In the spring of 2020, I had gotten a new iPhone SE – the first generation. The second generation SE was already out but the reason I like the original is the size. I got the phone “new” from eBay but it turned out to have been actually refurbished with a few issues and one of those issues just came to a head. The battery swelled up and the battery would discharge really quickly the lower it got. I now have a fully functional iPhone SE but it took a lot more work to get me here than I expected.
I bought my current iPhone SE (1st generation), an A1662, to replace my prior SE. My prior one had 64 Gb and I was finding it to be somewhat limiting when taking movies. Also my wife was looking to replace her phone (iPhone 5s) and she likes the smaller size too while not ever coming close to using the 64 Gb. So she could get my SE that was working well while I would get the new one with the larger storage. I like the small size of the SE. While there are times I want the display to be bigger to see things larger, most of the time I prefer that the phone be smaller and lighter. And if I do something that warrants a larger display, I’ll switch to my tablet, my laptop, or my desktop computer. I’m just not one of those people who will watch a movie on their phone that they just pulled out of their pocket. So smaller is better for me. There is nothing as small as the iPhone SE (1st gen) that Apple has made since.
Shopping on eBay for a “new” phone that was 4 years old at the time (last March) meant doing some digging. But I did find one that with the description of “New *UNOPENED*”; I bought it for $235. The pandemic was in the early stages so shipping was delayed. But eventually a phone arrived sealed in the Apple box looking quite new. At some point, I realized that the display didn’t seal to the body well on the sides. And then shortly after, I realized there was dust inside the phone in front of the camera making the camera unusable. I looked up how to take the phone apart to clean out the camera lens and while I succeeded in cleaning the camera, I realized that the phone was not actually new – clearly somebody had been inside this phone since it had been manufactured. So the phone wasn’t “new”; it was apparently refurbished and faked to look new. But since I’d been able to figure out how to add some sticky stuff around the camera lens to prevent dusty from getting in there, I thought I had solved the only problem.
On a vacation this summer, I started to notice battery drain issues with my phone. I figured maybe it was because I wasn’t always on my regular network and there were times when I would get “no network” so maybe the phone was working harder to get a signal. But after coming home, the battery life continued to be lousy and in fact started getting worse. I’d be at 100% in the morning and it would initially discharge in the normal way, at least for a phone this size and age. But the lower the charge, the faster it would discharge. When I would get to around 40%, it’d be dropping 1% every few minutes and when it got to around 20%, it was like it was a cliff where you could almost watch it just count down and shut off. And that’s about when I started to notice when the display was showing something bright white, there was a purple streak down the left side. Putting it all together I realized I had a swollen battery. It could be that being on a plane or being where it was hot or using the phone a lot outdoors contributed to the timing of the battery swelling or it could be coincidence.
Looking up the battery replacement, it seemed pretty easy. So I ordered a replacement battery which arrived last Tuesday. And since I was a pro at opening the phone by now, I also ordered a replacement WiFi antenna since WiFi has been dodgy on my phone already. And I really wanted to just get inside my phone one last time and get everything working.
I figured the battery replacement would go well – I expected it to take about a half hour. There were instructions that came with the battery replacement and I also had the iFixIt battery replacement instructions up on my computer display as backup. I did a backup to iCloud first, then I got my phone taken apart pretty quickly. The battery was a mess – inconsistently lumpy. Clearly time to go. However, there was no pull tab at the bottom to remove the adhesive. I figured I would just pry the old battery out and hope I didn’t damage it or the rest of the phone. Removing the battery turned out to be really easy – it clearly was not attached with the original battery adhesive, or even a good quality replacement kit; just two 1″ scraps of hobby double sided tape.
Wait a minute. This is my “New *UNOPENED*” iPhone SE from March of 2020. And not only had the case been opened previously and won’t close properly, but the battery had been replaced. So, umm, no, not “New” and not “*UNOPENED*”. And come to think of it, one of the screws on the side of the Lightning Connector is stripped and there were parts that the iFixIt instructions said would be inside but weren’t. The camera is supposed to have a black adhesive cover over it that I didn’t have. The home button connector has a spring clip to hold it down that wasn’t in mine. There was a screw missing from the home button. Looking at it in this new light, I realized that my “New *UNOPENED*” phone was actually assembled from a pile of parts and was actually “Scrap *COBBLED TOGETHER*”.
Well, I can’t go back and undo any of that now. I proceeded with the WiFi replacement following the iFixIt guide for that and finished up the battery replacement. The reassembly went well. But the phone went into an infinite reboot loop. The Apple logo would come up for a few seconds, then the phone would shut off (not just black display but turned off display) then it would repeat. I let it do it one time for a few minutes thinking maybe there was some sort of reset in progress. But no, this was a really bad sign.
