iPhone 4: The New Screw Review

Have you heard the latest from the Genius Bar? The one that has Apple replacing the teeny-tiny Phillips screws in iPhone 4 with "pentalobe security screws?" If not, you may want to check out this story from The Mac Observer before reading ahead.


I received this email from someone who says they work in some capacity for Apple Retail. Can I confirm this? No, though the arguments make sense from an Apple point of view.


Read on:


I wanted to provide some insight about this whole non-standard screw issue that's been going around. I know, just like any Apple story, there's multiple sides of the story. But since you so rarely get Apple's side, I figured you'd appreciate a little bit. Most of this stuff, if one really thinks it through, is pretty obvious and makes sense. There's nothing secret about it. But I haven't heard it mentioned on any of the Apple-related blogs or podcasts I follow. So here goes: 


There are two reasons Apple puts non-standard screws on items: safety and warranty. Not all our products have non-standard screws. MacBook Pros have Phillips screws where it's OK for users to get in a upgrade or replace items like the RAM and hard drive. But there's no reason that the average user should need to remove his MacBook Pro's logic board (and doing so without proper training and without being in an ESD (electro-static discharge) safe room can permanently damage the board. So, we use Torx screws for that. 


Some people are complaining because on the new MacBook Pros and MacBook Airs we have non-user-replaceable batteries, to the point that we use an ultra-special screw to hold it down. Thus, they claim, a user who wants to get in and replace their own battery without having to pay Apple to do it is now prevented from doing so. But we don't do it out of greed, we do it for safety reasons:


One of the biggest factors when someone is buying a laptop is battery. Most laptops with user-removable batteries have a 4-5 hour max charge. We wanted to change that. Some current Windows laptops boast higher charge times than that, but they have bulky batteries that stick out the back of the computer another 10-20% (to visualize this, think about hanging a giant igloo cooler off the back of my compact car so I can boast about having more trunk space). Apple, instead, said, "Hey, in order to make user-replaceable batteries safe to handle outside the computer, they have thick plastic shells around them. If we take away most of that, we can gain up to 40% in volume to give more room to the actual battery cells!" So, without sacrificing any external size, we now sell computers with 8-10 hours of battery life. On a MacBook Pro, you can unscrew the bottom cover (Phillips screws) so if you want to replace the hard drive, you can. The side of the battery that's facing you has a plastic cover so that you don't accidentally puncture it and spill battery acid all over yourself. But the bottom of the battery does not (in order to make more room for the battery cells). So we put security screws on the battery so that Joe Hacker doesn't unscrew his battery, puncture the cover, burn his arm off and sue Apple. The new MacBook Airs have an extremely thin shell on them - to the point that us Geniuses have to go through a special online training course before we can work on them. If Apple won't even let their repair techs remove the Air battery without being certified to do so, why would they be OK with the average consumer doing so? 


The Mac Pro is a very customizable machine. You can add up to 4 hard drives, 3 video cards, 32 GB of RAM, and more. But if the processors are even slightly out of place, you can ruin them. And those things can be up to $1000 each. Apple puts security screws on things like these because users have no business tampering with them. If they do, they'll damage them. But without things like tamper-proof stickers and security screws, we would have no way of knowing whether a part was damaged or was truly defective. There's a reason Apple makes billions of dollars - we're a smart company. We don't lose millions of dollars to people who putz around on the insides of their machine and then want the damage they caused covered under our warranty. 


And that's what this iPhone hullaballoo is about: the only people who actually want to get inside of an iPhone are people who are doing illegitimate stuff with it: they're trying to tamper with it to get it unlocked, they try and remove or swap out the liquid damage indicator stickers, they're trying to change the serial number on the board from one that's out of warranty to one that's within warranty. We see tons of people every day trying to pass off damaged phones as in-warranty phones. For example, on every iPhone, the serial number is in three places - within the software Settings menu, on the little pop-out tray that holds the SIM card, and on a metal plate that covers the logic board and processor inside the phone. For several years now, we've had people who bring in out-of-warranty (either by time or damage) phones that are dead (so we can't see the number in the software) and have SIM trays from in-warranty phones. Previously, if we could just open up the phone and view the real serial number on the logic board. Now, though, people are even replacing those! The only way we catch them is that many times, they'll hand us a certain model (a black 16GB iPhone 3G, for example) and the serial number on the board will be for a completely different model (like a white 32GB 3GS). 


To reiterate: Apple isn't trying to be greedy. We're trying to prevent unnecessary damage and fraud. Can you fault us for that?


Makes sense to me from Apple's point of view, though there was one thing in all of this that bothered me more than the rest. It was the line "the only people who actually want to get inside of an iPhone are people who are doing illegitimate stuff with it." So I wrote back and said, "From a fraud point of view it does make sense. but what becomes of the 'makers' and tinkerers when they can no longer get under the hood?"

Our mystery mailer was kind enough to reply, in part:



For the makers and tinkerers, getting "under the hood" is still possible on a Mac. A friend of mine replaced the optical drive in his MacBook Pro with an SSD. Is that computer under warranty any more? Hell no. And he didn't expect it to be. I think most people who really are into modding their devices understand that, too. The thing is, the makers and tinkerers (and I guess, the (illegal) resellers) will find a way to get into their devices, no matter what Apple does to stop them. I don't remember who said today that anyone who has the knowledge and will to get into the Phone will be cool with springing for iFixit's $10 kit. More than fraud and "makers", these screws prevent the curious, non-technical consumer from taking a peek into the innards of their device and accidentally "screwing" something up.


I am very much NOT an under the hood guy. Still, while I get the points our mystery mailer makes, there is something that bothers me about not being allowed to go under the hood. Especially when I've paid for that hood and what is housed underneath.