That we live in a throwaway society hardly counts as news anymore, but it should. By conservative estimates, some 250 million computers became obsolete through 2010, making for a trash heap humongous enough to swallow the Silicon Valley. Now think about what happens when we toss in all those discarded cell phones, TV sets and digital music players, too.
True, the environmental travesty alone should give us all pause. But it also adds up to a big waste of money, given that young adults under 30 — who use the lion’s share of digital equipment — too often toss out gizmos on the fritz. But can they be fixed? And more importantly, can you learn to fix them yourself?
Repairing your own gadgets might sound like an e-nightmare, especially when it’s so much more convenient to cast them off. But there’s a posse of die-hard repair mavens based in California — firmly in the Money Under 30 demographic — who spread the money-saving message of repair before despair like no one else.
Kyle Wiens and his crew at iFixit.com have done much to empower consumers attempting DIY repairs on smartphones, computers and other electronic gadgetry, and in the process, they’ve liberated the nation’s landfills from taking on more trash, all while saving folks lots of cash. Tongue firmly planted in cheek, iFixit calls itself “a how-to site for crazy people.” But there’s nothing crazy about saving money — and the good news is that you don’t have to be Steve Jobs to make basic repairs on your consumer electronics. What’s more, all their sound advice comes free.
“Our goal is to teach everybody how to fix all their stuff,” Wiens told me recently. “We’re frustrated with where we see society going: You buy something. You use it for a couple of months. You throw it away. You get a new blender, and it’s a piece of crap. What we’ve found with electronics is that they’re moving more and more towards being throwaway products. So we decided rather than complain about the issue, to find a practical solution.”
On iFixit, that solution comes in many forms: step-by-step tutorials, teardowns of the latest products, links to repair manuals and a store where you can buy neat little tool kits to tackle the job. Speaking from personal experience, I love this Pro Tech Toolkit, now selling for $69.95, a 30 percent discount. It comes with more than 70 tools that will help you get all those funny little screws off your laptop or digital device, or gently scrape away the glue that holds a dead rechargeable battery in place.
Can you fix your own iPhone screen or replace an iPhone 4 battery, then? Yes. Can you take a fried CD drive out of your laptop and pop in a new one? Yes. Does that sound intimidating? I imagine the answer to that is yes, too. But I’m not advising you spend the next six months learning the secrets of semiconductors and signal flow; rather, open your mind to the thought that some repairs you’d take to Apple’s Genius Bar or the local computer repair store can be done right at home, if you have the pluck and patience.
Let me give you an example: replacing the keys on your laptop. I’ve owned my MacBook Pro for so long that the keys routinely wear out until the letters become indecipherable. But with practice, I’ve learned how to pry the old key caps off and replace them with shiny new ones that I purchase on eBay. I know I’m saving hundreds of dollars in labor — but I’m also glad that I don’t have to give up my computer for a week, which is the typical wait at an Apple Store when they have to order parts for your repair.
Here’s another one you can try, and it works incredibly well. Lots of folks toss out their power adapters or phone charging cables the instant they fray and exposed wire begins to show. But how about a patch made from electrical tape? Or this incredible stuff called “heat shrink”? Heat shrink is plastic tubing that you slide over a cable, and then hold near a gas flame or other heat source. As you do this, the tubing shrinks like a deflating balloon, and forms a snug fit around the damaged portion of the cable.
Granted, I’m not ready to try a repair on the cracked glass on my iPhone 4S, though I’m guessing if Kyle Wiens reads this, he’s gonna goad me into it. If so, I might reconsider: As it stands I save hundreds of dollars a year in labor charges just by by taking on the easy stuff. What’s more, gadgets that should’ve died long ago still work.
My MacBook Pro is so old, Apple won’t let me update it to Lion software, so I’m stuck in Snow Leopard. It has been through three CD drives, two hard drives, two keyboards and some other essential parts. It has a partially shorted left speaker and the right arrow key is dead until I install keyboard number three. But every extra day I can squeeze out of this machine — and I’ve gotten well past the three-year mark that’s reasonable for most computers — I delay the purchase of a new laptop.
I’m saving dough, and guess what? By extension, I’m saving you money, too: The story you’re reading I’m now typing on that very same computer.
Have you ever attempted repairing your own electronics?