We Are Retroactively Dropping the iPhone’s Repairability Score

We Are Retroactively Dropping the iPhone’s Repairability Score

Systematic Parts Pairing Undermines Design Improvements

We need to have a serious chat about iPhone repairability. We judged the phones of yesteryear by how easy they were to take apart—screws, glues, how hard it was to change a battery. But repairs have gotten trickier, by design. Software now limits many basic iPhone repairs. That’s why we’ve revised the repairability score for the iPhone 14 from a recommend 7 out of 10 to a do-not-recommend 4.

Although we enthusiastically awarded it a solid score at launch last year, thanks to its innovative repair-friendly architecture—of which we remain big fans—the reality for folks trying to fix these things has been very different. Most major repairs on modern iPhones require Apple approval. You have to buy parts through their system, then have the repair validated via a chat system. Otherwise, you’ll run into limited or missing functionality, with a side of annoying warnings. 

Lots of independent repair shops have business models that are threatened by Apple’s parts pairing practice. Shops harvest parts from broken devices. They use third-party parts. They shouldn’t have to send Apple their customers’ personal information, or agree to five years of audits just to do the repairs they know how to do.

So when we gave the iPhone 14 a high score, the community pushed back. To be honest, they were right—and we’d like to thank our critics for helping us hold manufacturers accountable. 

The situation has gotten so bad that several repair professionals have told us they’re leaving the business entirely rather than navigate the labyrinthine maze of obstacles that Apple has erected.

So we’ve gone back to the drawing board with our scoring system to make sure that it reflects this significant new software limitation on repairs. And now that we’ve run the iPhone 14 through our new scorecard, the picture isn’t as rosy. The iPhone 14’s new 4 / 10 score reflects the fact that individuals and independent repair shops encounter some atrocious limitations when trying to fix it.

It’s Literally Not Re-Pairable

For many years, iFixit scores were primarily about design for repair—that is, how easy (or difficult) it is to disassemble your gadget, replace whatever’s broken, and reassemble it successfully. The highest scores were reserved for devices whose manufacturers even provided instructions for how to do that.

Ever the innovators, Apple introduced a new dimension to repair that our scorecard simply didn’t account for: namely, that you could take a highly repairable design like the iPhone 14, install a genuine Apple replacement screen or battery, and then… it fails to work. Following the correct procedure was no longer enough.

Today, you need one more thing: a software handshake, using Apple’s System Configuration tool. It contacts Apple’s servers to “authenticate” the repair, then “pairs” the new part to your system so it works as expected. Of course, it can only authenticate if Apple knows about your repair in advance, because you gave them the exact serial number of your iPhone, and they’ve pre-matched it to a display or battery. This is only possible if you buy the screen or battery directly from Apple. Forget harvesting parts—which is a huge part of most independent repair and recycling businesses. It’s also impossible to pair any aftermarket parts—which means only Apple-authorized repairs can truly restore the device to full functionality.

Apple’s numerous ‘genuine’ parts warnings appear for all parts, even brand new OEM parts, that have not been blessed by Apple’s authentication process.

While it’s an improvement over the status quo of just a few years ago, when Apple wouldn’t sell parts or supply instructions or software tools to anyone outside the Genius Bar and a few select “authorized” repair outlets, it’s still a major problem. Apple has made some real progress here—and we’ve been reluctant to criticize manufacturers taking meaningful steps. There are good people inside Apple working hard to make this situation better.

But parts pairing is a serious threat to our ability to fix the things we own. The problem is the invasive amount of control that Apple exerts over this entire process, and the fee they require you to pay for the privilege of fixing your own stuff. Apple likes to control the user experience so they can make it flawless—and we get that—but that experience should never come at the expense of our ownership rights or the planet. Already got a genuine screen or battery handy? Too bad—you’ll have to buy a new one from Apple if you want full functionality. And what happens in a few years when Apple stops officially supporting repairs for your device and shuts off the authentication servers? Apple’s message is loud and clear: user repair isn’t a priority. 

Our reporting, and this revised scoring system, is the result of painstaking analysis. Our team has purchased several units of each phone generation and model and performed hundreds of tests swapping individual parts. The parts pairing problems we’ve reported on have been backed up by field reports from independent repair shops and YouTube repairers like Hugh Jeffreys and Louis Rossmann.

How Did We Get Here?

In a move that will not surprise close observers of Apple, they have developed the system without notifying the people who do the actual repair work that it impacts.

The shifting, secretive target has made it difficult to incorporate into our repairability scoring system. The first paired part we encountered was the iPhone 5s biometric fingerprint sensor. Seemingly, this was a necessity for security—so while our forums filled up with users whose repairs were stymied, we didn’t modify our score. 

Then a curious thing happened: True Tone started disappearing after screen repairs, even with genuine screens. Then some aftermarket screens stopped working. Some of these bugs were fixed, some were not. 

