The History of the Teardown: The Need to See Our Gear Undressed

The documented teardown has become a necessary part of any gadget's release. But why do we feel this need to take our gear apart?

It has become inevitable. A day or two after a high-profile gadget hits stores, two stories pop up on the gadget blogs, the tech sites and magazines: A review, and photos of the gadget taken apart, most often courtesy of a website called iFixit. The latest and most evolved actor in the storied history of “teardowns,” iFixit is the logical conclusion of the entire idea of stripping a gadget down to its barest components, photographing and disseminating the findings. An iFixit teardown is at once a 21st-century repair manual, a work of art, an exhibition of a curiosity, and an activist gesture. Advertisement

iFixit was established in 2003 in a dorm room at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, a smallish college town in California’s central coast, by students Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules. Wiens repaired Apple computers in high school and had been a lifelong tinkerer, so when he accidentally dropped his iBook G3, breaking the power cord housing, he figured it’d be an easy fix. “I managed to get my computer apart, fixed the power plug, but could not get it back together for the life of me,” he says. “I needed a manual, but Apple actually uses legal threats to keep their manuals out of the public domain.” Despite his frustration, or maybe because of it, Wiens saw a problem to which he could provide a solution. It was the start of an idea which would become iFixit, and the iBook G3 (which Wiens loved despite its “toilet seat” design) became one of the first gadgets to receive a proto-iFixit repair manual.

Early Teardowns

“I was always taking things apart as a kid,” says Wiens, “and if my parents were lucky, I’d be able to put them back together again.” The desire to see what’s inside a device—how it works—is an innate curiosity in all of us. Wiens isn’t the first, by any means, to document his efforts and circulate them for an appreciative audience. In the last half-century or so, when photography has been easy and cheap to include in journals, magazines, and other publications (and later, online), teardowns have been a part of just about every publication that could come up with a reason to include one. Way back in 1947, Popular Science was engaging in our nearly carnal need to take stuff apart, showing a Navy jet engine all disassembled and vulnerable.

And in late 2006, had one of its all-time highest traffic days when we posted photos looking inside the then just-to-be-released Nintendo Wii. At that point, we had beaten even iFixit to the punch (our early evaluation model was disassembled for a photoshoot, and like Wiens, we could not put it back together).

“The kind of world I want to live in is the kind where we care about the things we have.”In magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Electronics, teardowns were always a go-to concept for complex or otherwise interesting items. They were usually presented as having a higher purpose, either for instruction or repair, but underneath the noble intentions was a simpler, more childlike role. In some ways, iFixit is using that same two-pronged approach: Their teardowns are designed as modern repair manuals, but when they take apart gadgets their readers are unlikely to actually need to repair, they’re serving more as an outlet for curiosity than a pragmatic, Wiki-fied repair site.

Still, regardless of the intentions of their audience, iFixit has a greater purpose in mind—one that’s eminently practical. “Initially, it was just, ‘We need to teach people how to fix things,'” says Wiens. But iFixit has grown into a thoroughly modern entity, which these days means a thriving community with an open-source mentality, serving as both a work of reference and an activist organization. As activists, iFixit thinks along the lines of the “Maker” community (one example of which is profiled here), one that’s heavy on self-reliance and recycling, which has led to alliances with some tech companies and minor vendettas against others. Adherents of this philosophy abhor the trend of amazingly designed, incredibly powerful, nearly disposable gadgets whose manufacturers intend for them to be tossed in the garbage after a year or two.

A Culture of Repair

As I spoke to Wiens, the conversation turned to repair as a broader topic. To him, carefully documented, professionally edited (and iFixit’s teardowns are impeccably photographed and composed) teardowns are an essential tool for his repair evangelism. Repair of some sort is the basis for most teardowns. Early online guides, like those from Tom’s Guide, focused on repair or DIY upgrades. This guide, for example, shows how to swap out the hard drive of one of the first important MP3 players, released well before the iPod. While this sort of teardown never really went away, the culture changed. “We have a culture that has moved away from repair,” he says. “That’s not sustainable, and it’s not fun. The kind of world I want to live in is the kind where we care about the things we have.”

