Apple Is Still Ignoring One of the Biggest iPhone Engineering Flaws of All Time
Thousands upon thousands of iPhone 6 Pluses are spontaneously breaking under normal use and are being replaced with devices that have the same design flaw.
The grey bars at the top of the phone signify it has 'touch disease.' Image: Trent Dennison
As Apple is preparing to ship its brand new iPhone, the company continues to ignore one of the worst hardware defects to ever plague its smartphone line. Just two years after it was released, the touchscreens of thousands upon thousands of iPhone 6 Pluses are completely losing their functionality under normal use, which experts say is the long-term effect of the engineering flaw that gave us "bendgate."
By most accounts, dead touchscreens have become an iPhone 6 Plus epidemic, and yet the company has not commented on it, leaving consumers uninformed and harming independent repair businesses. In many cases, Apple has charged hundreds of dollars to replace a broken phone with a refurbished one that is subject to the same engineering defect that caused the phone to break in the first place.
On the logic board of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, there are two tiny chips called "Touch IC" chips that translate your finger presses into machine-readable information. The thing is, these chips are located in a part of the iPhone 6 Plus that is particularly susceptible to bending and flexing, which is a known issue of the phone. The phone flexes ever-so-slightly thousands of times over the course of normal usage: as you pull it into and out of your pocket, or sit on it, or drop it. Eventually, all those-micro flexes add up, and the solder that holds the chips to the logic board comes loose, leading to a condition that the repair industry is calling "touch disease."
There are many different severities of touch disease, but its most common tell is a series of grey bars on the top of the iPhone's screen that is accompanied by intermittent touch screen responses. Some users report having to apply force to certain parts of their phone to temporarily reestablish touch functionality; others report having touch functionality on certain parts of their phone but not others; in many cases, the phone is completely unusable and unresponsive to touch. Replacing the screen itself is not a remedy, because the Touch IC chips are on the logic board of the phone.
Because the iPhone 6 does not flex nearly as much as the iPhone 6 Plus, Touch IC problems are rare (but not unheard of) in the smaller phone. For the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, Apple moved the physical location of the Touch IC chips off of the logic board and onto the underside of the screen display itself, which is why 3D Touch is possible on those phones.
"It's absolutely a problem in the design. End users are not doing anything to cause this besides using the phone normally," Mark Shaffer of independent repair company iPad Rehab told me. "Really all you can do is avoid any activity that would cause the phone to flex. Don't drop it, definitely don't put it in any case that requires you to apply force to the phone to get it into and out of the case. Don't put it in your back pocket, don't put it in your front pocket if it's a tight pocket. Actually, don't put it in any pocket."
That "touch disease" is happening is no secret. Independent repair experts I've spoken to say that they've seen the issue in iPhone 6 Pluses since soon after launch, but are seeing a major surge in the number of phones that have the issue as the warranties on the iPhone 6 expire and as the Touch IC connectors wear out with age.
"I feel like most of my job now is just replacing Touch ICs," Shaffer said. "We really started doing them in November after the phones came off warranty and it's increased from a handful every month to now, we're seeing daily anywhere from five to 15."
Moe Muscati, general manager of New York City's The Phone Works & Co., told me that in the last few months the number of phones he's seen with this problem have skyrocketed.
"Let's say you have 10 iPhone 6 Pluses," he said. "About five out of 10 that come in here have this problem."
Jessa Jones, who started iPad Rehab, said on a webinar dedicated to the issue that it's "the single biggest defect we've ever seen," adding that even phones that have been placed in heavy-duty Otterbox cases are beginning to have the issue.
"It kind of went from 'Hey we're seeing a lot of these' to 'Hey, we're seeing nothing but these," she said. "I don't have the data to need to say how prevalent this is across all phones, but we're seeing this repair more than any other repair. We used to see it only with phones that got dropped, because that seems to exacerbate the problem. But now we're seeing phones that have been Otterboxed from the beginning starting to get them."
No one has been able to nail down the actual number of phones that have this problem, but an Apple Insider report that cites anonymous Genius Bar employees at four large Apple Stores found that 11 percent of all iPhone-related service issues at those stores were related to Touch IC problems, and Touch IC issues made up about a third of all iPhone 6 Plus-related problems at those stores. AppleInsider and others have reported that Apple is well aware of the issue and Genius Bars even reportedly have a codename for the problem.
The Apple support forums are filled with "iPhone 6 Plus intermittent unresponsive screens," and still the company has said nothing. Apple did not respond to my repeated requests for comment.
