The Best Black Friday Deal: Repairing a Gadget You Already Own
Electronics repair isn't hard and it can add years of life to our gadgets.
Image: Jason Koebler
I'm getting a PlayStation 4 this Black Friday, and it's only going to cost me $25.
I actually bought it almost three years ago, but an unexpected meeting with asphalt at great speed busted the console's power supply a few months back. It's been sitting in my closet ever since. Earlier this week, I hopped on eBay and bought a used power supply for $25, replaced it last night in less than 10 minutes, and it boots right up. I'm very excited to get back to being thoroughly mediocre in Rocket League.
You might not have a broken game console, but you've likely got an old iPod or MacBook or smartphone stashed away in a drawer somewhere. This weekend, while people are fighting each other at the mall, is the perfect time to rummage through your old things and make your old stuff better than new.
We upgrade our things more often than we need to, and often our old stuff goes into the trash or a drawer, where it's inevitably forgotten. Even if you take your used electronics to a recycler, that's one of the worst fates that can befall a gadget—very few of the metals in most electronic devices are actually recoverable.
For instance: This is a pile of shredded circuit boards I saw at a top-of-the-line electronics recycling center that I recently visited. Nothing against the recycling industry, but there are better short-term fates for essentially any smartphone or computer made in the last decade.
So recycling isn't ideal, but leaving it in your drawer is worse.
There's a robust secondary market for used and refurbished electronics, even if they're totally busted (trust me, there are people out there who would be happy to buy your beyond-repairable stuff just to recover a few parts). If an old laptop is sitting in your house unused, it's depreciating in value every day. I think the economic and environmental term for this state is, "a waste."
So resolve to donate, fix, or sell your old electronics (or maybe fix them, then sell them?). Then go do it.
How to do it
Part 1 - Diagnose the problem
Contrary to the narrative that manufacturers tell us, electronics aren't usually all that complicated—at least as far as repair is concerned. Inside your device is a bunch of components that are snapped, screwed, and glued together in much the same way Lego bricks are. Fixing an electronic, then, is as simple as taking out the part that is broken and replacing it with a working one.
It's important to diagnose your problem correctly. Is the screen on your phone broken? Good, that's easy. You'll need a new screen. Are some of the keys not working on your MacBook keyboard? That's a little tougher—it's possible the keyboard ribbon has been knocked loose, or maybe the connection is screwed up. Maybe you need a new bottom case for the computer, but maybe there's liquid damage on the logic board. The good news here is that you probably know the history of the device you're dealing with—if you didn't take a shower with your computer, then chances are you can open the thing up, pop the ribbon back in, and be on your way.
Part 2 - Get tools
For just about any repair, you'll need tools. At the very least, you'll probably need screwdrivers small enough to open your device. iFixit has a Black Friday sale on its basic toolkit, which is $20 and includes screwdriver bits that can open just about everything on the market (this is important—Apple and other manufacturers use proprietary screws designed to keep you out of your electronics). If you don't want to go with iFixit, you can also find electronics screwdrivers and tools on eBay, Amazon, and, if you need something today, you can probably still score a set at RadioShack, if you can find one.
A note: If you can see yourself doing multiple repairs in, say, the next few years, I'd recommend getting slightly less necessary but incredibly useful tools like a suction cup (for pulling screens off of phones), a heating pad (for loosening glue), and/or a spudger (a little pointy plastic thing for disconnecting wires).
If you're stuck without these, you can also use things like guitar picks and credit cards for holding parts in place and prying and—if you're desperate, brave, and maybe a bit dumb—hair dryers can sometimes loosen glue before they fry circuits. Once, I used a box cutter to pull a screen off a MacBook, which I wouldn't recommend, but it did work.
Part 3 - Get parts
Once you know what's broken, you can go on eBay or Amazon or iFixit to buy a replacement part. I guess you could also go to an electronics market in Shenzhen if you're really dedicated. Do some cost-benefit analysis here: Cheap parts are often of low quality—many manufacturers would argue that they are counterfeit, I'd argue that many are just aftermarket. You usually can't go wrong with a preowned OEM part that was pulled from a broken machine—the power supply I bought for my PS4 probably came from a machine whose Blu-ray drive was busted or something.
Part 4 - Fix it
Like building a Lego set, it's not easy to fix something if you have no idea where the pieces go. iFixit has step-by-step picture instructions for thousands of specific repairs on thousands of electronics (and other stuff too, like how to sew buttons on a shirt). iFixit has been an invaluable resource for me, but often I'll get stuck, and a diagram won't do a certain action justice—it's tough to know just how hard you should be pulling on certain connectors, or in what direction, for instance.
For these tricky cases, turn to YouTube or Google, which will turn up a forum thread probably—I promise you someone has had the same problem as you before. I find that actually watching and hearing someone explain what they're doing in a video can always get me through whatever tricky thing I'm doing.
Be patient and don't get discouraged
Repair always goes in phases. You'll breeze through certain parts of the repair and think "Wow, this is easy," then will spend 20 minutes trying to get a connector to snap back into place. I don't want to advocate for the application of excessive force, but often I find I'm being too gentle with certain wires. Don't be afraid to pull a bit harder (within reason—wires can and do snap, and then you may very well be fucked).
I would recommend going into zen mode. Look at doing a repair the same way a person who's smoked weed looks at doing a puzzle or an adult coloring book—it's fun and relaxing, and there's no rush.
Repairs and upgrades to try
If you don't have anything that's broken, congrats on being a responsible person. That doesn't mean you can't have fun opening your electronics this weekend.
If you have a pre-Retina MacBook or MacBook Pro, you can open the computer and put more ram in it in roughly five minutes, which could extend its life by years. If you have a MacBook with soldered-in RAM (anything post-Retina or any MacBook Air), join me in ceaselessly whining about this decision. If you have a PC laptop, you can probably upgrade the RAM, but check online to make sure it's not soldered down first.
Replace the battery in your phone or laptop
Lithium Ion batteries have a finite number of charge cycles before their capacity starts dwindling. Replacing the battery will, at the very least, help alleviate any anxiety you feel when you're away from wall power for extended periods of time. On newer phones and laptops, this is a bit trickier because the battery is usually glued in, but with patience and a heat pack, it's not too tough.
Fix the screen of someone else's phone
At Thanksgiving dinner, round up busted phones from the nightstands and coffee table drawers of your relatives. Fix them and either sell them or give them back for Christmas. What a lovely gift.
This is probably the single best upgrade you can do to an old MacBook—an SSD will make the computer boot and run much faster, and you're probably not using the CD drive anymore.
I want to do this upgrade so, so bad. Let me know if you have an iPod Classic to donate to the cause.
What to do with your newly repaired electronics
The most obvious thing to do is to use it, of course. But chances are you've already upgraded, if we're talking about a device that's been sitting in the closet for a while. So fix it, sell it on eBay or Craigslist, and then use that money to buy your friends and family something nice. Most importantly, if you try any repairs anytime soon, let us know how it goes!