The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

Google's Broken Fix for Broken Phones

May 25, 2022

I’ve been a fairly enthusiastic Google Pixel owner since the beginning, in spite of the Pixel line’s drunkenly stumbling feature roadmap that makes every Pixel release feel like an episode of “Deal or No Deal.” Since the Nexus 5, I haven’t owned a non-Google phone.

I’ve been really lucky not to have broken any of those phones… Until now. If you are a Pixel owner with an intact, unbroken phone, take my advice: try not to break it.

This is a story about my new Pixel 6 Pro, which I ordered on launch day, like I have for every Pixel phone I’ve owned.

I started using it straight away in spite of not having a case for it yet. There is more to say about how Google managed to sell a new phone with an official case that wouldn’t ship for another month after launch, but let’s leave it at “I couldn’t get a case on day one.”

I ordered a generic case and expected it within a couple of days, so I tried to be careful, and I failed. It was a simple accident, and with a case I’m sure the phone would have been fine, but I managed to break the glass covering the cameras.

Again, there is more to say here about how breakable the glass covering the cameras seems to be, at least compared to the Fruit Company’s camera glass, but this is not a scientific experiment it’s just a story, so let’s keep our eye on the ball, shall we?

Fixing a Google Pixel

If you are an owner of a Fruit Phone, and if you pay for the “FruitCare” insurance plan, you can walk into any Fruit Company Store and they will fix or replace your phone in one hour. The repair option is new for Fruit Company, which used to simply replace all broken phones, but I am told that the store policy is that they must have a replacement phone on hand for any attempted repair, should the repair fail.

That’s great because it’s your phone; while you don’t have it, you largely can’t be reached. Nowadays, you can’t even get anywhere without your maps app of choice, and that’s a topic for another day, but here we are: we’re quite lost without these things (figuratively if not literally), and nobody wants to send one out for potentially weeks for repairs.

Google, however, doesn’t have retail stores all around the world, so they did what any reasonable multi-billion-dollar international corporation would do: they partnered with a consumer electronics insurance company called Asurion. Asurion operates a chain of shops called (I’m not making this up) “uBreakiFix”, which was founded in 2009 and has over 600 stores in the US and Canada.

If you need some repair done on your Google Pixel and you live in the US, you have exactly two choices: mail the phone to Google, or visit a uBreakiFix location (if you can find one near you). I live in the Boston area, so I’m lucky to have two uBreakiFix locations nearby, one just minutes from my house, so that’s what I chose to do.

As it turns out, I should not have done this, but stay tuned for the sick twist at the end.

Where the Trouble Starts

If I had to “bottom line” the troubles I’ve had in getting my Pixel 6 Pro repaired, I’d say it is all on account of Google’s inability to execute this repair relationship with Asurion/uBreakiFix, which includes not only communicating expectations with the entire organization, but aligning parts supply chains and ultimately overseeing the consumer experience (even slightly).

The first time I contacted a nearby uBreakiFix location, I learned that they didn’t have parts other than screens for Pixel 6 Pro phones (the phones having been released just weeks prior), and the person I spoke to suspected that for broken camera glass, they’d have to replace the entire back of the phone and they didn’t have any of those parts.

At this point, the camera worked, and it even worked surprisingly well considering the cracks in front of it, so I chose to live with it and check back in at some later date when more parts might be available.

• • •

Fast forward seven months, and I find myself talking to uBreakiFix about a laptop battery replacement. That’s another whole story, but my local shop did a great job (and fast!) replacing the battery in my years-old MacBook Pro, so I asked once again about the phone glass.

This is when things start to go sideways.

The Trouble Escalates

A very nice guy at my local shop was confident the glass could be fixed. Upon some investigation, we discovered that the camera glass piece itself is now available, and can be replaced without touching the rest of the back of the phone. He said he’d order the part and could do the replacement as soon as it came in.

One thing that put me off about the process, and where I think Google is seriously dropping the ball, is that this guy at the repair shop was literally searching YouTube for how to replace this part, because evidently being Google’s “authorized repair partner” doesn’t mean you get any sort of, I don’t know, service manuals or anything.

Moreover, they do have access to parts, but of course all of the Pixel phone parts are ham-handedly smashed into Asurion’s internal parts database with sometimes inscrutable names like “camera carbon fiber sheet” and no separate reference as to where the part is in the larger assembly or even a picture in many cases.

About a week later, the camera glass piece came in, and I left my phone with them to repair for the weirdest couple of hours during which I listened to terrestrial radio in my car for the first time, um, ever.

I was so excited to pick up my newly fixed phone with pristine camera glass, it would be just like new, it would be finally whole again after so many months.

But as you’d expect by the section heading, my troubles were not over. Indeed, the glass was fixed, hooray! But some tiny broken glass pieces and dust remained inside, and the camera image revealed spots. That’s bad enough, but the autofocus also refused to work.

In short: my phone was now more broken than it was before.

Blame Google

The guy who did the repair was incredibly apologetic, and he actually tried two times to remove the glass again and clean it all out while I sat and waited. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it didn’t work.

Certainly there are criticisms that I could level against uBreakiFix here. I don’t know what training, if any, they are offering these techs. Considering the YouTube searching I witnessed, and the mention of “checking eBay” for some parts, I’d say they operate more like freelancers than employees of an international insurance company authorized by the device manufacturer.

They’re not doing these repairs in what you’d call a “clean room.” There is a semi-frosted glass partition between the storefront and the back room, but it is easy to make out that each employee has a desk where they do repairs and also eat their Lay’s potato chips, an open bag of which I could clearly make out.

