Fix it, don’t ditch it: The troubleshooting tango over older devices


Many people strive to keep their gadgets for as long as possible, but since device failure is inevitable, the only option is to have them repaired – by an expert or you. — Image by Freepik

From cracked screens to swollen batteries, there are a myriad of hardware problems that can crop up when it comes to electronics, which can be a big challenge to deal with even for the more technically inclined.

Take, for instance, a smartphone battery replacement – in the past, it involved just popping out the old battery and slotting in a new one.

Today, an aspiring repairperson would require specialised gear like a heat gun and plastic pry tools just to gain access to the battery, not to mention that a wrong move could result in a punctured battery, creating a safety hazard.

But that doesn’t mean users should just toss out the idea of repairing their out-of-warranty devices at home.

Gone too soon

Despite the difficulty involved, smartphone repair technician Kingson Low Chun Hien says that do-it-yourself (DIY) repairs are not uncommon.

Low suggests that those keen on fixing Android devices can enroll in courses or gain experience as apprentices in repair shops. — KINGSON LOWLow suggests that those keen on fixing Android devices can enroll in courses or gain experience as apprentices in repair shops. — KINGSON LOW

“Generally speaking, the most common types of repairs that people come to us with are usually screen issues and battery problems, while water damage and severe physical damage are the most challenging to deal with.

“For water-damaged phones, some might become more difficult to repair once they rust or corrode, while physical damage may have bent the motherboard or impacted the processor, possibly making repairs impossible.

“When it comes to getting repairs done, doing it yourself is definitely more cost-effective; many people just buy phone parts online for DIY repairs.

“However, there will be some risks, such as accidentally damaging the cables during disassembly or not connecting the power, which can lead to the phone not turning on,” he says, adding that the most difficult mobile devices to repair now are foldables.

The same risks apply to newer Apple devices, according to Secondlifeasia co-founder and CEO Jerome Teh.

“The diverging point is actually at the iPhone X; anything older still has a chance that a home user would be able to open it up to do a repair safely.

“But from the iPhone X onwards, there’s a high risk of damaging the ribbon cables when you open the device.

“For modern devices, it is very tough as you have to remove the glue (used to adhere the glass screen to the back), and sometimes when you go too hard, that’s when you end up causing further damage.

“At the end of the day, users are the ones that have to foot the bill if they damage the device further. They may not have the schematics, training, or skills, so it’s kind of difficult.

Some of the most common repairs that Teh's technicians work on are screen and battery replacements, along with water damage. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The StarSome of the most common repairs that Teh's technicians work on are screen and battery replacements, along with water damage. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

“I don’t mind sharing that even my technicians have had two or three cases where we damaged customers’ screens while changing batteries. When that happens, we inform them and give them a free replacement.

“My suggestion is that if you’re going to try repairing, do it with an older device, don’t use a new device. Because if you use a new device, you may break it, and that can make any follow-up repair costs very painful,” he says.

Like Low, Teh says that the most common repairs that Secondlifeasia deals with are battery and screen replacements, along with water-damaged devices.

He further recommends that users opt for genuine parts whenever possible, though he acknowledges that there are times when it would not make sense to do so.

“There are still customers that come in saying that they do not want genuine parts – we can’t force people to go genuine all the way, but we tell them upfront what the difference is between genuine and non-genuine parts (such as reduced performance or battery life).

“Apple devices also display messages like ‘unspecified device’ or ‘unknown parts’ when they detect non-genuine components.

“But for the older generation devices before the iPhone X that still get genuine parts from Apple, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense for customers to opt for them.

Teh advises against DIY repairs on newer Apple devices due to the potential for expensive mistakes. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The StarTeh advises against DIY repairs on newer Apple devices due to the potential for expensive mistakes. — KAMARUL ARIFFIN/The Star

“For example, an iPhone 6S Plus might have a genuine battery priced at RM300, and a customer would never consider that because the device is only worth about RM400 to RM500 these days,” Teh says.

Apple has also complicated the repair process for iMacs and MacBooks with recent models.

“For legacy stuff, you can just open it yourself – watch a video online and follow a step-by-step guide on how to take it apart and add in an upgrade since they use standard computer components.

“From 2016 onwards, the components are pretty much soldered to the motherboard, so even if you were to come to a repair shop like ours for a RAM or storage upgrade, we wouldn’t recommend that you do it.

“You can do it, but the risk is high because once you burn something, the entire motherboard is gone,” he says.

Though the shop tries to repair the affected components, sometimes the only choice is to transplant a new motherboard, especially if the user wants a higher specification. This can, however, be an expensive undertaking.

“Replacing a motherboard can easily cost over RM3,000, while changing a specific component is closer to a third of that, depending on the damage.

“So it’s better to have a clear idea of what you want to do with the machine before purchasing it so that you can pick the right specs,” he says.

On the Android side of things, Low says that those who are looking to learn how to repair devices will need to put in some work.

