Saturday, January 08, 2011

Replacing a broken 3G iPhone screen: what iFixit doesn't tell you

I used the iPhone 3G Front Panel Assembly from iFixit $70) to successfully replace a broken 3G iPhone screen. I followed the iFixit assembly directions, watched a video for a related procedure and improvised when both omitted critical steps.

You shouldn't try this. I estimate the average non-obsessive geek has a 50% chance of ending up with a fixed phone, a 30% chance of ending up with a more broken phone, and a 20% chance of ending where they started less $70 or so. Once you do this successfully once the odds of success increase dramatically, but the learning curve is steep. If you insist, then please read this post carefully. It will boost your success rate to 75%.

I recommend finding someone who's done this before and paying them to fix your phone. Or see how much you call sell the broken phone for, the buyers will easily fix it. Or buy a 3G display assembly instead ($100) and avoid about 30% of the repair hassle.

I did not attempt the $40 front panel procedure. iFixit rates that as "difficult". In English this translates to "impossible".

Lastly you can pay Apple $200 and they'll do a perfect job. Keep in mind that a new 4G iPhone costs about $700 out of contract and a new working 3G is probably worth at least $350.

If you do proceed consider also replacing the battery at the same time. About half of the hardest steps are common.

I hope by this time you've stopped, but perhaps you're already committed. Or maybe you want to make a business out of this. That would make sense, especially for someone in college where broken iPhones must be common. Here's what I learned (this supplements, but does not replace, the video and the ifixit directions)

Ordering and shipping

  • The front panel assembly does NOT include tools. I missed that, because I started out looking at the insane option of the "front panel" only kit. You definitely need the plastic spudger. You could use a very slender flexible knife or a scalpel blade in place of the metal spudger. I had a magnetic 00 philips screwdriver, I don't know if their's is magnetic.
  • It's surprisingly hard, with a worn black 3G iPhone, to identify that it is, in fact, a 3G iPhone! Elders will need a magnifying glass.
  • The model numbers on Apple's site are only for the first batch of devices. I visited Apple's site and followed their external identifier directions.
  • The assembly came inside loose bubble wrap and a simple envelope; I'm surprised it made it.
  • The parts don't say Apple anywhere.


Here's what I laid out. I was able to make up for the parts I didn't order, I had an old spudger that was fine. I think the screws are all the same but I had a different bowl for each and a picture of the step behind each bowl. The tweezers and compressed air were essential. The white paper is sticker backing to hold the cursed black tape removed during the procedure. I wish I had had a magnifying glass, but I'm 51. A bright light source should suffice for the under 40 crowd.

It took me about 2.5 hours to do this with several breaks when I ran into problems. An expert could do it in under 20 minutes.


iFixit front panel assembly directions

Read the directions very carefully several times and watch the video for the similar but harder front panel assembly. This is what they left out:

  • My panel came with a screw in place. Look for this and remove the screw. If you don't know this you'll discover the screw when you do the reassemby; and you'll have to take it all apart again.
  • The panel has plastic covers you'll want to remove only at the time of assembly.
  • The video is an edited series of cuts. It omits several key operations.
  • Reassembly is harder than disassembly.
  • I wore latex gloves (powder free) to reduce hand oils and sweat getting on things.
  • The relevant portion of the video is from about 1:13 to 2:06. Watch that several times, unfortunately key parts were excised.
  • Manufacturing changes over time. There are differences between the very first 3Gs and later models.
  • There are two forms of cable connection. There's a standard pressure join and there's the iPhone destroying FPC connector (see below). When reassembling you really need to visually line up the pressure connectors. It takes a modest push to seat them; you will then feel a soft but obvious "thunk". If you don't clearly feel this they're not really connected.

The treacherous black tape

  • Study this carefully before your remove it.
  • At one point you are instructed to remove some black tape. This is very hard to do, I had to work one end up. A scalpel might help. Use tweezers. The tape will curl; but mine curled in a benign way. Leave the curled loop on your paper. When you reassemble, either have someone hold the phone for you or put it in a clamp of some sort. I think the best approach would use a light locking clamp to hold the tape and tweezers. Reposition it, hold it in place, try to flatten it out.

The FPC connector

As of 1/2011 there is a key image missing from the assemblydirections at "step 6". if you haven't done this before you will have NO idea what is meant by the "PFC lock"

I have tried to capture it below, but I should have used a macro lens. It is that small. The PFC lock is a 1mm x 3-4 mm white bar that sits over the distal end of cable 3 as it emerges from a black connector cover. It is shown here in the unlocked, upright position. A simple flick of the plastic spudger will flip it up. Then cable 3 will slide out.

20110108_PFC lock_7690.jpg

To reinsert cable 3 I suggest using fine tweezers on the black cable sheath to push it into the black housing above until the white line on PFC cable is about at the proximal side of the black cable cover. Then flip the PFC lock down.

Good luck.

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