Product Design

iPhone 5: An Evolution in Repair

This article originally ran with TreeHugger.

The iPhone 5 is selling in droves—more than 5 million iPhones in just three days. You can tell at a glance that this iPhone is different. It is 20 percent lighter, 18 percent thinner, and—with a 4-inch display—taller than previous editions. But the changes are more than skin deep: the iPhone 5 is the most repairable iPhone we’ve ever seen.

This new, highly repairable iPhone comes just three months after Apple voluntarily withdrew from EPEAT’s green electronic standard. Their exit sparked a backlash so fierce the company was forced to issue a public apology. I run iFixit, where we are building a free repair manual for everything. At the time, we speculated that Apple backed out of EPEAT because their new flagship laptop, the MacBook Pro with Retina display, wasn’t repairable enough to meet the green standard.

Tech giants have long been charting a production path of thinner, sleeker, faster devices—and Apple is leading the charge. But as our teardown specialists dismantled these super-slim devices, they found that thin and sleek frequently came at the cost of durability and repairability.

When we started our teardown of the iPhone 5 last week, we expected more of the same trend. But Apple surprised us. Once you get past the anti-customer proprietary screws guarding the entrance, the iPhone 5 is easy to open and easy to repair. That’s not just a win for the environment or the consumer; repairable design is also a win for Apple’s bottom line.

The Evolution of the iPhone

The sixth generation of the iPhone has come a long way from the first. The original iPhone, released in 2007, looked cool but wasn’t designed to be fixed: just changing a battery required 21 steps and a soldering iron. Apple was under the gun. The iPhone was a brand new, highly-anticipated product. Designing a repairable device wasn’t even a blip on the radar yet; the designers were focusing on just making it work.

But Apple learned its lesson eventually. When both the 3G and the 3GS came out, their insides were far more accessible than the earlier models: a Phillips #00 screwdriver, a suction cup, and five minutes was all it took to replace a broken screen—a simple solution to a common problem.

Unfortunately, worn-out batteries were hard to access. So, the design changed again. The iPhone 4 and the iPhone 4S both featured a back-to-front design, so the back panel came off the phone first. The result: anyone with a pentalobe screwdriver could replace a sapped battery in a snap. But Apple essentially reversed the design problem: now the display was really difficult to get to.

It’s a tale of six on one hand, half a dozen on the other: either the battery was easy to access and the screen was hard to change, or the screen was easy to change and the battery was difficult to access. That’s the narrative we got used to. And we expected more of the same when we finally got our hands on the iPhone 5 on Wednesday. But, to our pleasant surprise, Apple changed the story all together.

A New Kind of iPhone

The inside of the iPhone 5 is full of Easter eggs for the technologically-inclined. As we tore down the iPhone 5, we immediately noticed that designers reverted to a front-to-back design. The front panel—the only element still made out of glass and susceptible to shattering—was the first thing to come off. So, when you (inevitably) drop your phone, the screen should be a really easy fix. Phew!

Inside of the iPhone 5 to check out its repairability

But here’s the amazing part: the battery was the next thing to come out. For the first time in its history, Apple managed to make a phone with both a display and a battery you can change out in less than five minutes.

And the further we delved into the phone, the more durability-minded decisions we uncovered. Close up photos of the motherboard revealed a slew of tiny, delicate chips covered with a thin layer of epoxy. That should help keep chips firmly affixed to the board when you accidentally fling your phone across the room. We also found durable metal boards anchoring down connectors and wires. The home button, which has a tendency to fail, is bracketed down and easy to replace. Even the Lightning connector, which will undergo repeated stress from plugging and unplugging, is rooted down with four screws—two more screws than holding down the iPhone 4S dock connector. That sucker’s not going anywhere.

Apple’s devoted fandom would’ve lined up around the block to get the latest generation iPhone, whether it was repairable or not. But they designed this new phone to be rugged and repairable anyway.

Repairability Is Good for Apple

At iFixit, we promote DIY repair. We think it’s important that everyone has the knowledge to repair every thing they own. Repair is a way to help fix the world, so we’re pleased as punch that Apple’s new phone is repairable.

But people often ask us, “I won’t repair my own phone, so why should repairability matter to me?” And even more people say, “Apple doesn’t need to focus on repairability. They just need to focus on making cutting-edge products that work.” This new iPhone proves that Apple can do both. And, what’s more, the new rugged design will be just as beneficial for the consumer as it will be for Apple.

Phones break. Batteries go dead. Almost 12 percent of iPhone 3GSs failed in the first year. And I’ll eat my hat if you don’t know an iPhone user who’s cracked a screen at least once. Our own internal data on replacement part sales indicates that the four most frequent repairs on the iPhone 4S were to the display assembly, the battery, the rear glass panel, and the home button. Our resident tech expert, MJ Godsey, reported that changing out a display on her iPhone 4S consistently takes her about 45 minutes.

Time is money for Apple. It’s a question of volume: the less time techs spend repairing each device, the more devices they can get through in a day. Plus, there are other costs: parts, Genius Bar labor, and dissatisfied customers. Quick repair turnaround times boost customer loyalty, which is why Apple tends to replace iPads with broken screens instead of repairing them.

Apple has learned from past design mistakes in this iteration of the iPhone. With a shatterproof back panel, an easy to replace battery, an accessible display assembly, and a modular, bracketed home button, Apple will save time and money on the four most common iPhone repair woes. A broken iPhone 5 screen can be repaired right in the store—a practice not possible for the iPhone 4 or 4S. The durable design means that customers are less prone to break their devices. An early drop test shows the iPhone 5 outperforming the Samsung Galaxy 3.

The iPhone 5’s new design seems a lot less like “designing for the dump,” and a lot more like designing for reliability—which is a step in the right direction. And where Apple leads, other tech companies tend to follow. We’d love to see more evolution toward reliability in other Apple products, like the iPad and the MacBook Pro with Retina display. After all, designing for the durability is good for the environment, the customer, and for Apple.