Thanksgiving offers a perfect chance to crack open a busted iPad Air

Phew. I needed that break. I was able to take off the latter half of last week and this past weekend to spend some time with my family, and it was refreshing to get away. Thanks to Geoff and Cyril, with their alternative Canadian Thanksgiving ways, for keeping the site going.

Because I'm partially crazy, I couldn't just relax during my time away, of course. I took it upon myself to attempt a computer hardware repair. And since doing things that are, you know, sensible isn't a requirement for the halfway insane, I decided to replace the cracked glass digitizer on my brother's iPad Air. Any old chump can fix a busted PC, but only the truly elite hax0rs can tackle hardware maintenance for devices that have been designed with active malice toward the technician.

My preparation for this feat was asking my brother to order a replacement digitizer for his iPad Air and watching the first few minutes of an instructional video on the operation before losing interest. I figured, eh, it's all about glue and guitar picks.

Don't get me wrong. It is all about glue and guitar picks, but the YouTube videos lie. They show operations being performed by competent, experienced people whose hands know what to do in each situation. I am not that person, which is a very relevant difference once you get knee deep into one of these operations.

The other way most of the YouTube videos lie is that they show somebody removing a completely whole, unsullied piece of glass from the front of a device. That was not my fate. The screen on my brother's Air had cracks running clear across its surface, combined with shattered areas covered by spiderwebs of tiny glass shards.

The replacement screen came with a little repair kit, including a guitar pick, mini-screwdrivers, a suction cup, and several plastic pry tools. I used a hair dryer to heat the adhesive around the glass pane, pulled up on the glass with the suction cup, pried under it in one spot with the tiny screwdriver, and slipped a guitar pick into the adhesive layer. Sounds simple, but just getting this start took a lot of trial and error.

I soon discovered two important truths. One, I needed about five more guitar picks to keep the areas where I'd separated the adhesive from re-sealing. I had only the one—and we were away from home, at a little rental house thing, for the holiday. Two, getting a cracked screen to separate from the adhesive is a huge pain in the rear. Suction cups don't stick to cracked glass.

Here's what I eventually pulled free from the chassis, after over an hour's hard work with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Notice the spiderwebbed section sticking up. Yes, I literally peeled the glass free from its adhesive backing. Not pictured are the hundreds of tiny glass shards that shattered and fell out during the process, all over me and into the iPad chassis. The minuscule shards practically coated the surface of the naked LCD panel beneath the glass, while others worked their way into my fingertips. The pain was one thing, but worse, I was pretty sure at this point that I'd ruined the LCD panel in my brother's tablet.

Notice that some sections of the screen around the edges are not in the picture above. They didn't break free when I removed the rest of the digitizer, so I had to scrape those shards off of their adhesive backing separately.

Also notice that the busted digitizer doesn't have a home button or a plastic frame around the pinhole camera opening up top. Most of them do, and this one did when I first removed it from the iPad. However, the replacement digitizer we ordered bafflingly didn't come with a home button or pinhole frame included. It did in the YouTube videos, but surprise! You get to do this on hard mode.

The home button bracket seemed like it was practically welded on there. And remember: we didn't have any spare adhesive or glue or anything.

After nearly giving up in despair, I found another YouTube video showing this specific operation in some detail. The dude in it used tools I didn't have, but what the heck. After heating the home button area with the hair dryer, I pulled out my pocket knife and went for it. I proceeded to separate the home button, its paper-thin ribbon connection, and the surrounding metal bracket from the busted digitizer. Somehow, I managed to keep enough adhesive on the bracket to allow it to attach to the new screen. The button happily clicked without feeling loose. This success massively exceeded my expectations.

Once I'd crested that hill, I  came face to face with that perfect Retina LCD coated with glass dust. Frankly, I'd been trying to bracket off my worries about that part of the operation, or I wouldn't have been able to continue. After lots of blowing on the gummy surface of the LCD panel, I decided what I needed to deal with the remaining glass shards and fingerprints was a microfiber cloth. Lint from cotton would be disastrous. Shortly, my brother went out to his truck and returned with a nasty, dirt-covered microfiber cloth that was pretty much our only option. A couple of the corners were less obviously soiled, so I used them lovingly to brush, rub, and polish the surface of the LCD panel. Several spots where I concentrated my efforts just grew into larger and larger soiled areas. My brother stood looking nervously over my shoulder, asking worried questions about the state of things. However, after rotating the cloth and giving it some time and gentle effort, I was somehow able to dispel the oily patches almost entirely.

From here, it was all downhill, right? I attached each of the miniature ribbon connectors and, before reassembling the tablet, turned it on for a quick test. To my great relief and pleasure, the LCD worked perfectly, with no dead pixels or obvious damage of any kind. And the touchscreen digitizer responded perfectly to my input, even though it wasn't yet layered atop the LCD. It was good to go.

The next step was the tedious process of placing the pre-cut 3M adhesive strips along the edges of the iPad chassis. Somehow, I managed to do this without folding over the glue strips and having them stick to themselves. Really not something I expected to pull off cleanly.

Pictured above is the open iPad with the new digitizer attached. You can see the adhesive strips around the edges of the chassis with the backing still on one side. My bandaged fingers are holding up the LCD panel, and the big, back rectangles you see are the iPad's batteries. The device's motherboard sits under the metal shield just above the batteries. It's a little larger than a stick of gum. I stopped to take a picture at this point mostly because my stress level was finally low enough for me to remember to do so.

With only a little remaining struggle, I was able to re-seat the LCD panel and secure it, remove the adhesive backing, flip over the new digitizer, and push it firmly into place atop the new adhesive layer. After a little clean-up, my brother's iPad Air looked as good as new.

Three hours after my journey began, I turned on the repaired iPad. It booted up quickly. The LCD looked perfect. The home button was clicky and solid. And I swiped to log in.

Didn't take.

I swiped again, a few times, and I was able to log in. And then... the thing went crazy. Phantom touches everywhere ran apps, activated UI buttons, and began typing gobbledygook messages. The touchscreen was completely hosed.

Utter defeat. What followed isn't something I'd like to share on the Internet. Suffice to say that I'm a grown man, and grown men shouldn't act like that.

Initially, I blamed myself for messing up the repair with my clumsiness. I figured I must have ruined a ribbon connector or something. Hours later, after I'd gotten some distance from the whole thing, I poked around online and came to a different conclusion. You see, the original adhesive layer I removed from the iPad was essentially a felt lining with sticky stuff on both sides. The repair kit, however, came only with a thin layer of adhesive, with no insulator. I'm now 99% certain that the touchscreen's problems were caused by making electrical contact with the iPad's aluminum chassis. Others have run into the same issue, looks like.

I may never know for sure. My brother took the iPad back to his home after Thanksgiving and will be paying a repair shop to fix it. I dunno whether they'll offer any feedback about what happened.

Meanwhile, I suppose I got a little bit more experience doing repair work on mobile devices. So far, I've learned two things. First, I can do this. It just takes more of the same patience, precision, and self-imposed calm that working on larger computer systems requires. And a few initial victims, like my daughter's Nintendo DS, my mother-in-law's cell phone, my old laptop, and my brother's iPad Air.

Hey, they were broken anyway.

Second, it takes a special sort of person to do this stuff for fun. I am probably not that sort of person—and I'm okay with that.

Besides, next time I'll have a proper heat gun, more guitar picks, and some insulating tape.

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