If you work for Apple and have information relating to iPhone 6 Plus touchscreen problems, please email me: email@example.com or use our SecureDrop. My PGP key is here and I am available on OTR as well.
"Notwithstanding its longstanding knowledge of this design defect, Apple routinely has refused to repair the iPhones without charge when the defect manifests," the lawsuit reads. "Many other iPhone owners have communicated with Apple's employees and agents to request that Apple remedy and/or address the Touchscreen Defect and/or resultant damage at no expense. Apple has failed and/or refused to do so."
Richard McCune, a partner at McCuneWright who is heading up the lawsuit, told me that since he's filed it, more than 6,500 people have contacted his firm saying that their phones have been affected.
That Apple has been sued does not prevent the company from commenting on the issue and it doesn't prevent the company from offering a solution or at least letting customers know what to do if their touchscreen suddenly stops working. Earlier this year, for instance, Apple was sued about "Error 53," an iOS feature that bricked iPhones that had their TouchID sensors replaced. While that case was still ongoing, Apple pushed a software update that fixed the issue.
"I suspect they haven't said anything about it because they don't have a fix for it, so they don't admit there's a problem, that they have tens of thousands of phones out there they have to do something about," McCune said. "The thing I'm really surprised at is that as much as Apple has worked on its brand image with customers, that it would allow this significant, widespread problem to be going on and not say a word."
Not only is Apple ignoring the issue, people who have posted about the underlying problem on the support forums say that Apple has been censoring discussion by deleting or editing their comments.
With the vast majority of iPhone 6 Pluses out of warranty at this point, if you take an iPhone 6 Plus with touchscreen problems to the Apple Store, Apple will charge between $100 and $329 to replace the phone, according to McCune's survey of customers, which also jives with Apple Insider's reporting and my own.
But Apple's big problem is that the only way to reliably fix Touch IC issues is to remove the tiny chips themselves and replace them with new ones. This requires a microscope (to fix the problem properly you must be accurate to a millimeter level), a steady hand, and some serious microsoldering skills that are rare even in the repair industry. A handful of repair people like Jones and Shaffer have been inundated with requests to repair touch diseased phones, and we've been able to piece together the mechanism of the phone's failure and Apple's repair protocols because of their analysis.
"People are coming in with a cracked screen and they're replacing it, but the phones still don't work, and independent shops are just absorbing the costs of that."
Some repair people who perform the fix told me they believe that Apple just recycles phones that have broken Touch IC chips and doesn't bother to repair them. Others have said they've found leftover solder flux on logic boards that have touch disease, suggesting that Apple has refurbished them.
"They have no incentive to repair anything or to offer us any help. Why invest in this complicated repair when they can throw it in the garbage and give you a brand new one?" Thomas Heffernan of Burlington, Vermont's Wires Computing, who repairs Touch IC issues, told me. "Either way, they're selling a new phone to somebody, whether it's your insurance company or it's you."
In practice, Apple is not ever repairing and returning your phone, and so the service Apple offers is not a repair one but a replacement one, meaning that if you take your phone into the Apple Store with a problem, chances are you'll pay between $100 and $329 for a refurbished replacement phone.
The problem with refurbished iPhone 6 Pluses is that Apple is replacing one phone with an inherent design flaw with another phone that both has that same design flaw and has old parts from a phone that was broken and has been repaired. Most people probably know that a getting a refurbished phone is not exactly like getting a new phone, but by refusing to acknowledge that the Touch IC problem is in the actual engineering of the phone itself and not in how people are using the phones, Apple isn't really giving consumers the full story.
To ensure the phones don't break again, iPadRehab has taken to soldering an extra heat shield above the chips that allows the logic board to flex more without unseating the Touch IC chips, which so far has seemed to be the only reliable long-term fix to the issue.
"As time goes on more and more devices that I see are Apple refurbished"
Repair experts I spoke with say that they are increasingly seeing touch disease on Apple-designated replacement phones. They say they often see refurbished phones with bent or warped logic boards that have clearly been recycled from other damaged phones and are thus more susceptible to touch disease. Apple offers a much reduced 90-day warranty on refurbished products, meaning there's really no guarantee that the $329 refurbished replacement phone will last much longer than three months. In a Facebook post, Ben Duffy of Australia's Geelong MicroSoldering, which repairs Touch IC issues, wrote he had "personally encountered replacement devices issued by Apple ... that not only have the same issue, but have been recycled from very clearly bent devices (the board inside the device is bent, however the device is not)."
