The Epidemic of iPhone 6/6+ Touch IC Failure Explained
by Jessa Burdett
The long-term consequences of Bendgate. Apple continues to Pull the Wool over the Consumer’s Eyes
The Apple genius is not surprised when you hand him your 13 month old unresponsive iPhone 6+ with flickering grey bar at the top of the display. The guy next to you in line is there with the exact same problem.
He nods with trained empathy as you describe how the problem started with occasional loss of touch function and has progressed over time to no touch at all.
With experienced hands, he deftly starts pressing and twisting your phone while parroting the company line in that voice we use when we’ve said the exact same thing hundreds of times.
“Yes we have seen this before, but Apple doesn’t acknowledge this as a problem. Since you are out of warranty, we can offer you a replacement phone at the out of warranty cost of $349. This is not a repairable problem”
After he is done manhandling your phone, amazingly, the phone’s touch function seems to be restored! The drive and wait to see Oz at the genius bar was worth it. You drive home, and then notice—it’s back. The phone won’t slide to unlock. Completely unresponsive to touch at all. Dammit!
This little vignette is playing out for thousands of iPhone 6/6+ users everywhere. Including one user here who posts that their Apple Store Manager said “This is a well known issue and we have people coming in all day long with this problem.” And yet, they offer no real solution other than buying a new phone. So what is going on?
The root of the problem lies with the touch IC chips on the motherboard.
Remember when the iPhone 6 first came out and users around the world were pulling their new phones out of the back pocket of their Levi’s to find it now curved in the exact contour of their ass? #Bendgate?
But the fact remains—compared to earlier iPhone models, the iPhone 6/6+ is kind of a “bendy” phone. Its slim form factor and larger surface area subject the logic board within the phone to mechanical flexion pressure that no other iPhone has had to deal with.
On a relatively simple circuit board this should be no big deal. Basic chips are securely anchored to the board with metal feet soldered to large pads, and this architecture could probably survive a drop off the top of the Foxconn building, safety nets or no.
But as the demand for high-powered functionality has increased, and circuit board ‘real estate’ has diminished to accommodate huge batteries, the use of complex ball grid array (bga) chips dominates the board. A bga chipset will balance on an array of solder balls much like a plate resting on marbles. Each ball connects the chip above to a round solder pad below.
That is a fine way to pack in more functionality per square mm of board space. But what about durability? This is a major concern, and it’s solution is securing the biggest bga chips to the board with an electronics superglue of sorts–underfill. The underfill is injected as a liquid under the chip and cured to rock hard consistency which cushions and supports the solder balls.
In the iPhone 5 and 5c, most of the bga chipsets on the board are ensconced in a black sea of tar-like underfill. But perhaps that is unnecessary? A design change in the iPhone 5s did away with underfill on many of the chips, including the two chips that control the touch circuit on the board.
This seems to have worked out well, the iPhone 5s rarely has touch problems, so it was carried forward in the iPhone 6/6+ board design.
The combination of a lack of underfill on the touch ic chips, plus their relative position on the board—seated on a span of board like a swinging bridge between two anchoring screws—-and the inherent ‘bendiness’ of the sexy, slim iPhone 6/6+ is a perfect set up for what we are seeing now. Our mail-in logic board repair service sees hundred of iPhone boards, which allows us to notice patterns in the failures of these devices. This is our working hypothesis with what we think is going on with iPhone 6/6+ touch ic disease.
Initially the iPhone 6/6+ works fine. Over time, normal daily use of the large, thin phone will eventually create a small crack or separation in one of the balls that underlie either of the touch ic chips on the board. At first, there may be no defect at all. Later you might notice that the screen is sometimes unresponsive, but it is quick to come back with a hard reset.
As the crack deepens into a full separation of the chip/board bond, the periods of no touch function become more frequent. This is exacerbated by any drop–which is a great way to fully sever an existing bga joint crack.
Even still, it can be possible to get the chip and board talking to each other again with the right pressure. Opening the phone and putting your finger on the chip and pressing it down works the best, but the Apple Store genius is able to do the same thing with his David Copperfield pressing and twisting of the phone from the outside.
The internet is full of folks who have discovered that a ritual of bending the iPhone and putting pressure in certain spots can help the phone eek out another day of function.