Following the fury of Batterygate, when the world learned that Apple was slowing down phones with older batteries, the company doubled down and started locking batteries to the logic board via an iOS update. The update hid battery health from the owner of the device with third party batteries, removing a critical lifespan management feature.

Around the same time, the iPhone X introduced Face ID, a revolutionary technology with an unfortunately paired dot projector. As with the biometric sensor, we assumed this was a security issue and, while we didn’t like it, we justified Apple’s behavior because moving to new technology often comes with compromises. So we reluctantly made a carveout in our scoring system for security—but this just as quickly became a slippery slope.

Sometimes parts just didn’t work. But just as often, parts swaps prompted pop-ups. Warnings, warnings, and more warnings. Apple started pushing warnings when repairs were performed—and they were pesky. 

iPhone battery warnings

iPhone 12 came with a camera fail, warnings, and the resultant disappointment to the repair community. iPhone 13 came with a sensibly redesigned display to make Face ID less of an issue with repairs—except that it disabled Face ID completely when replaced. The emotional yo-yo (and repairability score yo-yo) left us reeling. Steps forward, steps back. All the while, though, the steady drumbeat of parts pairing got louder. What initially started as isolated security quirks and bugs ended up being the first canaries in a dark coal mine of pairing strategies. 

One by one, the glitches and bugs add up to a broad strategy, a systematic plan to require Apple’s permission to perform any repair on the iPhone. 

The iPhone 14 is Still a Mechanical Design Triumph

We maintain our high praise for the iPhone 14’s hardware architecture, which really does move the needle on repairability. Rear glass repairs that cost as much as $549 on the previous architecture now costs just $169 with the new mid-frame design.

Discussing repairability for the first time in the iPhone 15 announcement, Apple said they were expanding this new architecture to all 15 models. (On the iPhone 14, only the base, non-Pro models featured the improved design.)

Bravo! This design is truly an improvement worthy of the marketing effort. This is a very good hardware design, and we hope other OEMs will take notice and learn from it.

Unfortunately, this laudable mechanical improvement is undermined by a raft of software obstacles.

Apple Has Not Responded to Feedback

This parts pairing problem is by no means isolated to iPhones. MacBooks and iPads are suffering a similar fate, with screens, buttons, and other important components slowly sliding further into the realm of “only repairable by Apple—or with tough compromises.”

Even though we and other repair advocates have been sounding the alarm on parts pairing for years, Apple’s response has been lacking—especially for an industry leader and trend-setter with resources to act responsibly—and the problem continues to worsen. There may be multiple reasons for that, not all of them nefarious:

  • Benign neglect
  • Precision parts calibration
  • Combating warranty fraud
  • Lack of testing software updates with aftermarket parts
  • Control over the customer experience

Our intel says that it’s likely a combination of all of the above. Regardless: Apple has the resources to solve these problems. Based on how Apple designs their products and the relentless, unparallelled focus on user experience, they could easily be a leader in creating the best self-repair experience in tech. Yet, we don’t see that. Year after year, our scrappy repair community shouldn’t have to keep innovating around the shortcomings of the world’s most valuable company. 

Apple needs to do better. And frankly, so do we—so as of today, our repairability scores do a better job of reflecting reality.

A New Score

The new 4 / 10 score lands just on the negative side of our scorecard, and garners a reluctant but clear not recommended. Our new scorecard covers a wide gamut of approaches that Apple has taught us about, and includes penalties for almost-repairs, non-repairs, and “genuineness” warnings. Taken together, these deductions erode the overall score of the device significantly. (Updating the scorecard took us many months of careful work—if you’re curious about how we score, check out this explainer.) This scorecard will be the standard for all products moving forward—as Apple isn’t the only company utilizing parts pairing and other digital locks to handcuff DIY repairs. 

This repairability score doesn’t just represent our recommendations. It encapsulates countless wasted money, time, and tears of frustration on the part of Apple customers, repair techs, and would-be repairers. It represents a rising tide of e-waste that threatens the well-being of our society and our planet.

You can help, by preferring repairable products wherever possible. Product designers are paying attention. If enough consumers demand repairable products, then companies will create longer lasting products.

One note: for now, we are only rescoring the iPhone 14. We are not retroactively rescoring earlier iPhones at this time. If we did, their scores would also likely decline.

Apple could fix this problem with a software update, and that 7 / 10 score could return overnight. Even though they recently signaled their support for Right to Repair in California, these problems show that they are not taking the situation seriously enough.

We’re going to keep working to hold Apple and other manufacturers accountable the best way we know: By speaking the truth about repair restrictions as loudly as we can, by revising our scorecard to reflect any new obstacles to repair, and by pushing for Right to Repair laws that ban parts pairing.

Long-lasting, repairable products are essential for the future of the planet. Sustainable electronics stand the test of time, and parts pairing undermines the ecosystem needed to keep these devices alive. 

Right to repair is gaining momentum. We’re not giving up the fight for independent repair—and neither should you