Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My iPhone Goes For a Swim

Ok, so this happened several weeks ago, but I wanted to see how things actually played out before writing this post.

I was getting ready to do some laundry while carrying on a conversation with my mother.  Start the water, soap goes in, shirts, pants - pretty automatic.  I finished the conversation, finished loading, and went upstairs.  I made it as far as my second-floor bedroom.

"Oh FUCK!"

I think you can see where this is going...  I essentially flew down the stairs, continuing the stream of expletives, whipped open the cover of the washing machine, and fished the expensive trinket out of the pocket of my jeans.

Now, for those of you without extensive experience with the havoc created by computerized electronics and moisture, I'll recap:  There's something of a "standard procedure" for giving your prized device a fighting chance in this situation:

  1. DO NOT TURN IT ON! No, seriously. Don't check if it works. Turn it off if it's already on.  Electricity can't short circuit if it isn't flowing.
  2. Take out the battery!  Again, can't have a short circuit if you don't have any power.
  3. Open the thing up as much as you can.  If possible, and you are skilled enough, partially take it apart.  Dry it out thoroughly before doing anything else.  The common suggestion for cell phones is a bed of dry rice, left in the sun for a day or two.
  4. Clean the insides if you can.  Once the moisture is gone, corrosion from minerals left behind is your biggest worry.  Be meticulous, but gentle.  A cotton swab with rubbing alcohol works well.
  5. Pray.
Back to my situation, I had a soaked-through iPhone 3GS in my hands.  It had only been underwater for maybe 60 seconds, but that's more than enough time for the water to work its way through.  It wasn't fully "off" - just in its usual "suspend" mode, but I didn't want to risk waking it up to properly turn it off.  And with a sealed-in battery, (grrrr...) I couldn't remove power quickly.

As my fellow geeks would probably expect, my immediate instinct was to rush to my computer, fumble around for my set of Very Small Screwdrivers (what, you don't have one?) and head straight to's tear-down instructions for the iPhone 3G/3Gs.  (I eventually had to look at several of their other guides for more detailed instructions on certain parts, but seriously, I can't plug iFixit enough!)  Thankfully, I happened to have the required suction cup sitting around, so I was able to frantically open the phone.  One the major pieces were disassembled, I put them in their rice-y rehab center.

To help with the drying process, I augmented the powers of Uncle Ben with one of the 150-watt lamps I use for my video work...

I also put some saran-wrap over the dish that held the rice and iPhone parts.  This would create a bit of a "greenhouse effect," increasing the drying heat inside.  I also hoped it would let me see the progress of the drying, as the evaporating water condensed on the inside of the plastic. And condense it did...

I let it sit there for about 12 hours, changing the plastic whenever it got noticeably wet. Ideally, you should give a phone as much time as you possibly can, since you really want it to be bone dry.  Of course, like anyone, I was impatient.  Luckily, I was comfortable enough with tiny devices like phones, PDA's and laptops, that I was o.k. with taking the iPhone apart almost completely.  That really helps the drying process, but your mileage may vary if you're less experienced with this sort of thing.

In any case, once I finally sat down that night to clean and re-assemble the thing, I didn't know what to expect. Most everything inside looked ok, except for one slightly scorched-looking area on the main logic board (See picture to the right).  I still haven't found solid confirmation on what this is online, but at this point my assumption is that it's a surface-mounted Wi-Fi antenna.

Well, the water sensors were also all tripped, but well... y'know.

After a good cleaning, I nervously reassembled the phone, not sure of what was going to happen. After popping the case back together and twirling home the final two screws, I held the power button, and waited...

Not too bad, all things considered. There was a very noticeable light blotchiness across the screen (as well as some faint diagonal lines that don't come out well in photos), but I had read reports of that elsewhere online. Consensus was that it's trapped residual moisture between the LCD and the glass, and that it dissipates over time. The real annoying bit was the Wi-Fi - it wasn't unreliable, it didn't have trouble locating networks - it simply wasn't there.  Wouldn't even read as a function the phone had.  AT&T's 3G network is pretty fast, but it's still not Wi-Fi fast, and the cellular connection also puts a much higher drain on the battery.

The next day, the Wi-Fi was still M.I.A., but the blotchiness had definitely improved.

It continued to get better as the week wore on.  By two weeks, both the blotches and the diagonal streaks were gone.  The phone looked almost good-as-new, except it couldn't do Wi-Fi.  My dad called it my "iPod un-Touch".  I resigned myself to this being my situation for the foreseeable future. Liquid damage instantly voids the iPhone warranty (standard practice for cell phones) and Apple would charge me $200 to replace it out-of-warranty. Not a bad deal, all things considered, but I don't have a whole lot of discretionary income at the moment, so not something I can take advantage of.  Besides, other than the Wi-Fi, the phone works.  Quite well.  So that's that.

But hold on just a second...

Fast-forward to last week. I had periodically been doing a full shutoff-reboot of the phone, just to see if that would do anything. Some websites had reported seeing lost wireless functionality return after doing this, but it never did anything for me.

Except, this time, it did!

So now my formerly-aquatic iPhone even has WiFi back. Well... kind of.  The range is really limited, and kind of unpredictable (making me more confidant the "scorched" part was, in fact, the antenna). But hey, if I'm sitting 5 feet from the router, it stays pretty reliable!  ;-)

So there you have it. A testament to Apple's engineering team... or my ineptitude. Take your pick.

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