This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of WiFi HiFi Magazine.
They're popping up everywhere. Little shops in strip or shopping malls that promise to save your smartphone from becoming a doorstop after you've dropped it for the umpteenth time, or following an accidental spill.
Device repair shops like Fixt, UBreakiFix, Fonelab, and Mobike Klinik, employ "doctors" for your digital tech, who can seemingly breathe new life into an expensive smartphone suffering from every kind of ailment: not just cracked screens and water damage, but even dead batteries, defective charging ports, and more. Many offer not only repair services, but also services like data recovery. And most also sell accessories. There's no better time to upsell a customer on a protective case or screen protector, after all, then after having just replaced a busted screen.
In most cases, an appointment isn't needed. Walk in, plop your device down, and explain what has caused the panic. Basic fixes can be completed in under an hour. Cost depends on the quality of parts you choose, reputation of provider, and type of device. But it can range anywhere from $30 for a new battery, to $450 for an authentic Apple screen for a new iPhone X.
Smartphone repair shops aren't new. But now that customers are paying $1,000+ off-contract prices for premium devices, and we're using our smartphones more than ever, they are seeing a surge. Business Insider reports that 45% of smartphones owners will, at one time or another, accidentally damage their devices. Thirty-eight per cent will drop them, 28% will drop them into liquid, and 8% will spill something on their device. Unlike other tech devices that we'd rather replace than repair once broken, smartphones are expensive, and we simply can't live without them for even a day. Which means if something is wrong, customers are not only willing to pay to fix it, but they'll want it done immediately.
Extended warranties like AppleCare+ offer some peace of mind. But fixes aren't immediate. And the warranties don't cover everything that could potentially go wrong, and only apply to newly-purchased devices.
During a visit to San Diego, CA for a trade show, we spotted a mobile phone repair van parked on the street beside a restaurant, pulling up to help a customer with a phone repair emergency. It seems silly, but the idea makes total sense. Imagine being at a conference in a different country or province, and your phone breaks. Can you wait until you get back home to fix it?
Where do you take your phone? That dark, dank basement where a man calling himself the iPhone Doctor promises to fix your phone in 10 minutes sounds tempting, as does that kiosk in the mall offering unbeatable pricing. But as with any industry, it's buyer beware.
Alongside a dark underbelly to the world of mobile device repairs are trusted service providers. We spoke with a few of them, who offered advice, and peeled back the layers to help us understand how the smartphone repair industry really works.
The Most Common Smartphone Repairs
First, why are customers visiting? If something happens that isn't covered by a warranty (e.g. you spilled coffee on it), or your phone is out of its warranty period, you'll need to contact the store where you bought it, manufacturer, or visit a third-party repair shop. Not surprisingly, the most common types of smartphone repairs are cracked screens and water damage.
Darren Lindwall, Owner of Vancouver-based BK Phone Repair, says 90% of his business is in fixing screens and batteries.
"I get tons of calls every day just asking ‘how much?'" he says. And I have to explain to them that there are different qualities of parts. Real parts, he says, are usually three times more expensive than a copy. With the iPhone 8, for example, the authentic screen is about $100, while the fake one is $30.
Pricing, overall, has gone up for fixes of the latest premium devices, which are thinner, and generally more difficult to open up because they use adhesives that require special tools to avoid damaging them, says Youssef Botros, National Training Manager for Mobile Klinik, which operates 32 mobile repair shops across Canada.
For more complex issues, Mobile Klinik offers a free diagnosis to determine what's wrong with the device before pricing out a fix. They, like many other repair shops, can also provide a purchase price for buying the device if the customer doesn't want to have it fixed. "There's a pretty big market for buying phones," says Botros.
Most authentic smartphone replacement screens range from $100-$200, though it can be much higher for new devices.
Generic screens, however, aren't all bad. Budget-conscious customers, those fixing a phone to re-sell or hand down to a teenager, or who break their screens frequently, might be OK with something that isn't authentic. But it's important to understand that there are different versions of generic, from crappy to Grade A premium. Knowing what you're getting is partially about asking for transparency as well a customer's trust in the repair shop, and the shop's trust in its provider. Sometimes, says Lindwall, a generic screen might not fit right, or it's a millimetre higher than the old screen. "Every week," he adds, however, "they seem to get better."
Check the screen after installation by running your fingers around the edges of where the screen meets the housing of the phone. Check pressure by tapping and pushing icons and the Home button, and plug it in to verify the charging port works.
Really bad fake screens, says Lindwall, can trigger random typing, or even cause your phone not to work at all. He's seen a fake screen cause an iPhone to repeatedly select different keys when the passcode lock was on, permanently locking the user out of his device.
Beyond cheap fake screens, Lindwall warns that some of those too-good-to-be-true kiosks don't put all of the parts back into the phone after doing something like replacing the screen because it takes too long. For instance, there's a cover that holds the cable inside your phone. If you drop the phone, the connector could come off if the cover isn't put back on, and you have to go back to the same shop to get it fixed. "Chances are they did it on purpose," he claims, "just to get you back in to spend another $100."
There are different levels of quality with replacement screens. On the left is a generic screen and on the right is an authentic one. While the phone with the real screen was really smashed up, the device still worked whereas the one with the fake screen began to glitch as soon as it had a small crack. Photo: BK Phone Repair
As an authorized Samsung repair shop, Lindwall only uses original Samsung parts . "That way, I know it isn't going to fail, and it wasn't built by some guy in his garage," he says. And even with Apple devices, he always encourages customers to err on the side of caution and opt for the real screen, because he's had too many bad experiences with OEM screens.
"I'd rather fix fewer phones with real parts than just offer a revolving door of crappy repairs that results in a bunch of angry customers," he says. "You get what you pay for. It's like going to a bad dentist."
Botros says it isn't just the glass screens that customers often need to replace, but also the glass backs of the latest premium phones. "It's not metal anymore like an iPhone 6S. And that breaks pretty often."
Batteries are another common replacement, and they usually cost around $50-$60.
As with a new screen, quality is critical. "I'd rather put a used battery into a MacBook then one you can buy from Amazon or China," says Lindwall. While they can look authentic, he notes, you can never be sure.
Kelsea Weber, who handles Marketing Outreach for IFixit, an open source repair group that offers DIY kits for customers to handle their own basic repairs (more on them later), says during the height of "battery-gate" with Apple, IFixit couldn't keep its battery kits on shelves. "Even though Apple was offering swaps, there was a backlog of people waiting for the repairs."
Water damage is the third main area of repair. And Lindwall has been seeing a lot of supposedly waterproof devices come in with water damage.
"They might be waterproof when you buy it and take it out of the box," he says, "but the first time you drop the phone...I have a client's phone on my desk right now who went swimming with it and swore his friend said it was waterproof."
What's more, if you are not an authorized mobile shop and you repair a device that purports to be water-resistant, says Botros, you cannot guarantee that the device is water-resistant again. "There are always those kinds of complexities."
Other types of common fixes aren't even the fault of the customer. Lindwall has seen the same recurring issues with different phones. Every iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, he claims, has a chip that will fail eventually. With the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, there's a known audio problem whereby you can hear the person on the other end of a call, but they can't hear you. "It's just a matter of time before it happens," he says. The iPhone X had a charging issue, though it has reportedly since been fixed via a software update. Botros says software issues sometimes arise, like a phone that keeps restarting, or won't power up at all. Sometimes, the phone is too expensive to work on. But in many cases, the issue can be fixed, at the expense of the customer.
Darren Lindwall, Owner of Vancouver-based BK Phone Repair works on a customer's device with his son in tow.