The Apple support thread on this issue is 76 pages long and is full of people who have found themselves with Touch IC issues more than once.
"The uncool thing Apple is doing is knowingly giving someone a refurbished phone for $329, knowing that phone has a board in it that came from another phone," Jones said.
Shaffer told me that Apple-refurbished phones are getting touch disease and are making their way to his microscope.
"There are some telltale signs we know to look for to tell if it's a refurbished phone. They put a little blue mark near the top of the board, and there's this glue near the CPU shield that isn't on any other phones," Shaffer said. "When we look up the model number, there are codes that signify it's a refurbished or replacement device. I did seven last night and three were refurbished."
Duffy told me in an email that he "sees Apple refurbished devices daily."
"There is definitely evidence Apple have someone repairing [touch diseased] devices as they don't even make an effort to clean the flux any more," he said. "As time goes on more and more devices that I see are Apple refurbished. In the case of the 6 Plus, many of them have warped or bent motherboards, and in many cases the issues they have are directly related to the repair that has been previously performed."
"I think Apple need to make it clear that when you get a 'replacement device' that it is not equal to a new device, and was returned by another customer with issues like Touch IC," he added. "There is a common belief that consumers are better off taking a device to Apple for replacement as they are then getting a 'new' device. Not only is that not true, but Apple don't explain this to people. What they do do, on the support forums and in store, is tell people that independent repair is a bad move. The reality is that in most cases, you are better having your device repaired by an independent technician as they will disclose what they are doing to repair an issue."
The Toll on Independent Repair
Apple's silence isn't just hurting consumers. While people who can actually repair a logic board are seeing a huge bump in their businesses, those who traffic in run-of-the-mill screen replacements and the like are facing an entirely different issue. Because dropping a phone can trigger a Touch IC problem, there are lots of phones that have both cracked screen and touch disease.
"People bring in the phone with a cracked screen expecting a simple cheap repair," Heffernan said. "Then you tell them it's probably a motherboard issue and they don't believe you. They say 'Is it something you did?' 'Did you break my phone?'"
This is a story I heard over and over again. Without official Apple acknowledgment of the issue, independent repair shops either have to get very good at explaining to customers that they might be screwed or have to be very selective about what phones they will take. Muscati of Phone Works & Co—which does not have the ability to do Touch IC repairs—says before his shop became aware of widespread Touch IC problems, he would replace customers' phones thinking that his techs had broken them.
"It's unquestionably has hurt us a lot because we want to do good customer service, and we were worried that a customer would think it was our fault and sue us," he said. "A lot of times we will refuse to do any repair on an iPhone 6 Plus because of how often we see the problem."
I called up Dan Rivoire, director of iFixit Pro, which sells wholesale parts to repair professionals around the country, to see if Muscati's story sounded plausible.
"I had the same conversation with three shops over the last week," Rivoire said. "People are coming in with a cracked screen and they're replacing it, but the phones still don't work, and shops are just absorbing the costs of that. The shops that know about this problem are doing their best to mitigate the problem of angry customers by explaining up front that they may not be able to fix it."
Apple has a long history of making life difficult for repair people who are unaffiliated with Apple, but the company has also never faced an iPhone hardware issue that Jones calls a "classic, signature failure."
Repairing these phones en masse or issuing a recall is probably not possible or likely at this point, but Jones, iFixit, and others are calling for Apple to extend the warranty on refurbished iPhone 6 Pluses. At the very least, they say, Apple needs to acknowledge the engineering flaw and tell customers that refurbished phones may be susceptible to this problem.
So far, the story of the iPhone 6 Plus touch disease has been one that's been pieced together by consumers, unaffiliated repair professionals, and vague statements by anonymous employees at Apple Stores. I asked Apple for comment on this story twice, and emailed a separate Apple contact I have, who works in a separate branch of Apple's PR team. He told me he had forwarded the email to the appropriate person. Apple did not respond to my questions.
It would be useful to know how often the company is seeing this issue, what the standard protocol is for customers who bring touch diseased phones to Apple Stores, whether Apple actually does Touch IC repairs itself, and whether it plans on offering an extended warranty, discounted upgrades, or any other fixes to people whose phones have suddenly stopped working.
In any case, Apple will have to respond to McCune's lawsuit at some point, likely before the end of the month. Apple cannot ignore this problem forever.