On Device Repairability and User Hostile Business Practices

Published: 2023-03-08
Last Update: 2023-03-09

A couple of days ago I replaced the charging port on my Pixel 2 XL. The phone would charge okay (assuming the USB-C cable was flipped a certain way), but last Summer I could no longer get data/adb after using some questionable power outlets in Viet Nam. I spent 45+ minutes heating the screen with a hair dryer so the adhesive underneath that connected the display to the body would become hot enough that I could gently pry off. I had been meaning to do this for a while. By chance I ran into Louis Rossmann, the right to repair advocate, a few weeks ago in downtown Austin. It was a brief encounter but it finally motivated me to finally getting around to doing this.

Removing that screen was not only time consuming and frustrating, it proved to be overall fatal. I successfully replaced the USB-C charging port connector, and mostly reassembled the phone to power it on and test the connector. I discovered that 1/3rd of my screen was white, despite how gentle I had been with it's removal. The digitizer worked in that it detected my touches to that part of the screen, I just wasn't getting any image. And sadly I still wasn't able to get any data, thus leading me to believe the issue might be the board itself.

broken screen

To provide some background, I'm not a complete idiot when it comes to repairing smartphones. I'm by no means (currently) a professional, but I spent a year as a service and repair technician where I repaired smartphones. Granted, this was back in 2012 when you could remove the back panels off of phones and easily replace the batteries. In those days, it was as simple as removing the panel and unscrewing about a dozen screws to get at the internals of the device.

Now phones are really hard to repair. There is more adhesive used than screws. There's no question that they're intentionally designed to be difficult to fix. I believe that it's still possible to design an aesthetically pleasing phone that's also reasonably repairable without gluing everything together. Unfortunately they're designed to be obsolete and break within a certain amount of time.

Companies are designing phones (as well as other consumer products) to milk as much money as possible from the consumer. For example, Apple's removal of the headphone jack in the iPhone meant that you had to go buy bluetooth headphones and could no longer use the wired ones you already had. And in most cases, people are more likely going to go with the Airpods headphones, which means more revenue for Apple. Other OEMs mocked Apple for this move in their ads, but within a year it became the standard. Using regular headphones was no longer "cool".

I also remember when Google Nexus phones used to support HDMI output so you could use your phone to a TV and use it as a streaming device or even a basic game console if you had a Bluetooth controller. Following the announcement of the Google Chromecast, that functionality disappeared from Google's smartphone line. Earlier Nexus devices also supported microSD cards, but then was removed from newer models - but don't worry, Google Drive came preinstalled!

Another point I want to make, though not necessarily related to repair but more about long term support. If I don't have root access, I don't truly own my device - the OEM, the carrier, and Google has more of a claim of ownership because they're the only ones that actually have that level of access. My first rule when buying a phone is that I will never (intentionally) select a phone that has a locked bootloader. When you purchase a phone that has it's bootloader locked, you're basically being told that you are not allowed to do what you want with your device (hence the question of ownership). "We can't let consumers that outright purchased a device install software that we have not authorized."

The reality is that most smartphones released today will have support dropped within a year or two of being released. If the device manufacturer can't guarantee software and security updates, then the bootloader should be unlocked so that someone in the open source community can provide support. There's been far too many cases where an OEM released a device with a locked bootloader, pushed out a few updates, then abandoned the phone completely. This is a total dick move basically sends the message to the world "We're not going to release updates to this phone and we're making sure that nobody else can either."

My second and third rules for buying a new phone have been the requirements for a headphone jack and SD card slot. Using the phones over the past several years that lacked these features, I've realized how much I miss having them. Though wired headsets have their inherent problems, I don't have to charge them, risk having one of the earbuds fall into the toilet, or have to deal with any of the inherent bugginess of the Bluetooth protocol in general. SD cards are great because one can easily expand the storage capacity of a phone. To do that now, one needs to buy an entirely new phone that has more storage capacity.

I never really thought about it until my experience trying to fix the Pixel, but repairability has now become an important factor when purchasing a new device. How hard is it to replace the screen? Are parts available for it online? Do I need any special tools to do the repair myself?

Trying to find a phone that meets even some of these criteria can be a task of sisyphean proportion, and I can't help but think it will become more difficult over time. I recommend checking out Nate's experience with finding a phone that met his criteria, including finding a device with a reasonably sane screen size for one-handed useabilty.

Ultimately, I ended up with a used OnePlus Nord N200 that I bought off of eBay for about $100. I had originally bought it for Nguyen, but she didn't like the camera and also needed a dual sim device, which worked out perfectly because it was the same day I broke the screen on the Pixel. The N200 is considered a "low end" budget device that runs on a Snapdragon 480. Despite it's "low" specs, it has a headphone jack, and SD card slot, and an unlockable bootloader which means that I could have root access and installed LineageOS 19.1 (specifically the DE2117 variant has an unlockable bootloader, but I understand that the DE2118 carrier variant can also be unlocked with some finesse). Granted, repairability isn't very good and the display is much larger than I'd like, but what modern phone is? Parts for it are abundantly available on eBay.

I hate modern phones. Disregarding the fact they've primarily been transformed into advertising delivery systems, they're a bitch to fix. User hostile and oppressive business practice such as intentionally designing a smartphone to be difficult to repair, and locking them down in such a way that a user/owner can't install the software they want, is an issue that's only going to get worse overtime, unless there's legislation that forbids manufacturers to impose these restrictions.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to hey@chuck.is.