iFixit’s Most Interesting Teardown Finds of 2021

Note: The text below is based on a pre-shooting script for our video, iFixit’s Most Interesting Teardown Finds of 2021. The text may not perfectly match the dialogue in the published video.

We spent all year taking apart a ton of devices, and along the way, we spotted some wildly cool things that are usually hidden from people who only ever see the outside of their devices. Here are iFixit’s most interesting teardowns finds of 2021.

1) How Samsung Made the Z Flip 3 Water Resistant

First up, just how in the world do you make a foldable device waterproof?

The first time we tore down Samsung’s Z-Flip we subjected it to a … less than scientific dust test which it failed, spectacularly.

This year Samsung didn’t address dust resistance, but they did release not just one but two foldable devices, with IPX8 water resistance. Curious how they were able to manage this feat we dove right into teardown mode, after giving them a long soak in our fish tank.

Turns out Samsung used similar waterproofing methods we’ve found in their other devices. Adhesives are used to seal up the devices on both the front and back, which on the plus side keeps them safe from water but on the downside make them a pain to open up for repairs.

For the parts of the phone that have to get exposed to outside elements like water Samsung used some ingenious engineering to keep things dry. Rather than try to keep water all the way out, they let it get under the foldable display, but keep super tight tolerances for the communication cables underneath, with special “cured in place” gaskets that solidify when exposed to air to keep all the boards and chips below dry.

From a repair point of view, these devices are frustrating and complicated, but it’s still a fascinating solution to a foldable durability problem.

2) Pull tabs on MacBook batteries? In this economy?

Next up this was the first year in a really long time we saw Repairable MacBook Pros … (kinda)

It’s been almost 10 years since the MacBook Pro had an easily replaceable battery, but thankfully with the all-new M1 Macbook Pros, that’s exactly what we got.

After years of sticky, messy, laborious battery removal, Apple gave us the perfect gift for this holiday season: stretch-release adhesive strips! The 2021 M1 MacBook Pro comes with several easy-ish to remove adhesive strips that make battery removal relatively quick and painless. If you know where to find them.

While the 2021 M1 MacBook Pro might earn a medal from us for most improved repairability this year, it won’t win for most repairable; it still has tons of non-standard screws keeping the average consumer out and its integrated storage and memory give it a limited lifespan.

3) Liquid Retina and Jelly Scrolling

If you were looking for new and interesting display technology the 12 inch M1 iPad Pro had you covered.

This year the12-inch iPad Pro gained not only a blazing fast M1 System on Chip, but also a new Liquid Retina XDR Display powered by over ten thousand mini LEDs.

To get a closer look at just how that new mini LED technology worked, we tore down the display itself—diving through layers of glass, filters, and finally the backlight.

The Liquid Retina XDR replaces the standard display backlight with a giant grid of tiny LEDs directly underneath the screen that can be individually controlled.

This means the screen can get brighter, but also, more importantly, that the LEDs positioned where the pixels on the screen are black can be effectively “off,” greatly increasing contrast.

Not only is this screen great looking, but it’s also got a lot going on under the hood!

Just as a side note, we also found some interesting things with the iPad Pro’s smaller sibling, the iPad mini, but those findings were not all that positive. This was a highly-anticipated device that was disappointing to many people, thanks to its “jelly scrolling” display quirk.

We dug into the issue to uncover that this is actually something you can easily replicate with any LCD display—the iPad mini just had a perfect storm of factors working against it that made it easy to spot. Check out that video for the full breakdown.

4) Intriguingly designed, slightly delayed Apple Watch Series 7

Next up on our list of most interesting teardown finds is the mystery of the delayed Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch Series 7’s release date was uncharacteristically not available for about a month after the new iPhone 13, and we wanted to know why!

The design only changed slightly contrary to many of the leaks we saw throughout the year, which made us curious why it would need to come later. So what caused the delay? To find out we recruited our friend Tobias from Instrumental, a former Apple engineer and expert on supply chain issues.

After tearing down the Series 7 with us we found the main suspect for the delay was the new slightly larger display. As Tobias said:

Looking at the back of the display, the border size is typically constrained by the touch sensor flex bending around the top, and the OLED display bending around the bottom. … It looks like they’ve consolidated the touch signals (which used to be at the top) into the same flex cable down at the bottom, and also incorporated a molded plastic frame for support. … The introduction of this new technology combined with pushing the limits of the border design is likely what caused the delay in shipping.

It turns out small changes, like increasing display size, can cause really big production issues. Yet another reminder of how intricate and complex these devices are.

5) Seeing how Fairphone 4 juggled progress with repairability

With most smartphone makers turning to adhesive for waterproofing and ease of assembly, we’re always excited to see Fairphone’s take on what a modern smartphone can be when it’s designed from the ground up with repair and sustainability in mind.

That said, one of the highlights of our year was getting our hands on the brand new Fairphone 4. Seeing a phone that prioritizes repairability from a company that is committed to providing spare parts and support for 5 years is a real treat these days.

This Fairphone is extremely easy to open, has a battery and screen that are easily replaceable, and has a completely modular interior design with easily replaceable components. All of this in a form factor that’s not much bigger than an iPhone

Bonus round!

Lastly, while it wasn’t officially a teardown find, we did have a lot of fun taking apart the PS5 Dualsense controller to uncover why it—and pretty much every other joystick—eventually suffers from drift, where the joystick moves by itself.

It turns out most console companies use similar joystick modules in their controllers. These modules all rely on similar methods to obtain the position of the joystick: potentiometers measure the position of each axis with an electric circuit.

The problem is these circuits are made with mechanical components that rub against each other and will eventually begin to wear out, causing drift or other similar issues.

That’s it for this roundup! Was there a device you really wanted to watch us teardown this year that we didn’t? Let us know in the comments and we’ll add it to our list for next year.