I looked around the Internet for what it meant. I didn’t find a lot of info about a reboot loop after a repair which concerned me even more. I tried taking it apart and double-checking everything. The iFixIt instructions are pretty clear about making sure you put the 4 screws around the display connector bracket back into the same holes they came out of. I’m not sure I did that first but I know I did that second. Some reports indicate that you can ruin the logic board if you use the wrong screws. Maybe I had put the wrong screws in the holes previously for the camera cleaning? But if I had, then the phone was working that whole time with those screws, so that couldn’t be it.
After confirming that my reassembly was correct, I moved on to trying it from a software approach. I put the phone in recovery mode and I tried doing a “restore” using a Mac. (Okay, actually my E5570 Hacintosh!) But that wouldn’t work. It kept failing with “error 9”. Researching that, I found reports of a bad logic board. Figuring that maybe I needed something more stringent, I downloaded the toolkit from i4.cn. I don’t read Chinese so that was pretty difficult to figure out. But mostly I pushed on the icons I thought made sense and found where to try different images for the phone (.ipsw) and tried the 3 versions it offered. In all cases, it got stuck at 20% with something about “NORData”. Again, all signs pointed to a dead logic board. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I tried it one more time with the Mac Finder attempt but squeezed the phone while doing it and it showed a scrollbar on the display! And then it stopped and rebooted. So then I got some clamps and clamped the phone down to the desk and tried i4 and it got to 99% and then stopped. I tried again and it got all the way through to 100%! Then I unclamped the phone and tried to do the restore and it rebooted pretty quickly. I tried doing the restore while squeezing the phone but could only get so far before it cut out and rebooted.
This was a good time to pause and look at the situation. I have a phone that has always had issues – some of which I realized early on, others which I realized as time went on, and others I became aware of only during this replacement. And now I’m at a point where even if I do figure out where the magical point is to apply pressure, am I actually going to be able to fix it? Will the phone ever be reliable given what I know about it now? It all seemed pretty unlikely.
Realizing it was time for a new phone, I looked around at options. The iPhone 12 Mini is actually not too much bigger and I was thinking that might be a decent option. But “new” on eBay options were running $700 for ones with 128Gb (which is what my SE had). So I went back to looking for an iPhone SE. I thought about getting a new logic board but they were only available from China which would mean a long lead time and besides, that might not be my only problem. I found a used silver iPhone SE (1st generation) for $95 that had 128 Gb and ordered that. I dug out my old iPhone 5 and moved the SIM to that so I’d have a phone while I waited for a few days for the new one to arrive. I tried to restore the backup to that iPhone 5 but it was tool old to have the latest iOS so the backup wouldn’t restore. That’s okay, the new one was only a 2 day wait and I could get by until then. When the new one arrived, it looked very new. But as the description mentioned, the battery didn’t hold a charge well. I restored my back up to it and I used it for a couple of days to confirm that everything else was working and found it all good.
Now all I needed to do was get the new battery from the phone that needed a squeeze to work (“older”) into the one that had just arrived from eBay (“newer”). That turned out be much trickier than expected. The battery removal strip broke off immediately in both phones. In the newer, where I didn’t care about the battery (it was also a bit lumpy), I used a metal pry tool to slide under the battery and destroy the adhesive. That was probably not smart because when I eventually got the battery out, not only was it bent but I had broken through the outer casing. To get the new battery out of the older phone, I removed the logic board entirely so I would have access to pry from the side. I used a hair dryer on the back of the phone and then periodically checked to see if I could pry the battery out with an old hotel key card. (I didn’t know why I had kept the key card – I know now!) It eventually let go pretty easily.
Things went pretty well from here on. I got the new battery into the newer phone and reassembled both phones. I wanted to keep the black display so I used that on my newer phone and moved the white display to the older phone body. I replaced the missing home button screw on the back of the black display. I kept everything else about the newer phone. So now my current phone is working and contains the body, logic board, and general guts of a phone I just got used from eBay, the battery new from Amazon, and the display from my phone from a year ago. So far so good.
Going back to eBay just now, I checked and the seller is no longer on eBay. The most recent comments appear to echo the issues I had. They had really a really high rating when I bought from them but apparently they had already begun their decline at the time of my purchase. It does make me think twice about buying a cell phone from eBay – even one that claims to be new and comes sealed. But considering that I fixed my problem by buying another phone from eBay and that this one arrived exactly as it was described, proves that there won’t always be problems.