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Oh My Tech!: No easy way to replace an iPhone screen

Published October 11, 2012 8:03 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some people just don't know how to take care of their mobile phones.

My brother-in-law, Danny, and his wife have accidentally smashed the screens on their iPhones six times and on their iPad twice. They've either dropped them, sat on them, cracked them while the phone was in their back pocket, or — gasp — given them to their baby girl as a play toy.

Then there's my friend's 11-year-old son, who has dropped one iPod touch in the toilet and got it replaced, only to drop the new one and crack its screen. Once, my daughter broke my iPhone 4's back glass when it slipped out of her pocket while jogging. I thought about replacing her instead of the phone.

You would think people willing to pay anywhere from $300 to $800 retail for an electronic device would take better care of it. But the fact is, these kinds of disasters seem to happen to everyone, and it's becoming more common.

If Danny had gone directly to Apple to fix those screens he and his wife cracked, he would have paid at least $900 for replacement phones and probably more (Apple doesn't actually fix the front touchscreens but instead gives you another phone). Or, if you pay $99 for Apple's extended warranty, you can replace the phone for $49 if it's accidentally damaged.

(For Android phones, it's a little more complicated because there are about a half-dozen manufacturers who each make different styles of handsets. How much it would cost to either exchange an Android phone or fix it depends on which model you have.)

After many mishaps with Apple electronic devices, my brother-in-law learned to fix them himself "out of necessity," he says.

Third-party iPhone parts, particulary touchscreens, have become a cottage industry. That's where people can order a new touchscreen part online, such as at Amazon.com, for around $16 to $20 and then install it themselves (the cost of Android parts vary wildly depending on the model). Also, in the classifieds, dozens of people are advertising that they can fix your phone or tablet's touchscreen for anywhere from $50 to $100.

"We're not alone," my brother-in-law said about people who damage their phones. "People are always asking me to fix their iPhones and iPads."

When my friend asked me to replace his son's iPod touch front screen, I called Danny, who's pretty much an expert iPhone repairman now.

But fixing one is a very involved process and not for the faint of heart. So, if you have ever thought of doing this yourselves, keep reading, because I'll give you a rough idea of what to expect. But mind you, this is not a set of actual instructions because no one on Earth could easily describe them to you in print. Search YouTube and there are dozens of do-it-yourself videos that show you how to do it. Just beware that making a fix will instantly void your phone's warranty.

The iPhone's touchscreen is not held in a frame but actually glued to the phone. To get it off, you have to heat it with a hairdryer. Then carefully pry away the broken screen with a cutting knife. Inside you see a metal plate that covers the phone's electronics. Unscrew that with a special screwdriver.

Then you have to remove the phone's rear camera in order to partially remove the motherboard, and disconnect the touchscreen's cable from the motherboard. Reconnect the new touchscreen's cable to the motherboard, then screw the metal plate back on and reconnect the camera.

The company that sold you the new part also should have included double-sided sticky tape that's already pre-cut to be applied to the sides of the touchscreen. You put the tape on and then press the new screen into place. It took my brother-in-law about an hour and a half to do the job, which was about as painstaking as open-heart surgery.

It takes meticulous work with tiny plastic tools that also should have been shipped with the new touchscreen. In this instance, it still wasn't a perfect fit. The screen appeared to be slightly warped, enough that light was leaking through part of the device. That's largely because the part wasn't made by an actual Apple supplier but by a company that makes copycat parts.

But it beats paying up to $199 to Apple to replace the whole phone for just a cracked front screen.

Since the introduction of the first iPhone in 2007, touchscreen phones have become more sophisticated pieces of electronics, where the tolerances for constructing them are razor-thin. Companies such as Apple, Samsung, Motorola and HTC have made them more complex, yet they haven't made them more durable.

Maybe that's the point. Think about how much those handset manufacturers are making from people replacing their phones.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.