But even this won’t last. Now, with both mating surfaces exposed to air, eventually oxidation occurs and it no longer becomes possible to restore the electrical connection between the ball and chip. The magical pressing and twisting routine stops working and the user is out of luck.
So what are your options? Have the chips replaced, not just “reflowed”
Dozens of great cell phone repair shops around the world have been quietly solving this problem for months by replacing the touch ics on the board. Find a shop that will replace, not just “reflow” the touch ics. Reflowing, or simply heating up the existing chips in the hopes of shoring up the failed bond doesn’t solve the problem for very long.
When a pad under a chip is oxidized, molten solder will not be able to stick to it very well, and the solution only temporary. Removing the old touch ics gives the microsolderer a chance to clear any oxidation on the underlying pads, and ensure a solid bond between the board and new chip. Since there are two touch ics (cumulus chip and meson chip), both should be replaced. If you replace just one, the problem could be phantom-solved due to the side effect of reflowing the causative ic during replacement of the non-causative ic in that device.
The cost of touch ic replacement service is about the same as a screen replacement, it will extend the life of your device significantly.
But Apple doesn’t want you to know that.
If you ask Apple, like this user did, and this one, and this one. They will tell you that the only solution for an out-of-warranty iPhone 6/6+ is to pay the $299/$349 out of warranty replacement fee and exchange your phone for a new one. Well, new-to-you.
And this is the problem. When you fork over the money and open that pristine white box, the phone inside is not new. It is refurbished. Let’s think about that for a minute. There is nothing wrong with refurbishing an iPhone, in fact it is a great thing to do. But, HOW was that phone refurbished?
We know that iPhone 6/6+ is susceptible to touch ic disease with prolonged use, and that is exacerbated by any drop. This means that the iPhone 6/6+ board, at refurbishing, needs to have the touch ics replaced in order to return the board to a like-new condition. If not, then the “new” iPhone 6/6+ logic board nestled below the new screen is particularly prone to subsequent failure of the touch ics if it’s prior life history included a bad drop.
We don’t know the details of the Apple refurbishing process, but let’s make some logical guesses. What happens when you drop your iPhone and the glass is shattered but the frame is intact? If you go to the Apple Store, you’ll get an in house screen replacement for $109 and go on about your way. But if your phone was in a particularly bad tumble where the frame itself is damaged or bent, you won’t qualify for the straight up Apple screen replacement. Frame damage phones are excluded, and your option is to hand them your phone, pay the OOW swap fee, and leave with a refurbished phone.
What, then, happens to the phone you turned in? It will go back to the Apple Depot for refurbishing. Once there, the evidence suggests that the “good” board is harvested from the phone, and installed in a new frame with a new screen and battery and then sent back to the Apple Store to be handed to the next guy paying for an OOW replacement.
It is possible that Apple is refurbishing the board itself, i.e. replacing the touch ics, but I doubt it. Basic economics says that if the board passes a brief test of function that it is deemed “good to go” and would be salvaged as is. After all, the $349 refurbished iPhone 6+ only needs to last 90 days in order to meet Apple’s warranty period for out of warranty swaps. The cost of high-throughput logic board rework to replace the touch ics on all boards taken in by Apple would be extraordinary, many of which would not have been unlucky enough to have the touch ics fail anyway, so why bother?
The anecdotes we do know about Apple’s refurbishing process are telling. Here we see an Apple refurbished iPad mini board that had the power management ic replaced. The refurbished board was installed in the new mini despite water damage on a few capacitors and no attempt was made to replace the underfill that IS part of the design for the iPad mini power chip. The result–the board failed on a subsequent drop.
A YouTube viewer made this comment on his experience working at Apple-sanctioned board refurbishing house. ”
“I used to work for a refurb company in the UK contracted by apple, I witnessed much water damaged iPhone 4 and 4s boards being treated in ultrasonic baths and then baked in infrared ovens, then my departments job was to put some of those crappy boards with an LCD and housing. I was shocked at first but now I know it is commonplace and is completely acceptable in all electronic device industries. I did not work there long [I] felt so uncomfortable. ”
And what do we see from the experiences of those that did take advantage of the out of warranty swap and walked out with a refurbished iPhone 6/6+? From the Apple Support Community website we see plenty of people commenting that their “new” phones soon succumbed to the same exact problem.
