It’s every smartphone user’s nightmare: you pull out your brand new handset to do some business, it slips out of your hand, and one bad bounce later you’re staring at a broken screen.
I’ve felt this pain before. At two and a half months old, my then-new Samsung Stratosphere took an unlucky bounce on the kitchen counter and came up with a smashed display. It was the first time I had ever broken a screen in the decade plus I’ve owned mobile gadgets.
It also served as a good lesson: a busted display can happen to anyone, no matter how careful they try to be. But once your phone is broken, what can you do?
Choosing an Option
The easiest solution is to simply buy a new phone, but that may be prohibitively expensive for many people who are in the middle of a contract. That’s doubly true if you have a higher-end device that won’t go for cheap on eBay. There are mail-in repair services out there which promise to return your device like new, but those can also cost a pretty penny.
The speed and simplicity of such services may still make them worth it to most people, but if you’re good with your hands, you have another option: replacing the damaged parts yourself. It’s not for the faint of heart, but repairing your own phone can take a sizable load off of your wallet. In the following guide, I’ll walk you through the experience replacing my old Stratosphere’s broken display — the ups, downs, best practices and, ultimately, a worthwhile victory.
Step One: What’s Broken?
Before you start contemplating whether to repair your phone, you need to know exactly what’s wrong with it. There are two different layers that can potentially break. One is the digitizer, which is the top layer of glass that sits just above where the picture forms on the screen. This is what senses the touch of your finger. The other is the screen itself, which is right below that. Both layers are breakable, but the latter is usually the more fragile part.
Depending on your phone, you may be able to get either part separately, or you may have to buy a combined digitizer/screen module. Having to buy both isn’t always a bad thing — even if only one part is broken, it’s incredibly easy to destroy everything in the process of removing the other. With many phones, even just getting the LCD detached from the digitizer may fatally crack one or the other, so it’s likely best for you to replace both at the same time.
Since the digitizer and the screen of my Stratosphere came glued together, I had no choice but to order both. I’m glad that was the case, though, because the original digitizer and screen both wound up trashed by the end of my repairs. Getting the two parts together may have been a little more expensive, but it would have been even pricier to go back and replace something else again after any potential mishaps.
Step Two: Getting the Parts
Once you know what you need to replace, you need to find someone who sells it. Depending on your phone, this process can range from painless to painful. Replacement screens for certain iPhones sell for under $20, whereas a new display and Touchscreen assembly for my Stratosphere cost me around $130. As a general rule, the more common your phone is, the easier it’ll be for you to find reasonably priced parts.
Unfortunately, the cheapest vendor doesn’t always make for the best deal. There are many, let’s say, less-than-reliable vendors who take advantage of the fact that smartphone replacement parts aren’t exactly something you can pick up at your local Best Buy.
In my case, the seller disappeared after I made my purchase, never shipping my parts and never responding to my messages. Thanks to PayPal, I eventually got my money back, but I was left a month later, no closer to having my phone repaired. Just be sure to remember the human element in all of this.
Your best choice here is to stay with major sellers; they’re usually the most reliable, even if they tend to be a little bit more expensive. eBay is as good a place to go as any, since it offers a little more security against potentially defective parts, and many direct parts sellers retail there.
Step Three: The Repairs
The first step in replacing your screen is to disassemble your phone and remove its broken parts. Sadly, this is also the easiest place for the entire affair to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I cannot stress this enough: the disassembly is the hardest and most dangerous part of the screen replacement process. A little mishandling or overzealousness can break plastics, tear ribbon cables and generally do irreparable damage to other pieces inside the phone.
Always go slow, never use sharp implements, and be thorough. Be sure to work on a large, open, clear space like a table, so that you can have plenty of room to set screws and other tiny pieces aside without losing them. In my case, my replacement operation spanned two days, because when I became frustrated I knew it was best to walk away and cool off.
YouTube is incredibly helpful for this phase, since you can often find exact visuals of how to dismantle your specific handset. This is especially handy for finding any hidden screws that could otherwise foil your attempts to get the phone apart. And beyond those, phones today are also held together using catches and adhesive, so you’ll need to know the right locations to pull and pry to avoid bricking your device completely.
Each phone model tends to be different, so exact disassembly procedures will vary, and my advice from here on out is necessarily going to be somewhat vague. I can say for sure that you’ll need at least one tiny screwdriver and a prying tool of some kind, though. The latter should be plastic and thin, but not sharp. A guitar pick is ideal, but a credit card will do alright in a pinch.
