I built a like-new(but really refurbished) iPhone 6S 16GB entirely from parts I bought in the public cell phone parts markets. And it works!
I’ve been fascinated by the cell phone parts markets in Shenzhen, China for a while. I’d walked through them a bunch of times, but I still didn’t understand basic things, like how they were organized or who was buying all these parts and what they were doing with them.
So when someone mentioned they wondered if you could build a working smartphone from parts in the markets, I jumped at the chance to really dive in and understand how everything works. Well, I sat on it for nine months, and then I dove in.
Q: Who are you?
A: I’m Scotty Allen. I’m an American engineer, entrepreneur, and hacker. I’ve worked at Google and several other prominent Silicon Valley startups. I’ve been traveling the world full time for the past 3 years. I’m a nomad, which means I don’t have an apartment or house anywhere that I rent full time.
I’ve spent about half of the past year and a half in Shenzhen, China, learning about the electronics manufacturing scene – the industrial markets, factories, and back alleys where the world’s electronics are made. I started Strange Parts as a way to start telling stories about my adventures.
Q: What gave you the idea to build your own iPhone?
A: I was hanging out with a bunch of open source hardware geeks in Shenzhen, loosely affiliated with Ian and Jin at Dangerous Prototypes. Someone mentioned that they’ve seen all these phone parts in the cell phone repair markets, and wondered if you could use them to build your own phone. I’d walked through the markets a bunch before, but I didn’t really understand much about them, or what all was happening there. But I was really curious about how it all fit together, and this seemed like a great excuse to dive deeper.
Q: Where did you get the parts?
A: I bought them all from the cell phone repair markets in Huaqiangbei in Shenzhen, China. These are public wholesale markets that target cell phone repair businesses all over the world.
Q: Did you need any special tools?
A: In the end, no, unless you count that special pentalobe screwdriver Apple insists on using for the two outside screws. Some of the kids in the market that do repair also have one really long fingernail they use for prying up connectors, but I haven’t gotten quite that hardcore yet.
Really just a couple screwdrivers and a pair of tweezers are pretty much all you need for the main assembly. The big exception is the screen – there’s lots of bulky and expensive specialty tools necessary to do the lamination, which is why I ended up going to a screen repair booth, rather than buy all the equipment myself.
Q: How long did this take you?
A: It took me about 2 months to figure out what parts I needed, how and where to buy them, and to assemble the actual working phone. This included a lot of dead ends, including most notably trying to solder together my own logic board. Knowing what I know now, I think buying all the parts and building another phone would only take me a day or two. After I finished the phone, I spent a 2 more months editting all the video I’d shot, and shooting missing bits I needed to tell a good story.
Q: How much did it cost?
A: I’ve spent over $1000 at this point, but a lot of it was duplicate parts I didn’t end up using and tools I didn’t end up needing. I’d estimate the cost of the actual parts that went into the phone at around $300, maybe a bit more (I wasn’t keeping perfect track).
Q: How did you get the software onto the phone?
A: I didn’t – it came preinstalled on the logic board. I believe that the logic board came out of a legitimate phone made by Apple. The seller did some repair work, but it still had iOS installed on the flash chip.
Q: How does the phone you built compare to an iPhone assembled by Apple?
A: It’s very, very close. So close that the average person can’t tell the difference when comparing it side by side with the same model phone I bought in an Apple store. However, I also showed it to a Chinese friend who is studying to be a professional iPhone repair technician, and we spotted a couple minor but correctable cosmetic flaws. As far as functionality goes, it is completely comparable to the iPhone I bought in the Apple store, as far as anyone I’ve shown it to can tell.