While you may or may not choose to leave your device at any uBreakiFix you walk into, Google’s authorization of this chain is a stamp of approval from them. This is Google saying aloud, “Go have your $1,000 Pixel 6 Pro repaired by potato chip guy.”

Expect this process to take weeks, because they’ll have to order parts they “think” might be the right ones, given no official reference, and they’ll be looking up how to do it on iFixit just like everyone else.

My Phone Gets Broken Again

uBreakiFix warranties their own work at least, so I was entitled to a resolution since their camera glass repair was botched. The tech told me that he could order a whole new back camera module and replace the whole thing for free.

I returned, weeks later, after a lengthy family vacation in which I had no properly working phone camera, and they replaced all of the back cameras. It worked!

… But the front camera stopped working. Of course, I didn’t realize this in the store because who tests the front camera after replacing the back cameras? Well, not me, anyway.

I returned to the store and the tech told me that of course they’d order a new front camera module as well and replace that. I may have made a joke about the Ship of Theseus at this point.

Google Support Gets Involved

Replacing the front camera module did not resolve the issue. Factory resetting the phone did not resolve it, either. The repair shop also did some black magic software reset operation that they couldn’t explain to me that failed to resolve the problem as well.

Entirely out of options at this point, the repair tech attempts to call Google Support to escalate to their warranty service. He is hung up on by their automated phone tree twice. He begins a chat with them.

This tech sits in a chat with Google Support for at least 20 minutes while I wait in the storefront twiddling my thumbs (doing NYT crossword puzzles, actually).

Finally, he emerges and tells me that it should be sorted out, but I have to chat with them because they always want the customer to confirm that it’s their device and they are asking for this service and so on, so I get into a chat with Google Support on my broken phone.

This chat then also takes at least 30 minutes, during which time the support person asks me to wait while they “check on things” numerous times for as long as 5-7 minutes each time.

Despite having a case ID for the tech’s original chat and access to the entire transcript, after 30 minutes of chatting, it is clear that Google Support is not aware that I am in the shop and that the shop has repeatedly failed to repair my phone.

They actually recommend to me that I visit a uBreakiFix store. Between bouts of near-nauseous laughter, I tell the tech that not only am I standing in a uBreakiFix store at that exact moment, but the store has failed to repair my phone multiple times.

Finally the Google Support person relents and informs me that they’ll have to loop in some higher-level people, and they’ll have to email me back when they have an answer.

I storm out of the store, dissatisfied, feeling led on, and frustrated with how difficult it has been to reach the breaking point where they’ll just give me a new phone and be done with this.

Escalation Is the Way

From this point, I receive update emails from Google Device Support every day or two telling me that they are sincerely grateful for my patience as they work with their “specialist team” to find some resolution for me.

This goes on for eight days.

Finally, this message comes through:

Hi Aaron,

Thank you for contacting Google Support.

I appreciate your patience in this regard and apologize for the delay in providing the information.

I certainly understand the point. However, I would request you to please visit the repair center again, as the device is in 90 days of extended warranty and it will be repaired free of cost.

In case you experience any issues post visiting the center, you can reach out to us or reply to my follow up email. I’ll take this case forward and help you further.

It is at this point that I decide that Google Device Support is not going to be able to help me. I start configuring Fruit Phones on the Fruit Phone Store and looking up the price of refurbished Pixel 6 Pro phones on eBay.

I wrote a lengthy, polite, but stern reply to Google Device Support informing them of the entire sequence of events that I have experienced since the beginning of this insufferably long saga, in the hopes that perhaps they simply haven’t collated all of the information to understand the reality of this case.

Simultaneously, I hopped on Twitter and posted a lengthy screed in which I voiced my frustration with how drawn out this whole process has been.

In that thread, I named both @Google and @MadeByGoogle (the account dealing with all Google hardware products). Within an hour or two, @MadeByGoogle replied saying that “that’s not the experience we want you to have” and offering to work with me via DM.

I DMed them my two case IDs, and expected that they’d ghost me like iRobot did. Instead, I received an apologetic DM informing me that they’ve escalated my case to “a team that handles escalations” and that I should expect a reply in 24-48 hours.

A few hours later, I received an email from the “Social Support Team” offering me a warranty device replacement.

Google Support Is Broken

Why does Google’s Social Support Team have so much more influence and agency than the official Device Support channel that you can reach via their support website?

Why do techs at Google-authorized repair shops need to open chats with Google Device Support staff to escalate a failed repair? Even when they do, why does Google distrust their reporting of events? (I should note that I also provided Google with the uBreakiFix work order number, which presumably outlines all of the repair attempts and part orders).

In the future, if you have an issue with some piece of Google-branded hardware, it seems that your first stop should be Twitter, to moan publicly about how bad an experience you’re having, because if Google cares about anything it’s their public appearance.

Repair Is a Product Feature

Even in a world where we’re being conditioned to believe that phones are “throwaway devices” and where “VIN locking” is rampant and has likely killed people, the ability to have an expensive device repaired, even at great cost, through official channels is an expectation.

It’s irresponsible of Google, a multi-billion-dollar international corporation, to do such a half-assed job of Pixel repair after this many years and iterations of Pixel phones. Full stop.

uBreakiFix has ordered an entire replacement camera module for my phone, and I’m sure that the tech who messed up the glass repair is going to be extra careful in replacing it for me, and I’ll update this post when it’s all over.

To be clear, I’m not blaming uBreakiFix, or even this specific tech for these issues. Accidents happen in repair, and the job is tricky. But it’s made impossibly hard by the absence of official documentation, availability of parts, and support for doing the job in the way that Google should want it to be done. The whole situation reeks of corner-cutting in a way that Google is kind of notorious for.

But what can I do? Get a Fruit Phone? That’s a topic for another—much longer—post, I think.