Once you get the first round of screws under the battery cover removed, you’ll need to pry apart the casing until the catches unsnap. This is an exercise in gentle force — apply just enough to get them separated, but not enough to do damage. These catches tend to re-snap themselves if you don’t pull them out far enough. It’s hard to know when that is, though, so slowly work your way around the edge of the casing until it starts to separate, and then gently see if you can pull it apart.
Once you’re inside your phone, the biggest risk is damaging its main ribbon cable. This is a broad, flat cable that connects the LCD and digitizer to the phone’s main board. If it gets torn or broken in any way, it’ll have to be replaced too, likely for at least another $20. This, among other reasons, is why you should never use a screwdriver or any other metal tool with sharp edges for prying.
You’ll need to remove this cable to replace the screen, so be very gentle. Detach it from the phone’s main board first, and then remove the main board to expose the display. If you have a phone with a slide-out panel like my Stratosphere, the display half will need to be separately disassembled.
When the screen is exposed, check carefully for whatever parts you need to save from the old screen assembly. Things like a front-facing camera and any capacitive buttons are usually not included with new parts, so they need to be removed and reinstalled with the new screen.
From here, you have to get the screen and digitizer out. I won’t lie — this is probably going to wreck both pieces. LCDs in particular are very, very delicate, and the force needed to get it all unglued will probably break anything short of Gorilla Glass. If you want to remove these glued parts without too much damage, heating them up with a hair dryer can help.
Be careful around these pieces too. LCDs are made of weak glass, but it’s still glass, which means it can still cut and stab if you aren’t paying attention. The much stronger glass of the digitizer is even more dangerous if it goes to pieces, though it’ll usually stay together even if it cracks.
After you get those parts off, go around the edges of the device and trim any loose adhesive material that’s sticking out. Once that’s done, very carefully seat the glass digitizer into the frame, and then reattach the ribbon cables. There’ll be one for the earpiece, light sensor and camera, one for the capacitive buttons, and one for the main cable itself.
After following these steps and carefully threading the main cable of my Stratosphere back through the sliding mechanism, I replaced the main board, connected the main ribbon to it, and screwed everything into place. It looked like I was finally done.
Step Four: Completion (or not), Retreads and Victory
Feeling a strong burst of pride from my success, I gently went about reassembling the phone, snapping the cover back into place, and installing the battery. I went to power it up and…it didn’t work. This was panic moment number one.
Then I heard the sounds of the phone itself booting up, but the screen remained totally black. With my frustration rising, I began to disassemble the device again and check its internal connections.
If you find yourself having this same problem, the most likely culprit is a loose cable connection to the screen. Unfortunately, while disassembling it, one of the screws I had just put back in chose to stick and almost strip in place. This was panic moment two.
After taking a quick breather, I managed to get the offending screw removed by very carefully using tip of a knife. Don’t try this too often — one wrong slip of the hand, and such a sharp implement could’ve ruined what was left of my phone. But stripping the screw would have had the same effect, so it was unfortunately necessary — and, in this case, successful.
That problem aside, I took the phone back down to the screen again. The ribbon cable was tight on the LCD end, but apparently not tight enough. I slid it a little farther into the connector, locked it down, and went about testing the phone again. Sure enough, the screen lit up, and everything turned on properly. I breathed a big sigh of relief, and finished reassembling the rest of my device.
After all my handiwork, I was left with a nearly good-as-new Samsung Stratosphere, one that didn’t look anything like the useless hunk of smashed screen I was saddled with just a couple days prior. And all it cost was the price of a couple of parts, some stubbornness, and a few hours of hard but delicate work.
Although it was a little trying at times, I saved at least $50 over what it would have cost to replace the phone entirely through eBay. That’s not to mention the personal pride and bragging rights gained from saving my phone from an unhappy yet all too common fate.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend that everyone replace their busted smartphone screens. If you’re not good with delicate operations, you might as well be wasting your time. But with some guidance like this and some device-specific help from YouTube, you just might be capable of a little DIY repairing too. If nothing else, you’ll gain a little more insight into the inner workings of a modern smartphone. Either way, I know that my time and effort paid off by returning my shiny smartphone to my side, almost as good as new.