone jack assembly, on a little circuit board all to itself.

tools2Working a little Google magic, you can often track-down step-by-step guides, awash with pictures, detailing just how to do common repairs. These will also point you to exactly the right replacement parts you’ll need, and when special tools are required to complete the job (like an odd screwdriver bit or any number of plastic spudgers for wedging components apart), there’s a good chance you’ll find the same merchants selling sets of what you’ll need, all bundled-up for the task at hand.

The actual repair job might put you through a stressful twenty minutes, but if you go slowly and follow the guide you found, you might just surprise yourself with how easy it ultimately seems. When you realize that you just breathed some new life into an old device and maybe even saved yourself a couple hundred dollars in the process, so much the better.

I’m not going to twist anybody’s arm and try to force them to take up smartphone repair themselves. Some people like to change the oil on their own cars, some turn to a local mechanic, and some of us would rather have the dealership do it. People are the same way with smartphones. Still, everyone who ever repaired a phone had to start somewhere, so if you’ve got an old handset lying around, gathering dust, why not try taking it apart sometime? You’ll learn something new, and you might just feel more confident to try swapping-in a new battery on your iPhone when it eventually gives out one day.

Images: iFixit

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!