Apple’s New Screen Repair Trap Could Change the Repair Industry Forever
Tech News

Apple’s New Screen Repair Trap Could Change the Repair Industry Forever

iFixit’s Taylor Dixon digs into the process of removing the iPhone 13’s Face-ID-saving screen chip, including an interview with The Art of Repair’s Justin Ashford.

Update: Apple told The Verge on Nov. 9, five days after this post was widely cited in news reports, that it would issue a software update to prevent Face ID’s disabling after screen replacements.

Apple has been chipping away at iPhone repair work outside their control for years now. With new changes to the iPhone 13, they may be aiming to shatter the market completely. 

The new iPhone 13 completely disables its flagship Face ID functionality when you replace its screen. We have confirmed this repeatedly in our lab, testing with many different phones on iOS 15 and 15.1, and our results have been replicated by numerous repair professionals

This is a dark day for fixers, both DIY and professional. One of the most common phone repairs that could once be done with hand tools now requires a microscope. This means you won’t be able to fix your iPhone screen yourself without sacrificing major functionality. It also has huge implications for the professional repair industry, for which Apple is the dominant brand to service. Small shops could be shuttered, forced to choose between spending thousands on new equipment or losing a major source of income.

For shops that want to survive, their only options will be to join Apple’s onerous IRP network—not an option for shops that value their customers’ privacy—or work past the iPhone’s locks with microsoldering tools and training. This unprecedented lockdown is unique to Apple. It’s totally new in the iPhone 13, and hard to understand as a security measure, given that the Face ID illuminator is entirely separate from the screen. It is likely the strongest case yet for right to repair laws. And it’s all because of a chip about the size of a Tic-Tac, tucked into the bottom of a screen.

Removing the center chip from an iPhone 13 display.

The iPhone 13 is paired to its screen using this small microcontroller, in a condition repair techs often call “serialization.” Apple has not provided a way for owners or independent shops to pair a new screen. Authorized technicians with access to proprietary software, Apple Services Toolkit 2, can make new screens work by logging the repair to Apple’s cloud servers and syncing the serial numbers of the phone and screen. This gives Apple the ability to approve or deny each individual repair. 

iCorrect shows one procedure for removing the iPhone 13’s display, and verifies that it re-enables Face ID, once transplanted onto a new screen.

The most sophisticated repair shops have found a workaround, but it’s not a quick, clever hack—it’s physically moving a soldered chip from the original screen onto the replacement. We’ll go into more detail on that process below, but it’s important to note how completely unprecedented this is. Screen replacement is incredibly common. Tens of thousands of repair shops around the world support their communities by replacing screens for customers at competitive prices. And Apple is, with one fell swoop, seemingly cutting the industry off at the knees.

Justin Drake Carroll, CEO and founder of Fruit Fixed, a regional repair chain in Virginia, said that screen replacements were about 35 percent of revenue. “At one point it was 60 percent, a few years ago. We worked really hard to push that figure down, so that one revenue stream wasn’t such a huge part of what we do. Obviously, it’s still an incredibly important part of our business model.”

“This IC [chip] swap thing, it’s a disaster, and we definitely need to fight it, 100 percent,” said Justin Ashford, a repair shop consultant and popular YouTube repair instructor. “But our industry’s definition of what basic repair is needs to change … this is the new basic. Going forward, the first tool you need is a microscope.”

iPhone 13 Pro Max showing Face ID failure
Face ID error message, after replacing the display on an iPhone 13 Pro Max with another original iPhone 13 Pro Max display, on iOS 15.1.

Let’s dive into the technical details. We’ve tested it on iOS 15.1, the latest official iPhone software release. Replacing an iPhone 13’s screen with the same exact screen from an identical brand new iPhone gives this error: “Unable to activate Face ID on this iPhone.”

Apple hasn’t said anything publicly about this issue. Dusten Mahathy, an experienced repair tech, said that a friend inside Apple’s Independent Repair Program was told by Apple support that the issue would be fixed in an iOS update. The only change we’ve seen is that in 15.0, the Face ID feature silently didn’t work, but in the latest version it displays the explicit error message. We reached out to Apple for comment, but they did not reply.

It’s hard to believe, after years of repair-blocking issues with Touch ID, batteries, and cameras, that Apple’s latest iPhone part lock-out is accidental. As far as our engineers can tell, keeping Face ID working on the iPhone 13 after a screen swap should be easier than ever, since its scanner is wholly separate from the display. Technically, yes: Face ID failure could be a very specific hardware bug for one of the most commonly replaced components, one that somehow made it through testing, didn’t get fixed in a major software update, and just happens to lock out the kind of independent repair from which the company doesn’t profit.

