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article imageGrowing numbers of iPhones affected by alarming 'Touch Disease'

By James Walker     Aug 25, 2016 in Technology
There are growing reports that a new "Touch Disease" defect is plaguing two-year-old iPhone 6 and 6 Plus devices. It leaves the displays on the handsets flickering and unresponsive, rendering the device unusable. Apple is yet to comment on the issue.
The problem is caused by a design flaw in the iPhone 6, launched in 2014. In a detailed blog post, device repair specialists iFixit uncovered the issue. Over the past few months, the site has heard of increasing numbers of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus handsets being dropped off for repair with a single problem: a grey, flickering bar at the very top of the display.
It's immediately obvious when a device is affected by "Touch Disease." The very top of the screen is obscured by a grey bar. It looks like the iPhone's status bar has been overlaid with a flickering banner, although this is not the case. Over time, the display's touch functionality becomes increasingly glitchy. Eventually, the touch input stops working entirely.
iFixit began an investigation to determine how widespread the problem is. It discovered that the iPhone repair community is experiencing an "influx" of defective iPhone 6 and 6 Plus devices, all exhibiting the tell-tale flickering bar and buggy touchscreen. The site said that half of the repairs sent to Michael Huie, a microsoldering specialist, are to fix "Touch Disease." Rami Odeh, a repairer from New Orleans, sees as many as 100 faulty handsets each month.
Jason Villmer, the owner of STS Telecom of Missouri, another repair specialist, described the problem as a "ticking bomb." Users hand phones into him with the problem several times each week. He warned that the issue is so widespread it could impact almost all iPhone 6 handsets.
"This issue is widespread enough that I feel like almost every iPhone 6/6+ has a touch of it (no pun intended) and are like ticking bombs just waiting to act up," Villmer said.
A problem such as this may sound like a case for a replacement touchscreen. However, the repair experts quickly established that simply installing a new display doesn't fix the problem. Refitting the display can help for a while, but eventually the disease returns and gradually becomes even worse.
According to the repair technicians who spoke to iFixit, the issue actually lies in the touchscreen controller chips embedded in the phone's motherboard. This is a much more serious issue than if the display was the defective part. The two touch controller chips are responsible for working out what you're tapping on and translating that into input signals for the phone's software. When they go wrong, the iPhone never gets to know that you're touching the screen.
The touch controller of an iPhone 6
The touch controller of an iPhone 6
The next step for the specialists was to determine what's causing the chips to fail. A popular theory blames Bendgate, the infamous iPhone 6 issue that was widely publicised when the phone launched. Apple used a weaker chassis than it might have done, allowing phones to bend with discomforting ease, especially on the larger iPhone 6 Plus model.
Touch Disease may be the long-term, unforeseen consequence of this structural weakness. Repair shops are speculating that the phones are continuing to bend in minor ways in regular use. This is putting pressure on the logic board within the phone. As the chassis flexes each time it's put in a pocket, it slowly rubs against the board. This is causing solder balls to crack, tiny pieces of metal that connect vital components like the touch controller to the board. Over time, they break and disconnect entirely.
The issue starts off minor because the solder balls are gradually chipped away. Periods of touch unresponsiveness may be noted, but it will likely return later. The solder continues to be worn off the board, however. As more of the balls are damaged, the connection gets progressively looser and less reliable, until the display stops working entirely.
The experts also have a theory on why the touch controller chip is the first to experience issues. In older iPhone models, the touch controller was covered with a rigid metal shield, holding it down onto the board. For the iPhone 6, Apple replaced the metal with a pliable sticker.
The touch controller doesn’t have an "underfill," either. Other critical chips have a small amount of underfill beneath them that keeps the solder balls secure. The thinking is that the lack of a proper shield or underfill is leaving the touch controller the most susceptible to damage.
There is an easy short-term fix for owners with phones suffering from Touch Disease. To begin with, simply twisting the phone or applying pressure to it can force the solder balls to re-establish contact with the logic board. Over time, it will lift off again, however. Dropping the phone or having it flex slightly in a pocket will cause the issue to return.
The only established permanent fix is to have the touch controllers replaced. Apple won't perform such a replacement itself, although it is possible at numerous repair shops for a low price. This is why so many handsets are ending up with micro-soldering experts now.
Although Apple hasn't commented on the problem, it does appear to be aware of it. Its support forum is full of threads about the issue. One owner said he took his defective iPhone 6 Plus to an Apple store and asked a Genius Bar member about the problem. The representative acknowledged the issue, saying Apple was "very familiar" with it. The company doesn’t officially recognise it as a problem though, so there's nothing that support workers can do.
Last year's iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are not affected because Apple strengthened the chassis in the wake of bendgate to put an end to the flexing problems. This prevents the touch controller becoming detached from the board.
Affected owners should have their device immediately replaced under warranty if a flickering grey line appears at the top of the display. If out of warranty, the best option is to take the device to a specialist repair store which can replace the chips and apply the metal shield that Apple left out. With mere weeks to go before the iPhone 7 launches, experts are warning this problem is likely to get worse before it goes away.
"The issue is ridiculously widespread and Apple should’ve issued a recall or maybe a free warranty repair on this problem already," repairer Michael Huie told iFixit. "If you own an iPhone 6+ and haven’t experienced the problem yet, then I think the chances are pretty high that you’ll experience it during the lifetime of the phone."
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