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How repairable is your smartphone?

Peter Griffin, Contributor. 11 May 2021, 10:13 am

Consumer New Zealand has created a version of the French smartphone 'repairability index' to give phone buyers an idea of how well phone brands facilitate repairs.

Apple and its Android rivals release numerous handsets every year, complete with a hype cycle that calls for consumers to upgrade for the best new features. A smartphone should last for five years or more, and with support for repairs and replacement parts, potentially years longer.

But there is wide variation across brands in how repairable smartphones, as the French Government discovered at the start of the year when it introduced its repairability index, a score out of 10 assigned to consumer electronics products and which is required to be displayed alongside products in shops.

The index emerged in France to support anti-waste legislation that was introduced to encourage a circular economy - where products are sustainably made and recycled at the end of their lifespan. In France, it applies to smartphones as well as washing machines, electric lawnmowers, laptops and TV sets. By 2024, its criteria will be expanded to include broader measures of sustainability.

The French index will be mandatory to participate in from next year, but involves a self-assessment by phone makers. They assess the repairability of their own phones according to five criteria - availability of repair documentation, how easy it is to disassemble the product, the availability of spare parts and criteria specific to each product type.

Screenshot 2021-05-11 at 9.42.45 AM.png

France's consumer electronics repairability index, which Consumer NZ is applying here.

As Consumer NZ test writer Nick Gelling explains about the French system, "the process is transparent, it'll be self-policing - competitors and consumers should quickly call out any company that posts an inflated score".

In New Zealand, where the index hasn't been mandated by the Government, Consumer NZ will publish the index scores from France, as part of its own Built to Last campaign.

"We think this kind of intervention is necessary because basic smartphone maintenance such as replacing a spent battery has become almost prohibitively difficult," wrote Gelling in a post on the index. 

"Strong adhesives and unusual screws thwart most DIY jobs, and manufacturers prefer to keep the inner workings secret from independent repairers."

Consumer NZ has already added the index scores to around half of its test results for smartphones - the rest haven't yet been scored in France as phone makers still have time to self-assess themselves for the index. Huawei and Oppo, two Android phone makers with a strong presence in the New Zealand market are omissions from the French list. 

But the index has already revealed a large gap in repairability between the two current market leaders here - Apple and Samsung. 

Apple's iPhone 12 scored 6/10 on the French repairability index, compared to 4.6/10 for the iPhone 11. The newer generation has a simpler dismantling process and cheaper spare parts, according to Gelling.

"In March, Apple announced it would begin supplying iPhone parts and guides to independent Kiwi repairers that have completed a free certification process, which brings us in line with France," he added.

The Samsung phones are more repairable according to the index - the S20 FE (8.1/10), S21+ (8.2/10) and A42 5G (8.1/10). The previous generation S20 scored just 5.7/10, but since then, Samsung has published a repair manual online - in French. That says Gelling, shows the limitations of applying the French index in New Zealand, though does suggest that the French have been successful in pushing the smartphone makers to get better at facilitating phone repairs.'

With the European Union considering introducing a similar scheme it seems likely that repairability will receive a stronger focus from phone makers. As the product range covered expands, it may give pause in particular to TV makers. TV repair shops have all but disappeared as replacement culture has taken over. 


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