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Life after death: Resuscitating a drowned iPhone 5

Calling my iPhone “unsinkable” might be a bit much—in all fairness, it did actually sink. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Last week, I tweeted the following:

That thing where you miss a full year of your life, and only realize it when you check AT&T and it says your contract expires Sept 2014.

I swear I thought I’d only had the iPhone 5 for a year, so I was thrilled to see my contract was up in September—that meant there was a new iPhone in my near future. But that wasn’t until September; my iPhone 5 had to soldier on for another month or so. Easy, right?

The incident

My iPhone 5 was getting to the end of its tenure, but it still had some life left in it.

Last weekend, we headed out for one of our summer camping trips with friends. I take my iPhone along for videos and pictures (and the occasional offline game just before sleep time), even though there’s no cellular connectivity at the camp site. Our camping trips are always at a lake, as we share a boat with another family, and spend most of the time out on the water.

Fast forward to Sunday morning, and we were anchored in the lake. The kids were all swimming with other parents, and I was alone on the boat. As it was a gorgeous morning, I decided to take a nice panorama of the lake and surrounding hills.

I stepped onto the back of the boat to take the panorama. As I positioned the phone vertically, the boat rocked a bit from a small wave, and—you guessed it—the phone slipped out of my hands.

I watched my iPhone fall, land on the back of the boat, then sickeningly slide off the boat and splash into the water. As it tumbled down through the clear water, the iPhone seemed to mock me: “Oh yea, you think you’re going to replace me!? Try living without a phone for a month, buddy!” Then, with a poof of mud, it came to rest on the bottom, at a depth of about 10 feet. The water was nice and clear, giving me a great view of the phone.

The dead zone

At this point, I figured the iPhone was deader than dead—I’d been in the Camera app with the screen on when it fell. So instead of jumping into a high-speed rescue operation, I decided there was no real rush, and I could just recover the dead phone.

Between asking the kids to stay away (for fear of muddying the clear water), and talking to the other parents about what had happened, I’d guess nearly five minutes went by before I dove in and recovered the iPhone—its bright blue case really helped, as everything nearby was some shade of dull brown. Fortunately, no dental records were required to identify the body.

I got the phone back on the boat, and promptly hit the power button (something you should not do, I later learned). Nothing happened, of course, so I tossed the iPhone aside, saddened by its passing, but knowing I had an iPhone 3G at home that I could use for the next month or so. We swam for another couple hours, then headed back to camp to pack up and head home. Overall, it was a good six hours after the incident before I got home with the wet, useless iPhone.

It’s dead, Jim

I’d read in the past that a wet iPhone could sometimes be saved by tossing it in a bag of rice for at least 24 hours—but preferably 48 to 72. I did that, but I didn’t really have that long to wait—I need connectivity to do my job away from home. Come Monday morning, I pulled the iPhone out after only 18 hours in the rice. And, no surprise, it was still deader than dead.

bagofrice Wikimedia

I didn’t have a literal bag of rice, but you get the idea.

I then took my old iPhone 3G down to the AT&T store, and they gave me a new SIM card (which would transfer my phone number to the iPhone 3G). AT&T does this for no charge, which was unexpected (it takes a few minutes to program each SIM).

When I got home, I thought I’d rip open the dead iPhone 5, as I’d never seen its innards. I used the iFixit iPhone 5 battery replacement guide, which was clear and easy to follow. Mostly, I was curious about the internals—I didn’t really have any hope of resuscitating the dead phone.

(I did modify one step in the iFixIt how-to: I couldn’t find a suction cup to help pull the screen off, so I used a 3M Command Wire Hook. This worked great, and the removable tape meant there was no residue when done.)

iphone5teardown iFixit

Taking apart an iPhone does involve a lot of really tiny pieces, and it's even harder to put it back together.

Once inside the iPhone, I followed the instructions and completely removed the battery. While marveling at the packaging and denseness of the iPhone’s internals, I thought I’d see if I could get the phone to boot, so I could at least salvage the videos and pictures from the camping trip.

I grabbed a can of compressed air and blasted the entire inside of the phone, across all the surfaces and down into the nooks and crannies of the iPhone’s innards. Anywhere I could see an opening, I hit it with the compressed air.

