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Over the past few years, Apple has been making unauthorized DIY repairs more difficult with its latest iPhones, and now it looks like it’s crossed another big line with the iPhone 13 and iPhone 13 Pro.
According to iFixit, replacing a screen on Apple’s newest iPhone models has become even more challenging since you now risk breaking Face ID in the process.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen, but it’s definitely a first for Apple’s Face ID authentication system. This has actually long been a problem with Apple’s older Touch ID equipped iPhones, where the Touch ID sensor would fail to work after the display was replaced.
Since the display, home button, and Touch ID components are all connected, the new sensor needs to be cryptographically paired up using a process only available to authorized Apple repair shops. If you have your display replaced by anybody else, they can’t perform this step, so the iPhone won’t recognize the Touch ID sensor.
To make matters worse, a security feature in iOS actually took this to an extreme a few years ago, bricking the iPhones of users who had unauthorized display repairs done. Apple eventually fixed this issue following regulatory fines and threats of class-action lawsuits, but now some are fearing that it may be rearing its head again in the iPhone 13.
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.iFixit
In its experiments with the new iPhone 13 models, iFixit discovered that replacing the screen on an iPhone 13 disables its Face ID functionality — even if you simply swap two screens between two otherwise identical models.
The problem seems to stem from a chip “about the size of a Tic-Tac” that’s tucked away at the bottom of the screen. This small microcontroller is uniquely linked to the specific iPhone 13 that it came with, using a technique known as “serialization.”
During startup, the iPhone 13 checks to see if this chip matches what it’s supposed to be and if it doesn’t find the correct chip, it disables Face ID.
What’s most onerous about this, according to iFixit, is that the screen technically has nothing to do with the Face ID hardware, so there doesn’t appear to be any justifiable reason for this — except as a means for Apple to shut down unauthorized repairs of its newest iPhone models.
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.iFixit
Authorized Apple service technicians have access to proprietary tools that allow them to sync the serial numbers of the iPhone and the display via Apple’s cloud servers. However, these tools naturally aren’t available to independent repair shops.
Although Apple introduced a new Independent Repair Provider (IRP) program two years ago, the terms of the program are said to be ridiculously Draconian, giving Apple the right to randomly inspect participating companies, without notice, to “search for and identify the use of ‘prohibited’ repair parts,” — even up to five years after they leave the program.
Needless to say, there aren’t too many independent repair shops who are interested in signing away their rights just to gain access to Apple’s authorized repair parts, especially since they can’t claim to be Apple Authorized Service Providers — that’s a much harder designation to achieve — and they’re even required to make their customers sign waivers acknowledging that they’re not getting “real” Apple repairs.
The Fix Is Complex
According to iFixit, some of the most sophisticated repair shops have been able to work around this limitation by swapping the actual chip from the original display into a new one, but that’s a procedure that’s not for the faint of heart.
For one thing, it requires a microscope, and then on top of that, you need somebody who is not only skilled with microsoldering but also has the necessary equipment to do this work.
Three out of 10 shops solder. One out of [those] three can do BGA [microsoldering] work.Independent repair technician
That said, for some repair shops, this isn’t a new problem. At least one told iFixit they’ve been doing these kinds of screen chip swaps since the 2018 iPhone X simply to avoid potential screen calibration issues and “genuine part” warnings. They’ve managed to get the process down to 15 minutes, so this new requirement with the iPhone 13 is unlikely to be a problem.
In fact, this particular repair shop has gone so far as to build an inventory of refurbished and third-party replacement screens that already have the chip slot carved out and ready to go.
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.iFixit
This isn’t the only problem that independent technicians face, however, as there are still other things that remain the exclusive domain of Apple’s authorized technicians. For instance, not only can they make an iPhone 13 accept a new screen with only “a few clicks inside their secret software,” but they’re also still the only ones that can keep True Tone working — something that still eludes independent repair techs working on the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13.
Could This Be a Bug?
One experienced repair tech, Dusten Mahathy, shared third-hand information from Apple support suggesting that this issue was a bug that would be fixed in a future software update, but the problem persists in iOS 15.1.
In fact, as iFixit explains, the only real change from iOS 15.0 to iOS 15.1 is that the iPhone now shows an explicit error message that Face ID has been disabled, rather than just silently failing as it did before. It’s possible that this was the “fix” that Apple was talking about when it spoke with Mahathy’s sources.
iFixit is naturally skeptical that this is an accident, especially considering Apple’s previous track record. It’s done this with Touch ID, batteries, and cameras, so why shouldn’t the display be next?
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.iFixit
Apple has staunchly opposed ‘Right to Repair’ laws for years, spending millions of dollars lobbying against them in various states, so certainly it has absolutely no reason to make things easier for DIYers and small independent repair shops. However, with this latest change, it would appear it’s going out of its way to make things harder instead.
There’s still a possibility that Apple could fix this in a future iOS update, likely simply warning the user about an unverified screen rather than shutting down a core feature. It wouldn’t even be the first time it’s done this, as we saw the same restriction on iPhone 12 camera replacements last year, which went from being non-functional in iOS 14 to simply showing an “Unable to Verify” warning in iOS 14.4.
Even if Apple makes that move, however, it’s hard to rule out the possibility that the company has merely been testing the waters to see how much of this kind of component locking it can get away with.