“There are many repair courses that you can enrol in right now, or you can start off as an apprentice with a repair shop,” he says, adding that finding parts should not be an issue unless it’s for a niche brand.

Soldering on

For tech enthusiast and tinkerer Siddhattha Chong Carl Chun, a core skill to have when it comes to repairs is the ability to solder.

Chong emphasises soldering as a key skill for tackling DIY electronics repairs at home. — SIDDHATTHA CHONG CARL CHUNChong emphasises soldering as a key skill for tackling DIY electronics repairs at home. — SIDDHATTHA CHONG CARL CHUN

“Soldering skills are a must. It opens up the option to fix common and simple devices like computer mice, headphones, and even smartwatches.

“It’s a lifelong skill that can breathe new life into your old appliances that would otherwise be sent to the landfill.

“You can get spare parts and fix broken devices – usually sold dirt cheap – yourself with just a few bucks and a free afternoon. Most importantly, it saves you money.

“You’ll likely burn yourself a few times with the iron, but that’s part of the learning experience as well,” he says.

In the video game console space, Azlil Shah Shaharuddin, founder of pre-owned video game and console store Kyo’s Game Mart, is of the opinion that there are simple repairs that regular users can do by themselves.

“Controller repairs are the most common ones I get approached with and are the easiest to tackle since most of the components on a controller are easily replaceable,” he says.

The process of replacing parts on a controller usually involves removing the screws from the back, prying the front screen and back shell apart, then unscrewing and sometimes desoldering the specific part that needs to be replaced.

Azlil Shah says controller repairs are the easiest to tackle as most of the components on a controller are easily replaceable. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The StarAzlil Shah says controller repairs are the easiest to tackle as most of the components on a controller are easily replaceable. — AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Nonetheless, the procedures can differ depending on the particular controller model being fixed.

Chong further shared that the tools required for simpler repairs are not particularly pricey.

“A basic soldering kit can run you around RM50, with extra tools including a soldering wick, electrical tape, heat shrink, third hands, pliers, a screwdriver set, screws of various sizes, and a toolbox to store them costing about an extra RM100.

“This is pretty good value, considering that getting a brand-new replacement for something like a gaming mouse or keyboard could cost upwards of RM200.

“In contrast, replacing something like a broken mouse switch, for example, would cost around RM10 for the new part and take about 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how experienced you are.

“You can even replace the cables on your electronics if they’ve been damaged, which is often as simple as ordering a generic USB data cable off the Internet, desoldering the old one, and replacing it,” he says.

Chong cautions that complex repairs, such as those needed for smartphones, can be frustrating, especially due to the tiny components involved and the need for precise, specialised tools.

It becomes particularly problematic when trying to obtain the right components, as compatibility issues may arise between models released in different regions, adding an additional layer of complexity. So make sure to check the device’s model number to ensure the component is made for it.

Right to repair

Overseas, the “right to repair” movement has been steadily picking up steam over the years, with recent big wins including Apple’s endorsement of the California right to repair bill in late August.

The bill will require companies to provide both customers and repair shops with the tools, parts, and manuals needed to fix devices.

Sometimes the only choice is to transplant a new motherboard, especially if the user wants a higher specification. This can, however, be an expensive undertaking. — Image by pressfoto on FreepikSometimes the only choice is to transplant a new motherboard, especially if the user wants a higher specification. This can, however, be an expensive undertaking. — Image by pressfoto on Freepik

Since last year, Apple has extended its services to home users in the United States, offering rental options for self-service repair kits for a fee of US$49 (RM230) for out-of-warranty fixes. It is also selling parts for devices released after 2020.

However, Apple stresses that the service is intended for users “with the knowledge and experience to repair electronic devices”, meaning that it may not be an easy task for laymen.

A similar push is seen in the European Union, with efforts to remedy the complexity of smartphone repairs with a right-to-repair law coming into force in March that requires companies to provide support for repairs for up to 10 years for devices.

A separate set of rules adopted in June required all smartphones to have user-replaceable batteries by 2027.

Teh had a tepid response to the new battery requirements, believing that something would have to be traded off in exchange.

“Replaceable batteries will be tough to implement – these days consumers have gotten used to the slim form factor and optimised battery life.

“The era of replaceable batteries had chunky phones, and I don’t think that consumers will want a device like this, even if the battery can be swapped out without issue.

“Another thing is that with a replaceable battery, there goes your ingress protection (IP) rating, meaning that the water resistance will be affected. So it just doesn’t make sense to do so,” he says.

Meanwhile, Azlil Shah believes that the wider availability of parts is key to keeping older devices in service.

“The caveat with older items is that despite parts being cheap, they will also get scarce and harder to obtain over time.

“For older models that are no longer in production, some of the repairs are no longer possible due to a lack of parts,” he says, adding that easier access to components would streamline the repair process, making it more accessible to everyone.

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