More likely, though, is that this is a strategy, not an oversight. This situation makes AppleCare all but required for newer iPhones, unless you happen to know that your local repair shop is ready for the challenge. Or you simply plan to never drop your phone.

Among repair techs we talked to, and inside private repair discussion groups, there’s a sense of trepidation. Technicians are preparing for three immediate options: buy new equipment and retrain technicians for microsoldering work, join Apple’s “authorized” repair network (either AASP or the Independent Repair Program—both could be charitably described as “incredibly restrictive”), or find a new line of work. There is a fourth option, of course: fight like hell for the right to repair.

“This industry was built on iPhone screens, but it won’t be much longer,” Ashford, the repair instructor, said. “This kind of thing has been creeping up on us for a while. Anyone who takes repair seriously knows what they have to do now.”

One experienced repair shop told me they’ve been swapping screen chips since the iPhone X to avoid touch calibration issues and “genuine” part warnings; they’ve got the process down to about 15 minutes. They’ve been slowly building an inventory of refurbished and third-party replacement screens with their chip slots empty, using CNC machines and screen-holding jigs to carve them out.

A CNC machine emptying out the chip slot in an iPhone screen at a repair shop, so it can more quickly have an original screen chip implanted.

Another repair tech told me it could be a 30-minute job for some shops—but right now, not many can do it at all.

Microsoldering is skilled work that requires thousands of dollars of equipment and extensive practice before you are proficient. The technical expertise and time required will challenge many repair shops that were previously working primarily with larger parts, above the logic board level. “Three out of 10 shops solder,” the tech said. “One out of [those] three can do BGA work.”

iPhone 13 screen chip (IC), propped up by a single grain of rice.
The chip that could change the future of independent phone repair.

Even when a shop has the equipment and experience to de-solder a BGA chip and move it to a new screen, they’re competing at a disadvantage with Apple’s repair network and protection plan, AppleCare. An authorized Apple technician can make an iPhone 13 accept a new screen with a few clicks inside their secret software—no heating, desoldering, or resoldering required. Apple’s techs can also keep True Tone working, something that independent repair techs have not yet achieved with third-party programmers on newer iPhone 12 and 13 models. 

In other words, for those who can access Apple’s network, replacing a screen on the iPhone 13 is no different than before. For independent shops, everything is different.

“[This] is an intentional move to thwart a customer’s ability to repair,” said Carroll, of the Fruit Fixed chain. “Honestly, if every screen repair involved that much work, I would hang it up and we wouldn’t be able to help the thousands of people we do each month.”

For customers who want to fix their iPhone 13 themselves, the options are grim. You could live without any kind of biometric login, like you might have in 2012. Or you could try to move the chip, after buying yourself a microscope or high-resolution webcam, a hot air rework station, a fine-tip soldering iron, and the necessary BGA stencils, flux, and other supplies. We’ve posted a series of videos explaining how to do precisely that, and we sell most of these items. But even with those tools (and lots of heat-resistant tape), it’s a challenge. It’s easy to damage the fragile OLED screen just beyond the cable the chip sits on. One of our engineers learned this the hard way, killing two screens while attempting to remove the chip for photos and verification.

The iPhone 13 front camera and face scanning array (left), the screen chip and a grain of rice (center), and the ball grid seat from which the chip is removed (right).

There is a chance that, as with the iPhone 12 camera, Apple could change the iPhone 13’s Face ID from non-functional to an “Unable to verify” warning with a future software update. Such an iOS update arrived in late January, about three months after the iPhone 12 shipped. If that happens, the company will need to explain whether it was intentionally testing the waters for further serializing parts, or just blithely neglecting the needs of its customers and independent fixers. 

Apple’s repair software is exclusive to those techs bound by the company’s tightly controlled repair program. Other companies could follow; Samsung, which is expanding its own repair network, made this screen for Apple. Without fair access to companies’ gatekeeping software, the small businesses may feel forced to get good under a microscope, or give in.

“[Shops] either convert to IRP as an independent or via a franchise, level up and be prepared to earn less for more work, or move onto another industry,” said one experienced tech. “Apple is swallowing us up.”

By locking down the most common repair for their devices, Apple has crossed the Rubicon. If we want repair shops to exist in our local communities, we have no choice but to pass right to repair legislation to protect them from this predatory, monopolistic behavior.