Lessons from tearing down the iPhone 12

In the recent teardown of the iPhone 12 by iFixit, it was found that the new phone runs into some issues if a user replaces the camera module, basically rendering the cameras on the device unusable if not replaced by an Apple-authorized repair provider.

iFixit has frequently spoken out against the control consumer electronics companies have for repairing their products, advocating for policy changes for the right to repair. In a recent post on its site, it questions whether the iPhone 12 is the “end of the repairable iPhone.”

In this week’s final episode of our limited-run podcast series on tech review season, The Vergecast’s Dieter Bohn talks with iFixit’s Kyle Wiens and Kay-Kay Clapp about their thoughts on the repairability of Apple’s latest product as well as the fight for the right to repair and how it operates its famous teardowns.

Below is a lightly edited excerpt from that conversation.

It looks like Apple has done something with the camera module specifically, where it makes it harder to replace the camera module. Can you explain what’s going on with this camera module thing?

Kyle Wiens: Sure. So when we do our first teardown, we open it up. We’re looking at, mechanically, how do we get in. The rating we provide is generally based on just how easy it is to open, how can we get to the components.

We did some light compatibility testing where we took two different iPhones, and we swapped the batteries between them to see if they would work. We took [an iPhone 12] battery, put it in an 11 to see if it will work, that kind of thing, just to get a feeling of how they design the phone, what their supply chain is going to look like, but we don’t extensively go and swap every single component.

After we published our teardown, Hugh Jeffreys in Australia, a popular YouTuber, did some more extensive testing, and he started swapping more components. He took the camera out of one iPhone 12, put it in another, and it didn’t work — or it worked but in a very glitchy way. That was sort of eye-opening to us. And then we got leaked a document from Apple’s internal service saying that in order to repair the camera the official way, you have to have Apple software to pair the camera to the phone.

Interesting. So some part of the iPhone — maybe it’s their secure enclave, maybe it’s just like the logic board or something — needs to identify the specific camera part, and Apple needs to approve that pairing through some sort of cloud process in order for the camera to actually work. Is that right?

It’s possible that’s how it works. That’s how the Touch ID sensor works. It’s also possible that there’s just a calibration procedure. There may be a very precise signal timing. So to put the phone into a sort of pairing mode and say, “Hey, listen to the signal timing, and sync up precisely with the camera.”

So it’s the kind of thing that you do at the factory, right? You hook everything up at the factory, and then they’ve got the tooling.

And this is True Tone works. Every LED that you make is going to have slightly different performance characteristics. And so the way that True Tone works is at the factory after they make every screen, they tune it a little bit for that specific phone and then they write that configuration to the phone. And that way, you get more consistent color. It’s possible they’re doing something like that with the camera.

So there’s nothing wrong with that kind of pairing procedure. The problem is when you have a process like that and then you don’t make that tool available to the owner of the phone, now all of a sudden, we’re in a situation where I’ve got this iPhone 12, we swapped the camera, you can see this one camera is working fine. And then I go in portrait mode and switch to the other camera, it just crashes the whole camera app.

Right after we finished recording this episode on Friday, we got a statement from Apple when asked about this camera swap issue:

“We are committed to giving our customers more options and locations for safe and reliable repairs. Our new independent repair provider program is designed to give repair businesses of all sizes access to genuine parts, training and tools needed to perform the most common iPhone repairs. These service providers have access to the same tools and repair manuals used by Apple and Authorized Service Providers (AASPs).”

You can listen to the full Vergecast discussion here or in your preferred podcast player.

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