Every time product announcements roll around, reviewers are whipped into a frenzy to try to find something interesting to talk about. Meanwhile, iFixit’s engineers start forensically pre-constructing our teardown. As the online repair database for every thing, we’re more interested in device construction than camera specs or charging time rumors. We start asking ourselves: How are we gonna get in? Have they made access to the consumable battery easier? What’s the repairability going to be like? Are we gonna need to whip up a new screwdriver to take this apart? While much of tech these days is iterative and not so much new frontier territory, we still look for the same things.
Here are three things that are almost guaranteed to make for repairability, and three that are likely to doom a product to the landfill:
The Top Three Features of Repairable Products
Manuals, Manuals, Manuals
Okay, manuals are only the first factor, but they are a very important one. Even a simple task can be messed up if you don’t have a recipe—take hard boiled eggs for example. You’d think it’s about as simple as you can get: put egg in water, put on stove, right? But you’d be surprised how easy it is to get it wrong. While we may not all be the cause of a dorm-wide fire alarm because we didn’t put enough water in the pot and managed to literally explode an egg—well, who among us hasn’t suffered a rubbery chalky result?
The same is true of device repair. From finding the right wrench on the first try, to avoiding ripping cables, manuals show us how to avoid mistakes before they happen. And to that end, even the most complicated repairs can be taught with detailed instructions. I wouldn’t let anyone within a hundred feet of an iPad repair if they didn’t have the repair instructions. Sure, it’s possible to achieve, but it is no fun, and can be extremely messy.
Information is the basic foundation for repair. The iFixit community, and the repair world at large, does a great job filling in repair info gaps, but our victories are often hard-won, with lots of trial and error. And sometimes we’re left scribbling “here be dragons” over the trickiest parts of the repair map—the dragons are usually poorly placed cables.
Manufacturers are the ones who are assembling—and disassembling—millions of these devices. They’re reworking the ones that failed QA, fixing in-warranty flaws, and examining returns. They know the faults and should be warning us. Most DIY repair is built on the sacrifice of previous fixers: the first failed teardowns and autopsies. That’s why it’s so amazing when companies like Framework and Fairphone do the work to protect all users, not just the lucky few of us following trailblazers.
Put the “Part” in Party: Supply Parts!
Most repairs—after you’ve turned it off and back on again—require more than knowledge: You need parts. For some companies (looking at Amazon here), the only way to restore your busted stuff is to buy differently-busted stuff and frankenstein a new less-busted version together. Seen a “for parts” listing? That’s a missed opportunity. Someone wasn’t able to fix it themselves and has offered their tech corpse up to the organ donor pool. Sound dark? It kind of is.
We’ll be the first to admit that parts distribution is tough—trying to find out what parts people will need, in what quantities and when can be quite a pickle. But ask yourself this. Would you rather toss a thousand dollar phone in the garbage, or pay twenty bucks to swap a speaker? You’re saving money, and dropping a tiny component in the landfill, instead. Shouldn’t that be the norm and not a sisyphean task? Because looking for spare parts, or even affordable damaged donors can feel a lot like pushing the same rock up a mountain forever. Especially since broken devices are often broken in the same way—just ask any repair shop that’s got a back room full of PS4s with busted disc drives. That demoralizing feeling works to the advantage of the manufacturer. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just get a new phone?” they argue. Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Cars and PCs have always had a robust spare parts market, and thanks to Valve, the video game community is getting there too. Plus, with the Right to Repair looming, the pressure is on for other manufacturers to step up and provide parts.
You might be thinking, Why should I care if manufacturers supply parts if I’m never going to fix something myself? I’ll just recycle my old phone when I upgrade. But repair is easier than you might think (you can always phone a friend or tap a pro!), and unfortunately, recycling isn’t as green as it’s been made out to be.
Recycling should be a last resort. It’s the last gasp of the product life cycle, and should only be used to squeeze the very last drop out of the proverbial tech “stone”. Most of a product’s environmental impact comes from manufacturing (making a phone takes as much energy as 34 years of using it), and the best way to defray that cost is through a long useful life—that means more years, more users, and more repair. Recycling requires a lot of energy, transportation, and there’s a lot of loss involved in processing—if it even gets processed, that is. Sometimes tech just isn’t profitable to recycle, the batteries need to be removed to get processed, and if that takes too long, you’re spending more than you’ll get. And if the battery isn’t removed, well, you can’t shred it, so you pop it in a warehouse and hope a solution—or a hazardous waste cleanup crew—comes around later. So whether you recycle or not, a device is removed from the pool, preventing hand-me-downs and enabling the resource-intensive manufacture of a new device.
Reusable fasteners: What opens must close back up
Finding out how to get in and making the fix are important, but it’s all moot if you can’t get the thing closed back up. Just as completing a 20-parsec run in 12 parsecs only works for Han Solo: a new battery is great, but you gotta be able to use the screen, too. To seal the deal (literally) the best way is to use fasteners—things that hold your tech closed—that go back in the way they came out. That means no glues, ixnay on the plastic clips, and hip hip hooray for good old fashioned screws.
Our first and stickiest nemesis: glue. Adhesives run the gamut from extremely-awful-and-permanent epoxy, to tolerably-helpful stretch-release strips, but they never go back quite the same way. For reference: Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is on the epoxy-awful-sticky end, and iPhones and HP are at the stretch release end.
