The Six Million Dollar Phone


This week Apple Computer unveiled the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus, the long awaited new models of the little handheld computers that changed the way people all over the world sit on the toilet.

The new phones have bigger screens than previous models, have nicer cameras, longer battery life, etcetera etcetera etcetera. But the new feature I’m most interested in is the “sapphire glass” that the new screens will be made of, as opposed to the old “gorilla glass” on my phone, which despite its tough-sounding name should have just been called “don’t drop this phone farther than 18 inches or it shatters” glass.

I have an iPhone 4. I had an iPhone 5 for a month a year and a half ago, but I seem to have dropped it somewhere in my neighborhood, having made the rare lapse of letting it out of my hand for five minutes. (Lesson learned.) Once I noticed it was missing I used the “Find My iPhone” feature on my Mac and traced it to a big old apartment building a few blocks away from my house. I called my phone from my wife’s phone and the young man who answered demanded to know what I was going to give him for it.

I offered him twenty bucks and he didn’t feel that was sufficient. I told him I had his address and could use the “Find My iPhone” feature to remotely wipe the phone and make it useless to him or anyone else he might sell it to, so why not just take the cash? He then decided the whole thing was a sting operation and that he’d be swarmed by cops if he gave me the phone back, so he said “I’m just gonna throw it out on the street” and hung up on me, so I wiped the phone remotely. Goddamn thing had a crack in the screen anyway.

I might have gone to look out in the street in front of his building if I’d stopped to think how insanely expensive these things are if you’re not buying them with a new service contract. Since I’d just signed up with Verizon a month before, a replacement iPhone 5 would have cost me $699, right after I’d just paid $299 for the one I lost. I balked at that, obviously. I figured going back to the outdated iPhone 4 would be $199 or so — still painful, but tolerable — but it was $399. I considered just reactivating my old phone, but I’d switched from AT&T to Verizon when I bought the 5, and AT&T phones and Verizon phones don’t work on each other’s networks, because the world is a cruel and remorseless prison, devoid of hope or meaning.

I ended up going on eBay and finding one for $350, but it hurt after I’d just shelled out $299 for the 5 a month prior. Doubly so because I had had the 5 for just long enough to get used to the bigger screen and faster processor, so I’d in effect paid $649 for a phone whose limitations I was suddenly acutely aware of.

(Why yes, waiter, I’d love another white whine!)

Anyway, it wasn’t long before my new old phone got cracked on the back, so I YouTubed how to replace the back panel of the phone and it turned out to be really easy, so I ordered one online for $6. When it showed up a couple of days later, I was sitting on the stoop watching my son try to learn how to Ollie his skateboard, so I took it out of the envelope and slid it into my back pocket. When I pulled it out a little while later, it was shattered, but still whole. I immediately ordered another back panel for another $6.

It was only a couple of weeks later that my son and I were at the airport and I bent to sit down in the waiting area at our gate. There was a movie-theater-style cup holder protruding out from between the seats, on the armrest, that I didn’t see, and I hit it hard with my butt — actually, with my phone, which was in its usual spot, my left back pocket.

When I took it out it looked like it had been shot with a bullet; the front was spiderwebbed and the back was its mirror image, except that little shards of glass were falling out of the center. Emboldened by how easily I’d replaced the back panel, I figured I’d see how hard it could be to replace the screen. A YouTube tutorial seemed pretty straightforward, and it turned out I could get a replacement screen and back panel set for $35, so I ordered one, and just because I could, I got it in red.

The screen arrived, and it came with the microscrewdrivers I needed to do the job. On the advice of my brother, who had done this before himself, I used a rubber potholder that was molded into a grid of ¼” squares, kind of like a black waffle, as my work surface; this would make it easy to keep track of the teeny-tiny screws.

Taking the phone apart was surprisingly easy, but putting it back together was a little harder. The new screen came with a button, so that I could make the whole thing match, but when I tried to separate the old button from the ribbon that attached it to the motherboard, the ribbon tore. (I didn’t realize that until after I reassembled the phone and the button didn’t work.) One of the other ribbons, which I had to insert through a small slot at the top of the phone’s chassis and attach to the motherboard on the other side, had folded on itself when I screwed the new screen back together, so it wouldn’t reach the spot on the motherboard it was supposed to clip to. I tugged at it until it came loose, attached it to the motherboard, and reassembled everything. The screen looked like it worked when I powered it up but it didn’t respond to any touch. And this is when I realized the button didn’t work either.

A little Google troubleshooting showed me where I’d gone wrong, so I took the whole thing apart again and saw that I’d severed the ribbons, so I ordered another screen and a replacement button ribbon ($35 for the screen, $5 for the button), put my disassembled phone in a little box, and waited a week or so for the new parts.

When they came I was very careful to make sure the screen ribbon didn’t get folded, and I put in the new button. The screen worked this time, but the button didn’t, so I took the phone apart again and tried to re-connect the button, thinking maybe I’d just put it in wrong. I reassembled everything again but the button still didn’t work, so I ordered a third button ($5). I tried one last time to disassemble and reassemble everything carefully and I have no idea what I did differently but suddenly the button worked — the third button never came but I was so glad I made the second work I never even tried to track it down or get my money back.

Everything seemed to work except that the power button, the one on top with the headphone jack, suddenly required a lot more pressure to function than it did before. That, and the home button (the round one below the screen) wasn’t flush with the opening like it should be, it was sunken in a little, and the edges of the glass seemed to be detaching from the frame; I was able to push the screen in and out a little, and when I did the screen turned weird colors. As a nervous habit I started pushing on the screen habitually, and pretty soon there was a black dot a little smaller than a dime on the lower right hand corner of the screen. I figured this must be dead pixels from my pushing on the screen. The phone still worked otherwise, so I just shrugged it off.

But the dot got bigger and bigger so I started to think, I’ve done this four times now, I’m getting pretty good at it, I could just buy one more screen and do this right. After a few weeks I did it, I bought a third screen ($35) and made yet another screen transplant. This time everything worked right and though the screen was still not quite flush with the button, it was better than before. I declared victory and decided enough was enough.

Maybe a week later, I took my phone out of my pocket and it had a single crack on the screen, from one side to the other, and the back had another crack running from one side to the other. WHAT. THE. FUCK. I guess these aftermarket bootleg replacement screens are made out of Chimp glass instead of Gorilla Glass. With a deep sigh, I decided I can live with it until my contract is up in April — whatever else is wrong with it, at least I didn’t wake up with a U2 album I didnt want on it this morning — and I can get me one of these shiny new iPhone 6s. One of the most appealing things about the new design is it looks like I’ll be far too intimidated to crack the thing open and fix it myself.

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