A culture of repair fanatics would be rough on the tech manufacturers who rely on pumping out marginally changed gear, year after year, but would have a pretty astounding effect everywhere else. Cellphones are Wiens’s pet peeve: “I think cellphones should last as long as the network architecture does, about five to ten years each.” That means one phone for 3G, and one for 4G. To take Apple’s iPhone line as an example, there have been three 3G-compatible phones–the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, and iPhone 4–with, in all likelihood, a fourth one to come this June. Many iPhone-crazy users have had all three, trashing one or two working or barely-broken phones. Problems like worn-out batteries, cracked outer cases–buying a new phone due to those issues “would be like buying a new car every time the tires wore out,” says Wiens. The “one phone per network architecture” model might be optimistic–software in the smartphone world moves obscenely fast, and sometimes new hardware is needed to take advantage of software advances. Of course, Wiens might prefer the ability to upgrade RAM, processor, or storage in every phone.

“In the ’50s, it was cool to tinker with your car,” Wiens says. That changed by the 2000s, due to a variety of factors. The culture of consumerism has made it deeply uncool to own anything but the newest and flashiest gadgets. That’s helped along by the tech companies and the breathless tech press, covering every minor spec bump like it physically destroys the year-old gadget it replaces. Then there’s the complexity, or at least perceived complexity, of the gadgets themselves. A mechanical device is easy to understand–this moves, and then this moves, and then this is the result. A digital device, especially one with no moving parts (as many modern gadgets are), looks impenetrable. Who knows what’s happening down in that silicon brain?

A Hostile Industry

The tech companies themselves aren’t helping. “The manufacturers are more hostile now,” says Wiens. “The Apple II came with complete schematics,” but newer Apple products boast proprietary and hard-to-find screws, unlabeled components, batteries that Apple says must be replaced by the company and not the user, and no user documentation whatsoever. Apple is typically held as the worst or at least the most obvious example of this kind of repair-unfriendliness. The second-generation iPod Nano was the first important gadget to erase the manufacturer name and model number from some of the internal components, like the processor and memory, which makes it much harder for a teardown-inclined user to replace them or even find them. The iPhone 4, a few years later, features screws that were created by Apple expressly for this purpose. These weird, five-lobed, flower-shaped Torx screws have no practical advantage over, say, a Philips—except to keep tinkerers out. That didn’t stop iFixit, of course: “We actually had to make a screwdriver—had to file a flat-head screwdriver down to fit [the Apple screw],” says Wiens.

In Apple’s case, it’s probably a combination of secrecy and simple greed, but even some of the “good” companies, like Dell and HP, bury their manuals deep in their sites, difficult to find for many consumers. Then there’s the sheer number of models–phone manufacturers like HTC churn out models like Taco Bell items, shuffling the same four ingredients around every few months to make it seem like a new product. Luckily, there are just as many people on the other side: in addition to iFixit, there’s iSuppli, which tears down gadgets in order to price them by component (the Verizon iPhone 4, which retails for $650 sans contract, contains $171.35 worth of components, in case you were wondering). Some companies have taken advantage of the internet to make repairs easier—Parrot, for example, which makes the AR.Drone remote-controlled helicopter, has tons of walkthrough videos on their site to help users make repairs.

A Fan of Design Engineering

Teardowns as items of sheer curiosity have always accompanied the more repair-minded teardowns. iFixit isn’t unaware of the pure “ooh, look at that!” reader; as high-minded as Kyle Wiens is, iFixit takes special care to make sure their teardowns are not just informative, but beautiful to look at and fun to read. The Pleo, a robotic toy dinosaur, was one of Wiens’s favorite teardowns. “It’s a $300 toy, but it’s phenomenally complex inside. So complex the company went out of business,” he says. The “warning” section on the Pleo teardown page notes, “We immediately bonded to the little dinosaur. This was the most difficult take apart we’ve ever done. Disassembling inanimate iPods is one thing, but Pleo was more. Ah, Pleo– we hardly knew you.”

