Apple Store employees say the company's refurbishing process is often failing to correct pervasive touchscreen problems in the iPhone 6 Plus.
Image: Omar Jordan Fawal/Flickr
Multiple Apple employees tell Motherboard that "remanufactured" iPhone 6 Pluses have unresponsive touchscreens fresh out of the box, which suggests that Apple's refurbishment process isn't correcting or catching an engineering flaw that is causing a widespread defect that's come to be known as "touch disease."
I've been reporting on the phenomenon for the last month, in which two internal chips that control the screen's touch functionality become unseated from the phone's logic board during normal phone use. The issue is the long-term symptom of "bendgate," a design flaw that allows the iPhone 6 Plus (and sometimes the iPhone 6) to flex imperceptibly during normal use.
Over time, the chips come loose, causing intermittent touchscreen functionality and eventually causing the touchscreen to fail entirely. Often, but not always, touch-diseased phones will have flickering grey bars across the top of the phone's screen. Because it's a logic board problem, it can't be fixed with a screen replacement; the only way to fix it is to resolder new chips onto the logic board.
Apple has attempted to sidestep the issue entirely—it has not admitted publicly that there's a problem, and has been charging customers up to $329 to replace their out-of-warranty touch-diseased phones with a refurbished one (released in September, 2014, most iPhone 6 and 6 Plus devices have expired warranties). A note on terminology: Internally, Apple calls these refurbished devices "remanufactured."
The big problem? Many of these refurbished phones are exhibiting symptoms of touch disease soon after they're sold, and in many cases, Apple Store employees are seeing the problem on "newly remanufactured" phones that are fresh out of the box.
"I can't even tell you how many times I have gone to replace a customer's device, and the 'New' device out of the service replacement box is already having the same flickering/flashing and multitouch issue," one Genius told me.
"I've swapped out phones and as soon as we turn on that replacement phone, that same issue is happening on the new phone"
Two other current Geniuses and two ex-Geniuses confirmed to me that this is a problem they've experienced. Some Geniuses say they see newly refurbished phones with touch disease "all the time," others said it's happened on only a handful of devices.
"I've swapped out phones and as soon as we turn on that replacement phone, that same issue is happening on the new phone," another Genius told me. "Everyone at the Genius bar knows it's an issue, the higher ups know it's an issue. Something has to be done because it's really unfair."
There's no way of knowing if or when a device is going to exhibit touch disease, but dozens of readers have told me that they have gone through up to five different iPhone 6 Pluses, which suggests that simply replacing the phone with a refurbished one doesn't mean you're automatically out of the woods. Anecdotally, refurbished phones seem to exhibit problems more quickly than new ones do, which makes sense considering that Geniuses and independent repair professionals who have worked on touch diseased phones believe Apple doesn't use brand new logic boards on its remanufactured phones.
This is a big problem, because refurbished phones come with a much-reduced 90-day warranty, compared with the standard one-year warranty that comes with new devices.
"Because this is an intermittent problem, Apple's testing processes aren't always picking this up"
The Geniuses I've spoken to explain that Apple's silence on the issue isn't just hurting customers, it's also making it much more difficult for Geniuses to do their job. If a Genius officially puts a replacement phone sale through on Apple's internal system before noticing that the replacement phone is also broken, Apple's system won't immediately allow Geniuses to swap it with a third, functioning device.
"If you put it in the [Mobile Genius point of sale system] and can't give them that shitty 6 Plus that's doing the same thing as their device they came into fix, you personally have to hand them a different one than the paperwork they signed says, and do another swap through Mobile Genius the next day," a Genius told me. The customer, of course, doesn't have to pay for a second replacement phone because it's within the 90-day warranty period, but essentially they're being given off-the-books replacement devices for at least 24 hours until the system is updated.
More pressing, customers aren't generally happy when they're asked to spend $329 to replace a phone that they didn't cause to break.
"In order for you to get a promotion or raise as a Genius, they look at customer satisfaction reviews. With this, you know a lot of times it's not going to be a good encounter. When your yearly review comes up, your manager will say, 'Well, you had a lot of negative reviews,'" a Genius told me. "And then you say 'Yeah, they had a phone that they did nothing to and we asked them to pay $329 to replace it.' It affects your career at Apple."
"Touch disease impacts pretty much every iPhone 6 Plus eventually"
Just as Samsung wishes it hadn't created a phone that is spontaneously exploding, Apple doesn't seem to want to deal with the headache that touch disease is causing it. The company is facing two class action lawsuits and as more phones fail, its reputation for making quality products with long lifespans will take a hit. So, the existence of touch disease is defensible as a mistake. But there are two things that are indefensible: The company still refuses to acknowledge publicly that this problem exists, and Apple sells the refurbished phones with shorter warranties.
"Giving out a remanufactured phone with a 90-day warranty is a challenge—touch disease impacts pretty much every iPhone 6 Plus eventually, and it seems Apple's refurbishment policy right now is not to replace those chips," Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, told me. "Because this is an intermittent problem, Apple's testing processes aren't always picking this up. They might make the device look good as new, but internally, it's got hairline cracks that will often cause the problems within a couple months."
Many of the Geniuses told me that Apple's handling of the issue has changed how they view the company.
"Don't get me wrong, I still love the company I work for, and enjoy my job," one of them told me. "But the way they are handling this issue—or rather not handling this issue and trying to sweep it under the rug—is deplorable."
Apple has ignored six requests for comment from me and has not publicly commented to other journalists who have covered the issue.