Is this anecdotal? We don’t know. But we do know that there is an intentional suppression of information within the Apple Support Community (ASC) forum about the underlying cause of iPhone 6/6+ that develop touch ic disease and are unresponsive to touch.
If you follow the ASC support thread titled “iPhone 6 plus intermittent unresponsive screen” you’ll see 511 replies to date. The way the forum works is that it is a community-based forum of end users that is only moderated by Apple-employee hosts. Apple reserves the right to delete any post at will for any reason.
I have personally posted the underlying cause of the touch ic failure as described here several times. Within minutes, those posts are edited to remove the information end users deserve about this failure, or simply deleted.
I have been banned twice from posting information to this forum at all, so it may just be that Apple doesn’t like me. However, we can see the same ritualistic removal of the same information from others.
Here is my colleague Mark Shaffer’s ASC post about this issue, before and after the swift sword of the Apple host’s delete key.
Try it yourself. Rephrase the content from this article, and I guarantee that you’ll find an email from the host “your post has been removed” in short order. One ASC regular theorizes that if Apple were to allow this content on their forum, then it could later be used as a legal admission that they were aware of this problem and chose to do nothing about it. Maybe he’s right.
The funny thing is that I personally don’t fault Apple for the existence of this problem. The touch ics in the 5s don’t have underfill and they don’t suffer widespread touch failures because of it. A lack of underfill is a dream for rework, and it makes troubleshooting other board problems much simpler. Working chips that don’t have underfill can be recycled to other boards. If underfill is not really required, then it is great to not use it.
It is reasonable that Apple would have continued the practice of omitting underfill from the iPhone 6/6+ touch ics at design time. #Bendgate shows that they clearly failed to predict the ‘bendy’ nature of the iPhone 6 when put into normal use–who wants to put out a brand new phone that crumples like an accordion? As such it is reasonable that they simply failed to anticipate the consequence of this long-term bendiness at board level on the touch ics. I don’t think this is evidence of planned obsolescence or intentional bad design. Like error 53, it was just a mistake.
Unlike error 53, which was easily correctable with a simple software update, the effort that Apple would have to go to in order to rectify an inherent long-term flaw may not be feasible at mass scale. Their deal with end users is that the phone will work for a year, and if not, they will warranty it so that everyone gets a phone that works for a year. They offer Applecare+ for a fee so that we all can get two years of warranty.
Do they have a responsibility to ensure that their flagship phone will work beyond that one year? Are they entitled to make an unanticipated mistake that they can’t feasibly rectify? Do we deserve to be outraged that a high dollar phone works for “only” one year? I’m not sure. I think you could make an argument that iPhone years are like ‘dog years’ given the fact that this electronic device is in constant use from morning to night and subjected to incredible daily stress. But there are many less expensive phones out there that can reasonably be expected to last for several years. I think the court of public opinion will decide this issue by voting with their wallets.
Even if it is not feasible for Apple to address this long term design flaw by reworking the millions of affected or ‘to be affected’ iPhone 6/6+ boards at their 1 year anniversary, the suppression of information is not the way to deal with the problem. Apple is well aware of this problem, and like many other systemic problems such as premature failure of MacBook GPUs, and error 53 they are once again choosing to put their heads in the sand until compelled to deal with it only after the cacophony of pissed off end users reaches a certain decibel level.
It would go a long way for Apple to simply acknowledge that there are repair solutions available for the folks staring that unresponsive touch screen outside of Apple.
While it may not be in their business model to address board-level issues with rework, there are many great independent repair shops that can help these users with an affordable repair to lengthen the life of their device beyond one year. Suppressing the voice of independent repair on the Apple Support forum–the place that will always be the number one Google hit for end users seeking troubleshooting is shameful. The idea that manufacturers should work with the people that can help their own customers get better satisfaction and longevity of their products is not a vintage concept from an earlier time. It is a timeless concept that is good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for everyone. We shouldn’t have to scream to demand that we have a right to repair our iPhones. But if we must, scream we will.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for repair!