Click to launch a photo gallery featuring iFixit’s favorite teardowns.

Similar is the Microsoft Kinect teardown, another of Wiens’s favorites. “That was a completely new and mysterious idea, and will completely revolutionize how we’ll interact with computers,” he says. For the Pleo and Kinect, curiosity became the main motivation: How do these amazing new things work? In the case of the Kinect, there was also an element of history involved. Wiens and the iFixit team tend to look at designers and engineers almost the same way other people look at bands or film directors–analyzing their new work in comparison to their old work, seeing how they’ve improved, how their voice is changing. “It’s always fun to see the evolution of the design team, how they don’t make the same mistakes. There were cooling problems with the Xbox, for example, so they over-engineered [the cooling system] on the Kinect,” Wiens says. Wiens’s curiosity, and the general interest of the public in teardowns, makes the step from “teardown as curiosity” to “teardown as art” a small one.

Teardown as Art

Artist Paul Veroude created this piece, entitled “View Suspended II,” of a completely dismantled Mercedes-Benz GP Formula 1 racecar. It includes around 3,200 separate pieces, all suspended on wires (very similar to the look inside an Indy Car we created for our 2006 How It Works issue). Canadian artist Tom McLellan’s “Disassembly” series is along the same lines, though with vintage machines like typewriters and film cameras: He takes them apart, down to their smallest piece, and arranges them in ways that can be strikingly beautiful.

iFixit, too, have some photography chops. These aren’t hastily-snapped cellphone images, taken in a race to get the first photos online. iFixit takes the time to carefully compose and construct their teardowns, using professional equipment and know-how to create razor-sharp but also visually interesting photos. Their writing, too, is often wry and funny, with an obvious enthusiasm for the task of taking gadgets apart. But sometimes they have to go to extreme lengths to secure the time they need to get the job done both right and quickly. In June 2008, that meant flying across the Pacific to snag an iPhone 3G before anyone else.

Racing Across Time Zones

Since the original iPhone was available in only the U.S. and a few European countries, for the release of the follow-up, the iPhone 3G, Apple pulled out all the stops for a release in 28 countries simultaneously. The iFixit team looked at a time zone map and figured out that New Zealand would be the first country to score the newest iPhone, more than a day before it arrive on the West Coast. So they flew out to New Zealand, waited in line–Luke Soules “was the fourth person in the world to get the iPhone 3G,” says Wiens–and relocated to an office offered by an iFixit customer and community member to take it apart. The iFixit guys share the love of to-the-second broadcast with notorious speed-freak gadget blogs like Engadget and Gizmodo, where publishing a story two minutes later than a competitor is a game lost. Gizmodo, remember, scored an iPhone 4 weeks before the actual unveiling of the phone. What did they do? They took it apart. Soules, for his part, live-streamed his teardown of the iPhone 3G from what was essentially a stranger’s office in Auckland.

“One of the first photos of us holding the iPhone 3G had dirt under [the model’s] fingernails,” says Wiens, “and we got reamed for it.”The iFixit teardown kit gets upgraded every year or so, but is designed to cover all possible bases. “You don’t really know what you’re going to encounter, so you have to have every tool you might possibly need. It’s different and exciting every time,” says Wiens. These days, they pack a 54-bit electronics screwdriver kit (including many different sizes of Philips and Torx bits), a heat gun, a sort of DIY collapsible lighting kit, and a spudger, a tough but flexible pointed plastic prying tool used by Apple technicians for a variety of purposes. After the New Zealand liveblog, the team added another item to the kit: a fingernail care kit. “One of the first photos of us holding the iPhone 3G had dirt under [the model’s] fingernails,” says Wiens, “and we got reamed for it.” After that, a cuticle hygiene kit became a permanent addition to the iFixit suitcase of tools.

Click to launch a photo gallery featuring iFixit’s favorite teardowns.

This month’s How It Works section is brought to you by Digikey. All posts are purely editorial content, which we are pleased to present with the help of a sponsor; the sponsor has no input in the content itself.