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: don’t break it.

My current phone is the Pixel 6 Pro, which I ordered on launch day to replace my aging but perfectly serviceable Pixel 4 (I skipped the 5 because they inexplicably dropped the fingerprint sensor; see what I mean about the drunken stumbling?)

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 receive some kind of dispensation, whether a repair or a replacement. I have one close friend who has received entirely new replacement phones under that plan more times than I can actually count.

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, at least), 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.

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 even 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.

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.

Now 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 glass partition between the storefront and the back room, with shapes etched into it for privacy, but between the shapes 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.

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.