Dropping your phone and cracking the screen can completely ruin your day. While most handsets aren't built to be repaired, you can fix many problems with the right tools and a little know-how.
An obvious but important point: Opening up your phone will almost certainly void your warranty. If you have insurance on your device, you will probably be unable to successfully make a claim if you choose to try repairing it yourself first. If you're comfortable enough with a tiny screwdriver and electronic components, have at it. However, if you're unsure or don't want to risk it, talk to your carrier or manufacturer before you try to break open that phone.
Tools of the Trade
No matter what phone you're trying to take apart, there are a few tools you'll almost always need. Some devices are easier to take apart than others (and we'll get to that in a bit). Before you open up your hardware, you'll want to make sure you have a few things on hand:
- A screwdriver kit: It goes without saying that you'll need a set of screwdrivers, but the type you'll need may not be sitting in your garage. Your phone is filled with a myriad of tiny screws. iFixit sells a toolkit with many of the screw heads you'll need, but any PC repair toolkit should do.
- Specialty screw heads: In addition to regular screwdrivers, certain smartphone models -- especially modern iPhones -- use special screws that standards sets can't handle. While this is usually done to prevent unauthorised repairs, you can buy tools that can open up the hardware.
- Screen pry tools: Perhaps the most important tool you'll need that you won't already own is a plastic pry tool. They're relatively cheap (you can buy a pair of them for $US3 over at iFixit). The pry tool is used to separate parts that are pressed together, such as the plastic casing.
The Most Common Repairs
Depending on the type of phone you have and whether you signed up for insurance on your device, it may be cheaper to do your own repairs (and void your warranty along the way, of course). Here are some of the most common types of repairs and concerns you'll need to be aware of:
Broken Screen/Digitiser: Fixing a broken screen can be either fairly simple and cheap or extremely expensive depending on how it's built. In both cases, you'll need to disassemble your device (guides for many popular phones can be found below). In some cases, the glass and digitiser (the layer that translates taps into input) may be fused together, which makes a replacement unit very expensive. If they are not, however, you can buy an inexpensive replacement screen.
In cases where the display is not fused to the glass, you may be able to replace either the glass by itself or the glass and digitiser. If the digitiser is connected to the glass, you'll need to connect a data cable, which varies by model. Here is a collection of guides for the most popular phones from the last couple of years. See the next section for others.
Headphone Jacks: Any time moving parts are introduced to a device, it can increase the failure rate. Headphone jacks may not be motorised, but a lot of stress can be placed on the contact points if you're frequently plugging and unplugging your headphones.
Once your device is opened, headphone jacks are relatively easy and cheap to replace, but this assumes you can get in. Devices with unibody designs -- such as the HTC One -- are difficult to enter no matter what task you're trying to accomplish. Headphone jack units are usually self contained and plug directly into the motherboard, although they are sometimes attached to the speaker assembly. You can check out one of the guides below to see how easy it will be for your device.
Loose/Stuck Buttons: Like headphone jacks, buttons can be replaced roughly as easily as the phone itself is to open. You can buy replacements for most hardware buttons in a handset, and you can swap them out without too many problems. However, if you're uncomfortable cracking open your phone, you can solve a lot of button problems with software.
Most buttons are attached via cables to the motherboard, and they can be very delicate, so be careful when re-attaching new hardware. You can usually find out how to replace the various power and volume buttons by following the standard teardowns. Be sure to read ahead first before purchasing replacement components.
Camera Replacement: It's rare for camera hardware to break outside of a cracked lens, however, internally, camera sensors are relatively easy to replace (once again, depending on how easy the handset is to open). The unit is usually attached by a single cable, but if the glass is cracked you can sometimes replace the exterior glass without actually removing the camera from the motherboard. Here are some device specific guides, and you can find out how to locate more below.
How to Find the Guide You Need
Due to the wide variety of phone hardware and the differences in how they're manufactured, most repairs will probably require a customised guide for your device. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites that offer step-by-step guides for a variety of repairs.
iFixit: Easily the internet's best resource for dismantling and repairing gadgets, iFixit does extensive teardowns and guides for specific types of repairs. In addition, the site sells many of the tools mentioned above that are frequently needed to perform such repairs. While there are guides for most phones here are hubs for some of the most popular phones of the last year (more can be found here):
eTrade Supply: While iFixit specialises in guides and tools, eTrade Supply deals in parts primarily. If you need to replace a screen or digitiser, eTrade sells many of the parts you might need. While you should probably still shop around for parts, the site also offers a number of video and written tutorials. The former are particularly handy when iFixit doesn't offer video instructions.
XDA: Long-time phone modders know that XDA is a treasure trove of guides and information on how to dissect your phone's software. What may be lesser known is that many of the forums also include hardware repair guides. Since it's community driven, you won't always find a hub for all the guides you need, but a quick Google search can pull up the threads you need (like these screen repair guides for the HTC One or the Moto X).
Know the Best and Worst Phones for Repairs
The one caveat that keeps popping up in this guide is "assuming you can actually open your phone". Not all hardware is created equal. If repairing your own hardware is something that's important to you, there are devices and manufacturers you should just stay away from altogether.
iFixit, which leads the pack in device teardowns and repairability ratings, has leaderboards you can check out that compare how easy it is to open up and repair phones. You can see them for both smartphones and tablets. If your device isn't on the leaderboard, you can still check the site's repairability score on individual teardown pages (like this one for the Motorola Xoom).
You can also get a sense of how repairable your phone is from the type of device it is. You'll notice that the HTC One has popped up as the exception a lot due to its unibody design, which simply means that the case is one large piece of metal. While it looks nice, it's very hard to take apart. The iPhone line is also somewhat more difficult due to its extremely compact design as well as the use of proprietary screws and hardware. While all manufacturers have a custom build process, keep an eye out for companies that try to lock down their hardware.