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What “Error 53” Means for the Future of Apple Repairs

In “Error 53 Will Kill Your iPhone and No One Knows Why,” (23 April 2015), I reported on the mysterious Error 53, which makes iPhones unusable, with no explanation from Apple. The good news is the community has now pinpointed the cause of Error 53, and it’s easy to avoid. The bad news is that the explanation makes the future of repairing your own Apple devices or using less expensive independent repair services even more dim.

The cause of Error 53 is a failure within the Touch ID sensor in the Home button of new iPhones. When you restore or update to iOS 9, it verifies that the Touch ID sensor is properly paired with the processor’s secure enclave. If iOS detects that the pairing has failed, which it might even if only the screen was replaced, Touch ID is disabled to protect the security of Apple Pay, and additional security checks display Error 53 and prevent further access.

Pairing the Touch ID hardware with the secure enclave is a clever security measure that ensures no one can access your fingerprint data or Apple Pay details by messing with Touch ID. The problem is that if an unauthorized repair center replaces your iPhone’s Home button, or even an associated part such as the screen, updating or restoring iOS 9 at some later date will render the iPhone useless. If you run into this situation, Apple says to “contact Apple Support about pricing information for out-of-warranty repairs.”

As Daring Fireball’s John Gruber pointed out, Apple could have handled Error 53 better. Instead of bricking the iPhone, iOS 9 should just disable Touch ID and Apple Pay, and explain to the user why it did so. In short, there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We reached out to an Apple Authorized Service Provider who is familiar with the matter. While he confirmed that Apple’s requirement is a security feature, he also sees it as Apple pushing several agendas: selling AppleCare+, pushing customers into buying new phones after AppleCare+ expires, shutting out non-authorized repairers and suppliers, and shutting out fake devices built from knock-off parts. It turns out that all iPhone screen repairs have to go back to Apple for screen replacements; Apple has a machine that restores the pairing between the Touch ID sensor and the secure enclave.

We also spoke with a technician at a local independent repair shop, who was outraged that Apple was doing this to customers, particularly without warning. He said that his shop is now telling customers that they can either take iPhones that require this sort of repair to Apple or avoid updating to a new version of iOS 9. The tech was in fact performing just such a repair during the conversation, and the waiting customer said that he wouldn’t have updated the iPhone anyway, so that limitation didn’t bother him.

Apple’s handling of the situation has prompted the Seattle law firm PVCA to file a class action suit against Apple; if you’ve experienced Error 53, consider getting in touch with them.

The Bigger Repair Picture — Apple’s discouragement of tinkerers is nothing new. The original Macs were notoriously hard to work on, requiring a long Torx screwdriver to open, and after Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company’s hardware became ever more difficult for outsiders to service.

A key example is Apple’s choice to switch from standard #00 Phillips screws to proprietary pentalobe screws during the iPhone 4’s lifecycle. In fact, if you brought an iPhone 4 with Phillips screws to an Apple Store for repairs, Apple would replace them with pentalobe screws.

The funky screws didn’t dissuade most DIYers, and it wasn’t hard to replace the battery in the iPhone 4, but Apple continued down the path of making future iPhones even harder to repair, as Adam Engst and I documented in “Replace a Dying iPhone 5 Battery” (5 March 2014) and “How to Replace a Cracked iPhone 5c Screen with Screasy” (24 July 2015).

Because of these difficulties, our advice since the release of the iPhone 5 has been to leave repairs to the professionals, even if you think you know what you’re doing. Unfortunately, even when going directly to Apple for repairs, things don’t always go smoothly, as I detailed in “Replace a Dying iPhone 5 Battery: Take Two” (28 August 2014). A couple of weeks after having my iPhone 5 battery replaced by Apple, the rear camera stopped working — I suspect due to a bad connection. Thankfully, it was time to upgrade anyway, so I never bothered trying to fix it.

So what’s the takeaway? Sadly, it seems that the era of repairing your own Apple devices continues to wane; if you can repair an Apple device yourself, it’s likely either because it’s an older model or a design accident. And as Apple struggles to maintain its revenue growth in the face of slowing sales, the company will try to extract money wherever it can, with repairs and service plans as another means to that goal (ask any auto dealer).

Here’s our advice for your future iPhone repair needs:

  • Whenever possible, have your Apple products serviced at an Apple Store or an Apple Authorized Service Provider.

  • If you’re at all hard on devices, and particularly for portable devices, think about buying AppleCare coverage to extend your warranty.

  • Consider the iPhone Upgrade Program (see “Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World,” 11 September 2015) for your next iPhone purchase, as it includes AppleCare+ and it lets you replace your iPhone every year.

  • If a non-authorized repair is unavoidable or vastly less expensive, be sure to keep your original parts in case there’s a problem. Historically, Apple won’t even talk to you if you have third-party parts installed in your iPhone. And if you do need an independent repair that might cause Error 53, well, avoid updating to iOS 9 or a newer version of iOS 9. Small bug fixes and security risks are better than a dead iPhone.

However, it’s not all bad news. In order to deal with unauthorized repairs, Apple has drastically reduced the price for out-of-warranty screen repairs. Without AppleCare+, the company now charges between $109 to $149 for a screen replacement, which isn’t much more than what you’d pay with AppleCare+. However, if you have AppleCare+, Apple will give you a loaner phone and likely move your repair up in its priority list.

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