A fix for the cracked-screen smartphone

Specialized repair services are cropping up

July 13, 2013|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Some people drop them. Others leave their mobile phone on the roof of the car and drive off. Or they slip the device into a purse or pocket and miss.

Whatever the cause, smartphones with cracked screens seem to be nearly as common as cellphones themselves. The phenomenon — particularly frequent among the glass-cased iPhones — has prompted repair services to mushroom at mall kiosks, computer shops and college campuses.

In March, iFix2Go set up a kiosk in a corridor at Towson Town Center mall, where technician Kendal Robinson fixes some of the more than 100 phones and tablets that come in for screen repair each month.

"There's high demand because a lot of people are ineligible for a [phone] upgrade, and they don't want to pay the substantial fee for a new device," Robinson said. "This is an option to get it repaired and reuse the same device."

Over the course of a year, nearly a third of iPhone users damaged their device, according to a the results of a survey released last September by SquareTrade, which sells protection plans for electronics. Owners spent $6 billion over the previous six years to repair or replace phones that had been cracked, dropped, kicked, waterlogged or otherwise damaged.

And it's not just the iPhone. Consumers have spent well over $7 billion on damaged Android phones since 2007, SquareTrade said in April.

"It's not a malfunction. It's not the product's fault. It's the klutz in us," said Jessica Hoffman, a spokeswoman for SquareTrade, which she said covers accidental or lifestyle damage, such as "my son threw it in the bathtub" or "my pet tripped over the power cord."

At some shops, screen repairs on certain iPhone models start at $70, a cheaper alternative than buying a new one, which can cost $400 or more.

Apple discourages consumers from going anywhere other than an Apple store or Apple-authorized center to avoid voiding warranties. New iPhones come with a one-year warranty that covers two incidents of accidental damage, for a $49 fee each time. Consumers can pay $99 to extend that warranty for an additional year, again to cover two accidents for a $49 fee each time. Once warranties expire, repairs to damaged screens run from $149 to $299, depending on the model.

Consumers who drop off an iPhone4 at the iFix2Go kiosk can expect to pay $100 for a new screen and get the phone back in an hour or less. (A screen on an iPhone3G costs $50.)

A subsidiary of GreenLoop IT Inc., a technology company with businesses that extend the life of IT equipment, iFix2Go repairs iPhones, iPads and iPods in one hour or less. The kiosks have been opening in shopping malls, train stations and business conference centers, including the lone Maryland location in Towson. The company said its seven kiosks in four states repair more than 1,000 devices a day.

Robinson said he has seen it all, including the customer who left an iPad on top of her car then ran over it.

In a case like that, he said, "it's fixable but not guaranteed to be fixed."

Even when a cellphone is cracked but in working order, "it can be complicated," Robinson said. "It is time-consuming. You have to tear down the phone, meaning take off all the parts that make the phone work."

At PHD Fix, a computer repair shop that opened last October in Lutherville, technicians repair from three to five cracked screens a day.

"They are made of glass, so the glass is easily cracked," said Daniel Huang, an employee.

Those who tend to damage the fragile iPhones the most — teens and college students — are often the least able to afford a repair or replacement. They are looking for low-cost alternatives.

That was the market Harrison Baum went after when he started onCampus Repairs at the University of Maryland, College Park more than a year ago.

"Whoops. You dropped your iPhone," the service's website says. "That's cool though, we can fix that! Actually, we kinda like doing it."

Baum, a senior economics major, describes himself as a tech "nerd" with a knack for taking apart and rebuilding devices. He'd taken his own damaged iPhone apart to fix and noticed he was far from alone.

"When I got to college, I saw cracked phones everywhere," said the 22-year-old Rockville native, who bought damaged phones on Craigslist to perfect his technique. "Every other person had a cracked screen. I kept fixing them, and more and more people kept breaking them and coming to me."

He now fixes 50 to 70 cracked smartphones a month, catering not only to students but faculty, too. Some of his customers tried to fix the phones themselves first.

Baum charges $70 to replace the screen on an iPhone4 and iPhone4S, and said he keeps his cost low because he works out of his campus apartment and does most of the work himself. He completes most repairs in a half-hour or so. His parts come in large shipments he orders wholesale from China.

"I'd be pulling all-nighters and going to class the next day," said Baum, who expects to graduate in December then focus on his business full time.

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