I Broke My Phone’s Screen, and It Was Awesome

So this past week has been quite a whirlwind — we wrapped up the Novena campaign and smashed all our stretch goals, concluding with over $700k raised, and I got my hair cut in a bar at midnight by none other than the skilled hands of Lenore of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories (I blame Jake! :). It was an exhilarating week; xobs and I are really grateful for the outpouring of support and we’re looking forward to working with the community to build an open hardware ecosystem that can grow for years to come.

On my way back home to Singapore, I stopped by Dongguan to have a visit with my supply chain partners to hammer out production plans for Novena. Unfortunately, as I was getting out of the taxi at the Futian border checkpoint going into China, I dropped my phone on the sidewalk and shattered its screen.

There is no better place in the world to break your phone’s screen than the border crossing into Shenzhen. Within an hour of dropping the phone, I had a new screen installed by skilled hands in Hua Qiang Bei, for a price of $25.

Originally, I thought I would replace the screen myself — on my broken phone, I hastily visited iFixit for details on the procedure to replace the screen, and then booked it over to Hua Qiang Bei to purchase the replacement parts and tools I would need. The stall I visited quoted me about US$120 for a new screen, but then the lady grabbed my phone out of my hands, and launched a built in self test program on the phone by dialing *#0*# into the phone dialer UI.

She confirmed that there were no bad pixels on my OLED display and that the digitizer was still functional, but just cracked. She then offered to buy my broken OLED+digitizer assembly off of me, but only if they did the work to replace my screen. I said it would be fine as long as I could watch them do the job, to make sure they aren’t swapping out any other parts on me.

They had no problem with that, of course — so my phone came apart, had the old broken OLED+digitizer assembly separated, adhesive stripped from the phone body, replaced with a proper new film of adhesive, a “new” (presumably refurbished) OLED+digitizer fitted and re-assembled in 20 minutes. The whole service including parts and labor came out to $25. I kept on thinking “man I should take pictures of this” but unfortunately the device I would use to take said pictures was in pieces in front of me. But, I’ll hint that the process involved a hair dryer (used as a heat gun), copious amounts of contact cleaner (used to soften the adhesive on the OLED+digitizer module), and a very long thumbnail (in lieu of a spudger/guitar pick).

This is the power of recycling and repair — instead of paying $120 for a screen and throwing away what is largely a functional piece of electronics, I just had to pay for the cost of just replacing the broken glass itself. I had originally assumed that the glass on the digitizer is inseparable from the OLED, but apparently those clever folks in Hua Qiang Bei have figured out an efficient method to recycle these parts. After all, the bulk of the assembly’s cost is in the OLED display, and the touchscreen sensor electronics (which are also grafted onto the module) are also undamaged by the fall. Why waste perfectly good parts, anyways?

And so, my phone had a broken screen for all of an hour, and it was fixed for less than the cost of shipping spare parts to Singapore. There is no better place to break your phone than in Shenzhen!

26 Responses to “I Broke My Phone’s Screen, and It Was Awesome”

  1. axet says:

    We should meet in Shenzen and have a beer I have office in Luohu.

  2. makomk says:

    Officially the glass and display are inseperable but someone clever came up with a way of seperating them using I think a hotplate and some thin nylon fishing line. You can probably buy the equipment from the usual sources. As far as I know it’s not economical to reuse the digitizer though, at least in Western countries – don’t know about China.

  3. I am wondering what would be required and/or any thoughts as to why you won’t or can’t have had that same experience here in the United States of America? Maybe if more people (perhaps like you) who take ownership of our hardware and our freedom and give away less to those who promise fake “free” easy living – it could happen here. Again.

    Thank you for the Novena leadership, I hope to have one someday.

    • dog says:

      In USA they would tell you that you also need a catalytic converter and charge an extra $2,000

    • Sanjay says:

      She charged him $25 for parts + labour. I’ll guess the breakup is likely something like $23 parts + consumables (contact cleaner etc) and $2 labour.

      Where in America can you make a living charging $2 per 20 minutes ?

    • lprobi says:

      Concerning “who take ownership of our hardware…”: so true and urgent. Yet still a long way to go. I thought of getting a Novena, not for hacking but for ‘normal’ things, because my work background has nothing to do with electronics. But I did not. Eager to see, if Bunny and Sean one day come up with an open hardware laptop (as a Novena 2), which might be interesting for non-hackers, too.

    • Anonchan says:

      actually, chinese people have that experience and are that clever thanks to Foxconn…..

      • Joe says:

        If manufacturing advances exponentially, like computers did… China could very soon become a place where it’s cheaper to recycle the materials and make a new one, as well…

  4. Kousik says:

    Even my phone broke, I replaced the Gorilla Glass in India. The replacement/adhesive that was used is so bad that, my phone wouldn’t recognize half my touches now. I am actually considering moving to a new phone. You got lucky though.

    • Joe says:

      Well, considering that where he got his fixed is one of the best places… Maybe luck was in location as bunny implied.

  5. ben says:

    I wonder if that diagnostic code (*#0*#) will work on other (non-Samsung Galaxy Note II) phones…

    Makes me think think these shop owners have a plethora of this kind of information on all kinds of electronics!

  6. Jordan says:

    Well having just failed to replace my Samsung Galaxy S3 T999 glass yesterday I can’t wait to get to Hong Kong (very close to Shenzhen) where I can get the glass replaced on any phone I drop. Having just destroyed my phone attempting the repair myself by misunderstanding how to separate the glass from the digitizer – I realize you need practice to perform these types of procedures.

  7. Reed says:

    How can you be sure of what you’re getting in Hua Qiang Bei? I forgot my laptop power supply on a trip to Shenzhen, so I found a replacement that looked the same and even had a Lenovo label. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but it wasn’t the cheapest one I found, nor the most expensive. I used it for less than a day and the thing burned up. I’ve heard that price is the only differentiator, but there can easily be expensive fakes.

    • bunnie says:

      You can never be sure; as noted in the article, I presume this replacement module also had a previous life in someone else’s phone.

      On the other hand, the vendor allowed me to personally test the digitizer and display using the test rig they had at the shop, and I inspected the replacement module carefully prior to installation, and there was nothing I saw to be a show stopper.

      Certainly within my threshold for taking a risk on the exercise, especially for $25 and 20 minutes. So far, so good.

      • f4grx says:

        May I guess that no chinese electronics shop owner will never dare to cheat on you? :)

        • bunnie says:

          hah if only. I’ve definitely had some sub-standard components. but generally they have been well-intentioned, just incompetent.

  8. bmx says:

    Instead of ifixit guides (which can be quite good sometimes), have a look at “le55on” search on youtube. He produces hi quality phone repairs/disassembly, far far beyond what ifixit is doing.
    The tool needed are those sold with the display assy (if any) or kitchen/bathroom tools, exept maybe the double sided phone sticky tape, which costs only a few dollar.
    When le55on dissassembles something, there is nothing more attached to the case/frame, nothing.

  9. Nanik says:

    This video will show how to separate the glass and the digitizer


  10. Fabien says:

    You should read more about Shenzhen before enjoying to be able to repair your phone there :/ (like the way they recycle electronics and so on)

  11. […] Further, the screen itself is still perfect, the touchscreen work as before, but the top glass cannot be replaced by itself outside of factory-like settings. I’m looking at a $100+ repair to a 5″ bit of glass so the phone can be 3 mm thinner. Extremely frustrating. (If only I was in Shenzen.) […]