Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

iPhone 12 Camera Module Replacement Now Requires a Proprietary Configuration Tool

Kevin Purdy of iFixit:

We scored the iPhone 12 a 6 out of 10 for repairability when we tore it down last week. Like most iPhones, it is a device designed, generally, to be opened and serviced, even if Apple prefers that only its technicians do so. Most parts can be replaced, the design prioritizes screws instead of glue, and critical components like the display and battery are some of the easiest repairs.

But after seeing some extremely odd results in our standard camera repair tests — spurred further by YouTuber Hugh Jeffreys, whose results matched our own — we felt compelled to dig deeper. The iPhone 12 camera, when transferred to another iPhone 12, appears to work on launch, but fails miserably in actual use. It refuses to switch to the ultrawide camera, responds only to certain camera modes, and occasionally hangs and becomes completely unresponsive.

Until this point, cameras have generally been easy to swap between iPhones of the same model. Even our iPhone 12 Pro tests had no issues: every function worked fine.

If Apple were nefariously attempting to prevent independent smartphone repair, it seems to me it would have made sure to lock down both the iPhone 12 and the 12 Pro. I do not think that is the case. Like the other problems with part swaps cited by iFixit, I think it is more likely that Apple simply does not consider independent shops when figuring out how to repair the devices it makes. It has its own repair program and I bet it believes that is sufficient. I do not think iFixit’s usual cynical assumptions are meaningful.

I do, however, agree that common part replacements should not require proprietary tools or technology. It would be very stupid if you were required to bring your car into a dealership for an oil change or to put your snow tires on. I am not entirely convinced by every right to repair argument. But, as I think more about the knock-on effects of increasingly proprietary repairs, it seems unwise to trust device and equipment makers to do the right thing. The camera module is clearly more product specific than something like engine oil for a car, but surely it should be possible to swap parts from the same model.

As an editorial aside, I think iFixit’s articles would be more persuasive if they focused more on the reality of what is actually happening and less on a cause that is somehow pure evil and highly speculative.