Do device repairability scores and drop tests matter?
6th Aug 2013 | 17:37
Or are they just good for a voyeuristic cringe?
You've seen the videos. A phone dangles precariously in someone's hands, a countdown begins. On "one," the phone plummets to Earth, accompanied by a "crack!" and, more often than not, a few actual cracks.
These drop test videos can garner millions of views, and while they're fun to watch in a cringe-inducing way, do they serve an actual, helpful purpose?
What about repairability scores in general? It's become de regular that mere days after most devices are announced, there's a tear-down revealing the innards and how easy (or hard) the parts are to put back together again. Do examinations into whether you can replace a phone's battery with or without a surgical tool have any bearing on consumers' purchasing decisions?
There are plenty of tests, reviews and ratings coming from professional drop-testers (if they can be called that) and amateurs alike. We set out to discover whether consumers pay more than just a passing glance to repairability scores and drop tests and if there's more to watching devices meet an untimely end than meets the eye.
Repairing or replacing a smartphone or tablet can be an expensive proposition, and a cheaper though less reliable route to take is self-repair.
However, we don't live in an age where shop class is a high school requirement any more, so beyond a few handy folks are consumers repairing their devices themselves?
Who you gonna call?
iFixit.com is a well-regarded site that specializes in tearing down mobile devices and posting reviews and rates based on how easy the machines are to repair. It regularly reveals useful tidbits like the fact that among three of the hottest phones available right now - Apple's iPhone 5, Samsung's Galaxy S4, and the HTC One - the S4 is the easiest to repair yourself.
Similarly, Square Trade, which offers third-party extended warranties for popular electronics, publishes "drop test" videos demonstrating the durability of various phones when dropped from specific heights.
The information provided by sites like iFixit and services like Square Trade is meant to be used like tools by consumers to inform their purchasing decisions, and doubtless there are some that use them for exactly that - just as there are many who simply like to watch iPhones get dropped into swimming pools.
Miroslav Djuric, iFixit's chief information architect, offered some semi-hard data to back up his assertion that consumers take iFixit repairability ratings into account when making purchases.
In a recent survey of 13,000 iFixit community members, he told us that 93 percent responded that ease of repairs is an important factor in the hunt for a new device.
Of course, that's exactly what iFixit community members would say, isn't it? But Djuric offered some anecdotal evidence as well.
"We've heard from tons of people through social media that they're going to flat-out not purchase a phone or tablet because its battery cannot be swapped out, or the device was encased in glue and it can't be easily opened," he said.
"The opposite is also true: Folks were quite pleased to hear that a particular device scored well, and is actually serviceable."
What about Square Trade? Could it offer any evidence that consumers watch its drop test videos for any reason other than the visceral joy of seeing a Samsung Galaxy S3 get smashed under a beer bottle?
Ty Shay, Square Trade's chief marketing officer, told us that most people have at one time or another learned how expensive a broken phone can be to fix or replace. You can buy a phone from a carrier at a heavily subsidized price, but it will still cost $600 to repair, for example.
Shay suggested that as more consumers experience that, word will continue to spread in casual ways that a damaged phone can be a major burden, and iFixit and Square Trade's efforts to educate them will become ever more relevant.
"Millions of Americans have had those experiences, and I think once you've had that it definitely teaches you," he said. "It changes your behavior going forward."
Square Trade has three ways of determining device durability, which can affect the warranties it offers. For one thing, Shay said the thousands of claims the company processes every day provide "real, hard data" about which devices are breaking, not to mention how the machines are breaking. Unfortunately, Square Trade wasn't willing to actually share that data, but the company does use it for its own purposes.
Square Trade also conducts a significant amount of consumer research, Shay said, and it takes its own tests - which range from immersing phones in water to seeing how likely they are to slide off your coffee table - into account.
These tests, which sometimes earn millions of views, can also change consumers' opinions, Shay contended.
"Is that the factor that determines what phone they're going to buy? I would say no," he said. "I would say that it is a factor that enters into their overall decision-making process."
Phones with nine lives
Square Trade said it has yet to conduct a study on which phones are the most or least durable in the industry overall, and it didn't provide any data about which phones are most likely to be returned or require repair.
