October 25, 2019 Models you should avoid when buying a used iPhone or Mac

Models you should avoid when buying a used iPhone or Mac

Not all iPhones are created equal. Having done Apple support for literally decades, and really diving deep into hardware and software problems for all iPhones and Macs at Stoneman Consultancy over the last few years, it is easy to see that some models Apple has created have been more plagued with problems that others.
Apple generally makes very high quality hardware, but they are certainly not immune to bad decisions: bad design decisions, bad engineering decisions and bad manufacturing decisions. This is a look at some of the resulting problems, often appearing after some time, with both iPhones and Macs.

Think twice before buying these Macs

Any 2016-2018 MacBook or MacBook Pro, plus the 2105 MacBook

The 2015 12″ MacBook Retina ushered in a host of new design decisions in Apple’s laptops, two of which are important in this discussion: a redesigned keyboard and a redesigned screen hinge.

For the keyboard, Apple redesigned the mechanical mechanism underneath the keys to make the key press travel shorter. This turned out to greatly reduce their reliability in real world usage. Typically, after some time, keys would stop responding or send multiple key presses instead of one. The instigator would often be dust, jamming or disturbing the key press due to the very short key travel. Apple became aware of the problem not long afterwards and subsequent releases of MacBooks would tweak the mechanisms, but not substantially improve the reliability, possibly with the exception of the 2019 releases (the jury is still out, thus they do not feature on this list).

Apple was proud to introduce their new “butterfly” key mechanism in 2015. Nifty engineering, but not thought through properly design-wise

The rumor mill suggests that Apple is just about ready to release (late 2019) a new MacBook Pro with a keyboard designed more like the pre-2016 models. It would be a welcome about-face.

Apple has a free service program for this issue, but you will have to, as with all of these programs, get your Mac to an autorised Apple service center or an official Apple Store to have your Mac checked for eligibility.

* * *

All laptops from Apple 2008-2015 used a well-proven screen hinge design where the signal cable runs out from the screen at one end of the hinge, into the body to connect to the motherboard. The design was simple and robust. It is baffling that Apple changed this design with the aforementioned 2015 MacBook to something much more complicated and flimsy. But they did. The result was almost inevitable: the screens started failing after opening and closing the screen a few hundred times – just like breaking a copper wire by repeatedly bending it. Apple made a tweak to this design, but only in 2019, making all MacBooks and MacBook Pros 2016-2018 prone to this problem, which usually manifests itself as flickering of image on the screen, or a flat out black screen. This might also affect the newly redesigned MacBook Airs released late 2018, only time will tell.

To the left, the signal cable exiting a ‘classic’ MacBook Pro screen at the end of the hinge. To the right, the signal cable assembly hanging from the middle of a post-2015 screen assembly. Guess which one is more complex and prone to material fatigue?

Apple has a free repair program for this issue, but inexplicably, it only caters for the 2016 MacBook Pro 13″ model.

2009-2011 MacBook Pro 15″

MacBook Pros from this period are generally extremely robust, and there are still many of them in circulation in Zambia. They did have one major issue though: the video chip had a tendency to fail, necessitating a motherboard replacement. This was especially true for the 15″ models. Apple did have a replacement program for this specific problem, but it is no longer in effect.

… and these iPhones

iPhone 7/Plus

Just say no! This is easily the clearest recommendation here. By now it is painfully obvious that something was very wrong with the manufacturing of the iPhone 7 and its plus-sized sibling. It has developed a number of problems as a result: mobile network chip failing, audio chip failing, wifi chip failing, and more…. we have seen all of these problems at Stoneman Consultancy, and while we can fix some of them, it is costly and these should never have been issues in the first place.

Microscope image underneath an iPhone 7 audio chip. There are supposed to be metal pads in all the grid points. Notice the three microwires we have stretched from the edge onto missing pads along the left edge, to fix this problem. Each wire is about 0.2mm long

As far as we can understand, the problem must have been in the manufacturing of the board itself, i.e. the substrate all the components are soldered onto, as what is breaking is essentially the electrical signal paths on this board.

So far, despite the many known problems with the iPhone 7, Apple has only instigated a free repair program for one of them: the mobile network chip failing, usually manifesting itself with a “No Service” in the status bar, possibly with a small warning triangle next to it.

iPhone 6 Plus

This iPhone has a similar problem as the iPhone 7, but it seems to be confined to one specific place underneath one specific chip: the one that processes touch input from the screen. This problem has thus been dubbed the “touch disease”. If this happens to an iPhone 6 Plus, it simply stops responding to screen touch completely. Typically, at first, it is possible to restart the phone and get the touch back for a short period before it goes again.

We can fix it, and will be happy to do so for you, but it quite common with this model and would certainly be a concern for any owner (unless we have already fixed it of course, as the fix should be permanent).

Apple has a repair program for this issue, but has sat a price of $149 to get it fixed, which is much more than we charge for fixing it.

iPhone X

The last entry is more of an “dishonourable mention”. There are no mass-problems with the iPhone X (yet), but it is worth mentioning two factors: This iPhone was a complete redesign for Apple, inside out. As such, it should be considered a 1st generation design, with potential 1st generation problems. The other factor is the OLED screen, which was a first for Apple with iPhones, and which has turned out to be a more fragile piece of tech than the screens preceding it. We have seen many iPhone X with screens that have simply gone black or have developed characteristic green lines vertically across the screen.

These considerations are confined to what Apple has released the last 10 years. Having worked with Apple hardware since the mid-1990s, we can confidently say that pretty much everything Apple has created since they shipped their first unibody aluminium MacBook Pro in 2008 is much better than anything that came before it, both from a hardware design and engineering standpoint. But nobody is perfect. For those imperfections, take your Apple gear with you and pay us a visit!

3 thoughts on “Models you should avoid when buying a used iPhone or Mac

  1. Thanks for this.
    Helped my decision a lot.

    One thing though, could you help me unblock my iPhone 6? I lost the chip and now I’m told I need to buy the original network simcard it came with. Surely there should be another way.

    1. Glad you found the tips useful! As for network unlocking, you can do it yourself as well as anybody by using one of the online services that do this (which is what anybody you ask to do it will use as well). We have used http://www.doctorsim.com in the past with success, and suggest you try the same. For more information, you can read the piece I wrote about it some time back: https://www.stonemanzambia.com/2017/07/13/how-to-unlock-your-network-locked-iphone/

  2. When it comes to Amazon, you can do a search for used MacBook Pros by model year, but the company doesn’t list them that way. Instead, they list the model number of the Mac, which makes it harder to know what you’re looking at.

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