Busting Open an iPod Touch

Cracked screen next to new screen. Yes, this iPod is loaded with Art Bell episodes because I’m crazy.

I now know what the inside of an Apple iPod Touch 5th Generation looks like and I can’t get it out of my mind. Consider the feeling a mixture of demystification and empowerment, the sense that it’s within our power to take control of these tools that too often control us.

Yesterday I spent the afternoon repairing Kelly’s iPod Touch that’s been banging about a junk drawer for years since she broke the screen. I’ve found old Apple iPods and iPhones useful as mp3 players. In my shop there’s a iPhone 3 a neighbor gave me that, while it no longer functions as a phone, still works perfectly well as a jukebox and clock. While I have plans to use the iPod Touch as another mp3 player I was, frankly, more interested in just seeing how it works, what the inside looks like and gauging how practical it is to repair these devices.

I went to the iFixit website, reviewed the lengthy instructions, and bought their and tool kit and iPod screen replacement. While I like iFixit and have used the site in the past, I found their instructions for this particular device inadequate. The instructions showed how to take the iPod apart but not how to install the new screen. The instructions said to simply “reverse the steps” but it’s not as simple as that. In addition they suggested the unnecessary step of removing the battery. Thankfully, I found a detailed YouTube video from iCracked, a phone repair company which, as far as I can tell, doesn’t exist anymore.

I lost track of time doing the repair. It took hours of intense concentration and was one of the most tedious things I’ve ever done. While I had plans to document the repair, there was no way I could break my concentration to stop and take pictures. A lighted magnifier I found in the street was a necessarily tool as some of the parts bordered on microscopic. As usual with modern electronics, the hardest part is opening and closing the case. These devices just aren’t made for easy repair. Lately, Apple even made DIY or third party iPhone 12 repair impossible. Try to replace the logic board or battery on an iPhone 12 yourself and it won’t work unless you take it in to Apple.

To test the iPod I took a selfie. The look of worry and exasperation is real.

Apple’s minimalist design aesthetic, while making devices that are visually appealing, gets in the way of their use and function. This iPod is so sleek and slim that it just wants to slide out of your hand and break, which is how I came to this repair, of course. The funny thing is that in order to keep the thing from getting broken you have to buy a third party case. From a design perspective (not a capitalist one, of course) it would make more sense if this device had it’s own protective case incorporated into the design, which would also allow for a more repairable and spacious interior. The slim design, presumably so you don’t have an unsightly bulge in your Prada, means that the inside of these things are a tight packed tangle of tiny connectors and microscopic screws (in four different sizes, by the way).

While my iPod repair was difficult, at least now I know what’s involved and have a better feeling for how to open and close the case. Like any other skill, electronics repair takes practice. I’m thinking that the next time I have to throw out an unrepairable electronic device, that I should take it apart first to see how it works. I have a broken iPad mini and iPhone battery replacement up next on the repair bench.

It must be a special kind of hell to work on an electronics assembly line. Snapping in the tiny connectors, tightening those microscopic screws, and inhaling adhesive fumes is no way to live or work. An NYU student, Dejian Zeng, went undercover on an iPhone assembly line a few years ago and documented his life. His task was to screw in one of those infernal microscopic screws 1,800 times during a 12 hour shift. He was not allowed to listen to music or even talk with fellow workers while his bosses constantly asked him to go faster. The rest of the day he spent in a dorm room with seven other workers. I find myself thinking more and more about William Morris’ linking of the well being of workers with the environment and aesthetics. All are interconnected, and I’m thankful I don’t have to spend my days doing nothing but tapping in tiny screws while Apple executives get rich.

But back to my iPod repair–the bottom line is that, in the case of these small Apple devices, you can fix them yourself. My suggestion is thoroughly reading directions and watching multiple YouTube device breakdown videos. There’s also not one right way to do it. The best DIY repair sources go into detail on how to open and close the devices, which is, in my opinion the hardest part. If you get stuck I’d suggest stopping and sleeping on the problem. This is how I finally got the iPod closed.

Cracking open and understanding these objects could help us all demystify their control over our lives. One of the side effects of the pandemic will be, I believe, even more addictive and invasive technology. What if we were, collectively, to figure out a way to gain control over these things? To make them tools rather than becoming tools of the tools? In the coming years we must crack, hack, split open and reprogram our tools so that they serve us.

Special thanks to friend of the blog Michael W. who offered to help me with Linux and got me thinking about spending more time making these electronic tools work for me rather than me working for them. Micheal also tipped me off to a great post from Low Tech Magazine “How and why I stopped buying new laptops.”

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7 Comments

  1. I have a friend who always tinkers with broken things before tossing them. When I questioned her she told me since it was already broken she couldn’t do any worse. She was good at fixing things we thought were a total loss. I began doing the same thing and I found it fascinating to see how things are put together. But you surely must have had a lot of patience to complete your task! The small screws would have totally discouraged me!

  2. You’re way more patient than I am, Erik! I’d definitely need that nifty illuminated magnifying glass to do such a repair. Thanks for the mention, and let me know when you want to talk Linux. By the way, the comments on the Low Tech Magazine article look like they might contain some helpful suggestions from others who have rescued old computers.

  3. I’m sure that you are aware of the Law of Tiny, Irreplaceable/Expensive Objects. This Law states that, whenever a tiny irreplaceable/expensive object falls to the floor from whatever height, one of two things happens:

    (1) The tiny irreplaceable/expensive object immediately and cunningly camouflages itself so as to be indistinguishable from the floor surface, be that surface concrete, wood or priceless Persian rug;

    (2) The tiny irreplaceable/expensive object leaps sideways at least six feet in a random direction, then scurries to hide itself under an object that is either too heavy to move or can only be moved after major work on the building’s infrastructure.

    This Law contradicts all other known laws of the Universe. No amount of care or preparation will let you avoid it.

  4. It makes my head hurt to think about repairing something that tiny. I have taken apart fans that no longer work and take outlet covers off to fix them. But, that phone, no way.

  5. Towards the start of the pandemic, my 2012 MacBook Pro stopped working reliably. I went through and did a full battery replacement using iFixit instructions (I’m so grateful for iFixit!) but that wasn’t the problem, so I eventually sent it in to Rossmann Repair Group in NYC, which specializes on Mac products. They have a lot to say about the quality of the manufacturing of Apple products, and about how Apple handles the repair side of its business (which is to say, they rarely actually repair anything). For those whose circumstances make DIY repairs impractical, I recommend this company as a good company to do business with.

  6. I had an Apple watch that was pretty useful when business travel was still a required activity, and was also the best ever if overpriced timer for watering stuff. Anyway the glass on it cracked and one day the front just fell off. We were also curious and took it apart. It’s incredible how dense the electronics are inside. And you can see why the cost to repair is about the same as the cost to buy it. What a waste. I miss it but I don’t plan to replace it.

  7. I did this once, too. With the “do these steps in reverse and take out the battery” instructions. It did–eventually and with cursing–get fixed, but not perfectly. I could always see this little gap by the screen and knew I didn’t get it all closed up right. We got several more years out of it though and it was a learning experience for sure.

    Off to learn more about Dejian Zeng’s project.

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