Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority
Samsung and Google grabbed headlines last week after announcing they would follow Apple’s lead with their own self-repair programs and sell smartphone components directly to end users. Even better, the two companies have partnered with I fix it — a reputable source of repair guides and spare parts for smartphones. While this may seem like a victory for the right to repair movement, the sad reality is that these programs are not as user-centric as they appear on the surface.
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Replace, not repair: a mistaken and costly strategy
Ease of access to a device’s key components, especially those prone to failure like the charging port or battery, is one of the most important aspects of repairability. However, many modern electronic devices are simply not designed to be easily repairable.
Example: Most Samsung smartphones, including the Galaxy S22 series, come with batteries glued to the display case. While not an uncommon practice per se, pretty much every other smartphone maker includes a tab or two for easy removal.
Without tabs, however, safely removing your smartphone battery requires copious amounts of isopropyl alcohol to soften the adhesive. Lithium-ion batteries don’t respond well to physical stress (think back to the Galaxy Note 7 debacle), so it can be extremely dangerous to extract one carelessly.
Samsung sells replacement batteries combined with screens, which leads to higher repair costs and additional e-waste.
Samsung may realize that it cannot safely expect all of its users to replace the battery. So what did the company decide to do? Does not sell replacement batteries under its self-repair program. Instead, you can buy a complete display assembly with a glued-in battery. Needless to say, this hugely inflates the cost of repair, especially on flagship models with high-end screens. Many users would rather buy a new device than pay hundreds of dollars to replace a fully functional screen.
It’s not just Samsung that makes devices with limited repair options. Every MacBook in recent memory has used rivets to secure the keyboard to the bottom chassis. Most other laptops use screws instead. In practice, replacing a MacBook keyboard is nearly impossible – requiring either unreasonable amounts of brute force (pictured above) or painstaking hammering to remove each individual rivet.
Replacing a MacBook’s keyboard takes so much time and effort that even Apple won’t do it. The company’s repair policy is to simply replace the entire bottom half of the laptop, which also includes an all-new trackpad and a stuck battery. If your MacBook is out of warranty, replacing the top case can cost you hundreds of dollars, maybe even more than the value of the device. The same will likely be true for parts sold under the next self-repair program.
Despite all the durability claims, the fact is that we are still dealing with deliberate anti-repair design choices.
Despite all the durability claims we’ve heard from manufacturers over the years, the fact is that we’re still faced with deliberate anti-repair design choices. And as you’d expect, the practice extends far beyond the two examples or even the companies listed here.
Read more: Should we tolerate devices that are difficult to repair?
Serialized hardware and software locks
Rita El Khoury / Android Authority
Serialized hardware is another worrying trend that self-healing programs are unlikely to affect much, if at all. In a nutshell, serialization refers to the practice of putting together displays, batteries, cameras, motherboards, and other components from the factory. In many cases, only authorized repair centers have the ability to pair new hardware to devices, essentially preventing users from swapping in their own spare parts.
The practice of component serialization greatly restricts who can and cannot repair a device.
Although user security is often cited as a common reason for serialization, it has always been a rather weak argument. Fortunately, public backlash has forced companies to disable soft locks repeatedly, even as recently as last year. That said, manufacturers might as well reinstate them since the hardware already exists in every device.
While serialized hardware doesn’t seem like a big deal, keep in mind that many repairs involve using donor devices rather than brand new spares. After all, many discarded devices still have fully functional batteries, charging ports, and motherboards that can be salvaged for future repairs. This type of repair can be both economical and environmentally friendly. However, this is obviously not possible if each component is locked to a specific device.
A self-repair program will require manufacturers to release their proprietary pairing software to the general public. The Pixel 6 already has such a system for calibrating the fingerprint sensor, but it didn’t work for months That much. Moreover, nothing prevents other manufacturers from imposing restrictions while technically allowing a few selected users to carry out repairs.
Google’s fingerprint sensor calibration tool for the Pixel 6 has been broken for months. Thus, access to replacement hardware alone does not guarantee a fix.
For example, access to the software tool could be locked out unless the customer proves that they have obtained a replacement part from an approved source. In fact, it is already happening right now. According to I fix itApple Authorized Technicians use a cloud-based program to verify and synchronize service part serial numbers with Apple servers.
It is worth considering how artificial this practice is. If your car needs fixing, you usually don’t have to think about buying a “genuine” part, or using proprietary web-connected software just to pair a new battery or set of tires to your vehicle. There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t keep our personal electronics at the same level.
See also: Android phones should have a private repair mode
Self-repair for some, but not for everyone
Dhruv Bhutani / Android Authority
Even if you’re willing to put up with all of the aforementioned hurdles, none of the self-healing programs we’ve seen so far seem particularly comprehensive.
Apple’s program will include 200 parts for the iPhone 12 and 13 series. But what if you have an older device or the iPhone SE? From what we know so far, you won’t get access to the parts until much later. The company has only offered a vague commitment to expand the program’s reach to the Mac and other products, but no one knows when that will happen. And even though almost six months have passed since the initial announcement, you still can’t buy anything right now.
Our opinion: Apple’s self-repair program sets the bar for Android OEMs
Samsung’s program is somehow even more restrictive. The company will initially only sell parts for the Galaxy S20, S21, and Tab S7 families of devices. It’s not a very long list, especially since Samsung releases dozens of smartphones and tablets every year.
Google appears to be doing a bit better than the two companies in this regard, committing to parts and support dating back to the Pixel 2 series from 2017. However, it’s unclear whether this commitment extends or no to mid-range devices like the Pixel 5a. .
It is unclear why these programs support so few devices and are only available in a few markets.
Availability is another potential issue. Google said it will make spare parts available in most Western markets. Apple’s self-repair program, however, will initially only launch in the United States. And while Samsung didn’t specify availability, its Press release also hints at a similar North American focus.
It is unclear why these programs support so few devices and are not available in more regions. While some will blame logistical hurdles or supply constraints, manufacturers already have parts on hand not only to assemble new devices, but also to service existing ones at official repair centers around the world. Also, iFixit already has a distribution channel for replacement parts and tools, so it’s not something brands need to create from scratch.
Related: Here’s Why We’re Seeing All These Self-Repair Phone Services
Does self-repair contribute to the right to repair movement?
Eric Zeman / Android Authority
While everything we’ve discussed so far points to a dire future for the electronics repair industry, there may be a silver lining to this whole situation.
After years of apathy, the tech giants have finally succumbed to pressure from the right to repair movement. Regulators around the world are also considering legal intervention and could end up forcing manufacturers to abandon anti-repair practices like bonded batteries. The European Parliament, for its part, has recently vote in favor of banning non-replaceable batteries. The move could force Samsung and other smartphone makers to finally redesign their products and embrace true repairability.
What do you think of self-repair programs from Google, Samsung and Apple?