Once I’d done that, I reversed the iFixit guide’s steps, putting everything back together again. (Reassembly, as it turns out, is much harder than disassembly.)

The miraculous recovery

Figuring I’d done nothing more than waste an hour (though I got to look at some really cool hardware), I plugged the phone into the computer—and was stunned by the sight of the Apple logo!

camp sunrise b

All of the photos that were on my iPhone 5 were intact, including this shot of sunrise from the dock.

It took a while, but the boot completed, and iPhoto launched and asked if I wanted to import my photos and videos. Sure enough, they all transferred, the videos played, and the photos were fine—the image above was taken at dawn on Saturday, the day before the incident.

As I played with the phone, it became apparent it was almost fully functional. The touchscreen seemed to work, the speaker worked (that really surprised me), the headphone jack seemed okay (even more surprised), and all the buttons were functional. Or so I thought—the Home button wasn’t working. That would certainly make using the phone tougher.

Because it worked once, I took the phone apart again and blew more compressed air into the Home button switch, then put the phone back together. Bingo; that fixed it.

The only remaining sign of trouble was a weird series of small clear boxes, visible in the background of the home and lock screens (but not in apps). I couldn’t take a screenshot of the boxes (they didn’t appear), so I figured it was a hardware issue. After about 30 minutes, though, the boxes mysteriously vanished.

With the iPhone again fully functional, all that was left was to turn it back into an actual phone—which meant another trip to the AT&T store to get a SIM card for the iPhone 5.

Not quite so SIMple

At the store, they inserted the new SIM card in my iPhone 5. Unfortunately, the iPhone came up with a message reading “No SIM card installed.” Despite a full reboot and a reset of network settings, the iPhone simply would not recognize the SIM card.

The rep, who knew the full water story, concluded that the SIM reader chip had been damaged by the water. That sounded feasible, so I headed home (with another new SIM card in my iPhone 3G), apparently defeated.

To test that the SIM reader really was damaged, I took my wife’s SIM card and plugged it into the iPhone 5. To my surprise, the iPhone 5 read the SIM and seemed to work as my wife’s phone. So, I concluded, the problem wasn’t the hardware after all.

I then plugged in the “No SIM card installed” card, and bizarrely, it also worked. Because it wasn’t an active SIM card, however, it showed “No Service”—but this meant that the SIM card itself was being read.

Back to the AT&T store for (I hoped) the final time—the three visits I made in one day were more than all the ones I’ve made in the last five years. In this case, the third time was the charm, as the new SIM card was recognized, the network was found, and my phone number rang when dialed. My iPhone 5 had fully returned to the land of the living.

Post Mortem

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The fully revived iPhone 5, post-bath.

Thanks to (I’m guessing) some time in the rice and a healthy dose of compressed air, I now have a fully functional iPhone 5, as seen in the image at right. I find this simply amazing, given the amount of time it spent 10 feet deep in a lake. So what did I learn during this incident?

First, I learned that the iPhone is much less susceptible to water damage than I would have guessed. I had no expectations that the phone would be anywhere near functional after going through its powered-on ten-foot-deep extended bath in the lake. Given there was power to my phone and screen when it fell, I’m shocked (see what I did there?) that the device works at all. But to have it work perfectly? Unbelievable.

Secondly, I now know that opening and disassembling an iPhone 5 is a real pain. You have to have the right (tiny, very tiny) tools; I was lucky in that I’d bought a set of tools to replace the battery in an iPhone 4S, and they worked with the iPhone 5. But beyond the tools, the screws are just so small that they border on the invisible. Using my meaty fingers to orient any of the screws during reassembly was essentially impossible; I had to place them all with needle-nose pliers.

Finally, if your iPhone gets wet—even really wet—don’t give up hope. Do not press the power button (as I did—whoops). Do put it in a bag of rice for as long as you can. Do disassemble it if the rice trick doesn’t work; you might get lucky, as I did. Don’t be afraid to experiment on it, either—it’s already dead, so it’s not like you can make it any more dead.

In the end, I’m very happy to have my iPhone 5 back, even if its time with me is down to a month or so. With it working, I’ll be able to pass it on to someone else in the family, as opposed to simply selling it for scrap on eBay. Which means that my once-dead iPhone 5 may continue to live on for quite some time.

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