Any glue you need to peel up will need to be replaced, and most of them will leave stubborn residue behind that needs to be cleaned up. That means a) you’re going to spend a lot of time trying to get it right, but b) you’re never going to get quite the same seal as before, you’re not a robot after all. Our favorite honorarily-reusable adhesive is the stretch-release pull-tab. They usually come out clean, and are generally easy to apply, but they are prone to breaking as they age. Adhesives serve valuable purposes, so it’s worth replacing them. That said, it shouldn’t be excruciating to repair around those adhesives—and manufacturers have alternatives.
In some cases, plastic clips are a great reusable fastener. Clips make it easier to get in, don’t require cleanup, and usually go back together pretty well. But plastic, more than most materials, is subject to the perils of the environment and our old nemesis entropy. Plastic gets brittle, especially around heat, and the more you bend it, the more likely it is to break. Those of you with PC laptops may already know this burden. While opening can be a snap, it can also snap those little pegs off. And unlike strips of glue, you can’t just reapply a clip. Luckily they almost always come in series, and a stripped clip will be supported by its neighbors.
Lastly, screws. If you couldn’t tell by our logo, we’re fond of the standard, every-junk-drawer-has-one screwdriver, and its counterpart the simple screw. Screws are designed to be installed and removed almost infinitely, and can get so small that you’d think they’d be in everything. The Surface Pro 2 certainly agrees with us.
That said, they do have limitations, screws can get stripped (shredding the top which prevents removal), they require a certain geometry of design (need a threaded hole, and a collar to grab on to), and since they can be unscrewed they can well, be unscrewed (think speaker vibrations). While threadlocker and clever engineering can solve most of these shortcomings, size, and the strength of adhesive often wins out over these stalwart soldiers. Worth noting that specialized drive types like pentalobes and tri-point screws almost negate the accessibility of screws—manufacturers often use these to keep people out—but where there’s a will there’s a way to remove screws. Repair finds a way.
The Worst Three Product Design Fails
Careless Internal Design
Our ultimate pet peeve is the disrespect of the battery and screen. In a portable device—which let’s be honest most consumer electronics are these days—screen and battery are the most common repair. Screens break, and even if you keep your tech in a hermetically sealed box the battery will wear out. Not to beat a dead lithium-ion cell, but it’s worth repeating: Batteries are Consumable.
If you’re a hardware engineer, you know that a battery should be immediately accessible, and you should have plans for screen failure and replacement, too. And if we open up your tech and find sixty layers of cables and tertiary components burying these critical pieces—and providing opportunities for collateral damage… You can probably feel our piercing glares right about now.
We know there are loads of considerations in designing tech. You need your wireless charging coil and antennas accessible, you need buttons and screen hardware here or there, but we also know that batteries used to be removable with a fingernail. And we know that, despite our gripes, the iPhone is actually designed with these principles in mind: The battery comes out first and quickly, albeit with more a thumbnail. So this stuff is possible. The bar is not that high.
Marketing Rugged, Making Frail
The fact of the matter is, those engineers may well know batteries will wear out, but they’re looking to hit a 2- or maybe 3-year lifespan, so it doesn’t matter. They’re looking to meet the marketing requirements. And they’re gonna test it all in a lab. They’re not designing for sticky toddler fingers, or sandy pockets. They’re not designing for the second, third, or fourth owners. In short, they’re not designing for the real world. You only have to look at the foldable market to see that on display.
Planned obsolescence is a complicated concept. Is Apple really counting down the minutes until your phone shuts down and they sell you a new one? No, not literally. But they are sealing in a battery that will age rapidly after a couple years. And they are selling complex tech with a laundry list of care instructions, while bragging about fall protection, water-proofing, and (famously) motorcycle-proofing, which is simply not true.
And the final double-edged sword: combined parts. When the world began to move away from separate to fused glass-and-digitizer screens, we did some pretty serious complaining. The cost of any screen repair skyrocketed. But it turned out that it was the way of the future and we just had to live with it. It obviously made for better screens, and in some cases, actually made for easier repairs—after all you’re removing one part instead of two to three. Similarly tech has advanced such that soldered RAM is pretty darn fast but, bye-bye upgrades. We worry that soldered storage and CPUs are a privacy and longevity nightmare, but in some battles, we’re willing to wait and see what happens.
Other times you solder a battery, a button cable, the charging port, and a headphone jack to a main board. And like, it’s not hard to see that’s just being cheap and lazy. If your headlight goes out, you should be able to replace it on its own—or better yet, swap the bulb—in no universe should you have to replace your windshield and front tires along with that headlight. Similarly, if your ‘R’ key goes out, you should be able to replace the keyboard—or better yet, the switch itself)—and not have to buy an entire battery and top case with it.
The bar for repairable devices is painfully low. We’re looking for six things:
- Consideration for real-world usage
- Prioritized construction
- Reusable fasteners
- Spare part availability
- Free, open access to repair manuals
And these have all been done before, and as the right to repair becomes law of the land, doing them will become legally required. So, manufacturers: It’s not only the right thing to do, it’ll actually save money, and improve sales.
And fellow consumers, as you watch flashy tech releases and start thinking about your holiday wish lists, run the tech through your own inner iFixit engineer: Would we want to repair it? Will it last? Do you want to reward the manufacturer for their forward-thinkingness? Or let them know you’re no sucker?
And hey, if you really want that new camera—those of you with a baby on the way I’m just gonna give you blanket permission to buy one—try to pick the lesser evil, and when it comes time for a new battery, we’ll be here, even if the manufacturer isn’t.