Spokespeople for the major carriers also refused to play ball. Sprint said that type of data is "competitive information that Sprint does not share," while Verizon said it "[doesn't] share numbers of that nature." AT&T said it's "not something we'd share publicly," and T-Mobile never responded to TechRadar's queries on the matter.
We did, however, speak with one phone maker that focuses on reliability and durability as a rule, not as an afterthought. Caterpillar, the makers of the "ruggedized" Cat B15 and the company that also makes heavy-duty construction equipment, said that its phone is designed specifically "to withstand dropping, knocking, water and dust."
"We have designed the Cat B15 device to be the most progressive, durable and functional device available in the market today," said Cat Director of Strategy Colin Batt. The company offered no hard data on how important that durability is to their customers, but Batt said that the feedback the company gets is "overwhelmingly positive."
Cat did divulge that according to its studies, 77 percent of damage to phones is caused by dropping, and its phones are drop-tested extensively to prevent such damage. The company also tests its phones to make sure the handsets can withstand certain levels of water, dust, shock and vibration, Batt said.
If a Cat phone does sustain damage, the company doesn't encourage consumers to repair it themselves, but like other phone makers offers warranties and return policies that "are in line with the market."
"We recognize that some people's exuberance to demonstrate the durability of their Cat phone may 'end in tears,'" Batt said.
"We don't warrant that the phone is indestructible, as everything can be broken if you try hard enough," he continued. "We know exactly how the devices behave and what they look like when they have been put through scenarios that exceed our claims."
Manufacturer knows best
We also asked several other phone makers, including Apple, Nokia, HTC, Samsung, Huawei, BlackBerry and Motorola, to weigh in on the topic of device reparability, but none of the companies we asked were interested in discussing it.
The phone makers likely wouldn't have had much to say anyway; most electronics makers have strict policies on repair, and for many the simple act of opening up your phone to take a look yourself means voiding the warranty, Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) Director of Industry Analysis Steve Koenig told us.
The CEA each year hosts the massive CES tech convention in Las Vegas. As an industry advocacy group, CEA might have some programs in place to educate or inform consumers about the best way to handle device repairs, or so we thought. Koenig said that's not the case.
"I think our position is that consumers should first start with contacting the retailer or manufacturer about [whether] a product is malfunctioning or damaged to investigate repair options," he said.
"In a lot of cases, if you avoid that route or don't take that path you will void your warranty."
Electronics makers want to be in control of repairs because of quality concerns as well as not being held responsible for faulty devices repaired at home or by third parties, he explained. This only intensifies over time as electronics become ever more complex.
"We're not talking about gears and cogs and belts," Koenig said. "We're talking about microelectronics that are very, very sophisticated and require a high degree of skilled labor to repair properly."
In a recent consumer survey, the CEA found that warranty concerns had an impact on electronics purchases for 75 percent of people born between 1965 and 1980, 64 percent of consumers from the period 1981 to 1994, and 54 percent for those born from 1995 to 1999.
The survey also asked about factors like overall device quality, price, and features. Reparability wasn't even an option for respondents to choose.
But Koenig said he feels comfortable inferring from the data regarding consumers' warranty concerns (or lack thereof) that consumers aren't currently too concerned about device repairs, either.
"The data doesn't say that, but that's what I would read from these findings," he said, adding that these days phone users are likely to simply buy a new device rather than have a broken one repaired or try a DIY repair.
So ultimately, is anyone paying attention to the repair scores and drop tests and warranties? Yes, of course. But the question of who and how many remains murky.
iFixit and Square Trade swear each is making a difference, and the groups very well may be. iFixit in particular even seems to have a noble agenda: slowing the consumption of the planet's resources by encouraging consumers to buy easily repaired devices and repair their electronics themselves or have them repaired rather than buying new ones.
"For quite a while we've been spearheading the return of [the knowledge necessary to repair your own electronics]," Djuric said. "That is the only path through the great 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book that doesn't lead to the world's collapse due to humans' strain on resources."
That's a pretty bleak notion, but he added some figures to back it up, claiming that 1.75 billion phones were produced last year.
"Things aren't looking too bright for the future unless we can make existing devices last longer," he said. "That's why we started iFixit, and why we're making custom-built tools [like the Pro Tech Toolkit] in order to help people fix devices."
In other words: if people aren't paying attention already, they had damn well better start.