Teardown: Apple Self-Service Repair
Image credit: iFixit
Apple backs the right-to-repair... kind of.
Apple launched its first self-repair scheme in the US in April, with Europe to follow later this year. However, unlike others recently launched by Samsung, Google, HTC and Microsoft, the company is maintaining complete control over its programme. Its rivals have partnered with independent repairs specialist and replacement-parts supplier iFixit.
Leading electronics companies have gradually come around to addressing the demands of right-to-repair campaigners as politicians have become more open to introducing laws. France was the first country to do so in January 2021 and plans to extend the repairability scores it mandates across a range of electronic products to include durability.
It is fair to say that most consumers will still prefer to have repairs carried out by an expert (though equally true that most E&T readers will feel like part of the exception). Installing a new SIM tray and even an adhesive-fixed battery can be relatively trivial tasks; replacing a display not so much. Similarly, there are not that many reasons why anyone would want to pay for parts and go DIY for a device that is still under warranty, notwithstanding mounting concern around privacy.
Self-repair will have an impact on independent providers. The iFixit-partnered schemes also allow owners to buy approved parts and then have an expert install them. They will make the user feel more confident about the likely outcome and potentially expand the global repair network, leading to greater competition on price.
Before looking at how Apple Self-Service Repair is a bit of an outlier, one important point to make is that most of the schemes cover more recent products, typically dating back around four years. The earliest product supported is the 2016 Google Pixel 2 handset. By contrast, Samsung is supporting the Galaxy S20 and S21, the first of which was launched in early 2020, while Apple’s scheme covers generations from and after the iPhone 12, launched later the same year.
There isn’t much for anyone who might be trying to eke more life out of an older device because of today’s economic crisis.
Similarly, most of the launch schemes cover handsets, though Microsoft is supporting newer Surface laptops and HTC its Vive VR helmet. Other lines will be added over time, with Apple having committed to adding Mac laptops powered by its own processors over the course of the year. However, again this would stretch back only until 2020, even though, in its own position paper on self-repair, the company acknowledges that a MacBook Pro lasts “an average of 2-4 years longer than traditional PCs”.
That self-repair is initially being offered only for more recent and typically more expensive products should not obscure that these initiatives represent a decent start. As much as campaigners such as iFixit have been highlighting not just repairability but e-waste as strong arguments in their favour, OEMs want to see how much appetite there is for self-repair – all while seeking to influence the future regulatory roadmap.
Apple’s launch scheme has, however, raised further concerns. First, the repair manuals are free and clear, but the range of parts being made available is comparatively limited, falling into six main categories with supporting parts such as screws and cowlings. These include the screen and battery.
Second, the Apple scheme still has a fair-sized barrier to entry. You can rent its repair tools for $49 plus parts, but must put down a refundable $1,200 (£980) deposit. That may lead many to baulk in these cash-strapped times – and the kit itself is professional-grade, arguably overkill (as shown by a comparison between the two heavy-duty suitcases that contain 79lb (36kg) of tools and the package iFixit claims can perform the same tasks).
Also on the barrier-to-entry, there is little self-repair cost advantage offered on parts. According to an iFixit analysis, the difference for a display can be as little as $2. “The parts are crazy expensive; $329 for an in-store repair where Apple does everything vs $278.35 for a DIY repair, after you give them your old screen and if you don’t rent their tools – which by the way if you did would bring the total DIY cost to $327.35,” said teardown engineer Shahram Mokhtari.
The third concern may be the most controversial. Apple is applying part-pairing to replacements – each component is synchronised with the IMEI number of the device to which it is to be fitted.
Apple does this through a system configuration software tool that must be run on the device after repair. The company says this ensures quality and reflects the need for parts such as displays, cameras and batteries to be calibrated for each handset. If the part does not pair, the phone shows a persistent warning message.
“Can we talk about parts-pairing for a bit?” Mokhtari has observed. “Like how they try to control the market by disabling functionality if a screen or battery is replaced without Apple’s authorisation? Who owns this phone, anyway; didn’t I pay for it already? Battery health isn’t biometric data like Face ID could be. I can only see that as a repair monopoly.”
Warranties and repairs are, according to one analysis, a nice little earner for Apple. As its designs have become more robust, specialist publication Warranty News estimates that the company’s income from schemes such as AppleCare reached $8.5bn in its 2021 financial year, but it paid out the equivalent of just $2.7bn in claims, 10 per cent less than the year before.
Apple has always aggressively defended the aftermarket chain and for it to open up even on a limited basis is welcome – though those limitations could still fuel demands for legislation that sets formal access requirements.
E&T readers are likely to be part of the market for all the kits, and as we look to revisit how well they work, we would like to hear from you. Whether it is Apple, the four being run in tandem with iFixit or any of the others rolling out globally, the next part of the right-to-repair debate should be for the users.
Apple Self-Service Repair available components
iPhone 12 mini repair options: exploded view
1. True Depth camera assembly
3. Top battery adhesive tabs
5. Bottom battery adhesive tabs
7. Bottom microphones
8. Lightning connector
9. Taptic Engine
10. Taptic Engine connector cowling
11. Display connector
12. Battery flex cable (obscured)
13. Receiver/ambient light sensor/proximity sensor connector
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