The author, opening an iPhone. Image: Motherboard

Open Your Electronics

The insides of your iPhone are not as fragile or as mysterious as they seem.

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Nov 29 2015, 3:00pm

The author, opening an iPhone. Image: Motherboard

Is the fan on your laptop loud? Is your desktop computer running slow? Do you have an old phone you don't use because the headphone jack is busted or the screen is broken? Our electronics aren't as fragile or as mysterious as we've been told—Open them up. Take a screwdriver, and open them up. Just try it.

Earlier this week, we ran a feature about my trip to the Electronics Reuse Convention, where I met with electronics repair professionals and the folks at iFixit, who help give the gadgets we use every day a second life.

As our electronics get smaller, more powerful, and more expensive, there's a tendency to assume that if something breaks, we're probably not qualified to fix it ourselves.

It's true that there are some devices that are exceedingly difficult to repair and there are some specific repairs that should not be attempted by novices. And not every repair is worth doing, from a time, effort, and monetary standpoint. But you'll never know if you don't try.

Image: Motherboard

And so this weekend, or next, or some day when you're hungover or bored or it's raining or snowing or you just feel like learning something or doing something with your hands, open up one of your old electronics. What you see in there will probably surprise you.

"The first time you open an electronic, it stops being a magical black box and you see it's just a bunch of things plugged together," Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, which provides free online repair manuals and sells electronic replacement parts and tools, told me.

Wiens is right. A couple years ago, an old girlfriend's laptop was running hot and randomly shutting off. I suspected she probably needed a new fan. At the time, money was tight, so taking it to a professional wasn't an option. I headed over to Radio Shack (remember those?), bought a set of tiny screwdrivers for a couple bucks, took a deep breath, and opened the thing up.

The inside was absolutely caked in dust, but it was recognizable. There was a fan, a motherboard, a bunch of ribbon cables, some screws, some RAM, a hard drive. There are wires and chips and transistors and some other electronics-y stuff in there. Frankly, it doesn't even matter if you know what the components are or what they're called—every component in most electronics is really just a LEGO brick connected via a wire or plug-in connection to another LEGO brick in a logical way, and if you can probably make an educated guess about what does what.

A bottle of canned air later, her laptop was running good as new.

Image: Motherboard

That experience was a revelation. I couldn't really put the feeling into words at the time, but Matthew Crawford, who quit his job at a think tank to work as a motorcycle repairman, captured it, more or less, in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft:

"The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy," he wrote. "They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on."

The screen is no longer broken, the laptop does not shut off anymore, the inside of the computer is no longer a mystery, and so on. A phone with a screen that is replaced by a novice should not run any different than one replaced by a professional, even if the whole endeavor is a struggle for you.

"A plumber isn't any better at plumbing than I am, he's just faster and more consistent," Wiens said.

Since the first time I've fixed a computer, I've taken every opportunity possible to open up my friends' or my broken electronics. I learned very quickly that as long as you aren't reckless or careless, you're probably not going to break it any worse than it's already broken.

This the inside of an iPhone:

Image: iFixit

You'll notice it's just a bunch of modules that can be unscrewed, unplugged, and replaced. Every single thing in there is just some hard metal or plastic thing attached to some other hard metal or plastic thing with some wires or a screw or maybe some glue. As much as Apple and other manufacturers want to pretend they've created proprietary technology, many of the components have been commoditized and can be created by any ol' electronics factory in China (that's why the counterfeit market thrives).

These commoditized components are not even all that fragile. With a few exceptions (the iPhone 5S's flimsy home screen connector being one of them), you are probably not going to break anything unless you are being reckless. If you're not applying at least a modicum of force, or prying, or bending some wires to fit back into place, you're probably doing it wrong. Improvising and forcing wires back into place and getting frustrated with tiny screws is half the fun.

So find something that's old or kind of broken or not running well and open it up. Buy the proprietary screwdriver if you have to. (Isn't it crazy that we'll spend hundreds of dollars on a new gadget but won't spend 10 bucks to potentially extend the life of that device by perhaps many months?) Go to iFixit or YouTube to find people who have done it before. Follow their instructions. Be careful. Be methodical. Try to use the right tools, but if you don't have them, find some tweezers or a paperclip or a box cutter and improvise a bit. Again, be careful. Use a paper towel or shot glasses to keep track of what screws go where. Open it up and clean it out and replace whatever is not working. Then turn it back on, and know that you just fixed something. If it doesn't work, well, it was already broken anyway. Just trying will increase your sense of self worth, I promise.

Take it apart because it's broken. Take it apart because it's yours. Take it apart because the manufacturers don't want you to. Take it apart because you can.