Apple Watch Ultra screws: Awesome, but in the wrong place

Apple Watch Ultra rear
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The Apple Watch Ultra was announced this month with a rugged design, a new button (!) and a focus on outdoor types, but now that repairability fans at iFixit are getting their hands on it, they’re only worried about one thing – screws .

Apple has always been keen on its hermetically sealed aesthetic, but this has historically made the company’s products incredibly difficult to repair – unless you damage the kit in the process.

However, the lone second of screen time granted to the fasteners in the presentation stood out like a thumbnail for iFixit, which lives on in hopes that one day Apple will make repairs more accessible to the average consumer.

OK, old habits die hard. The screwdriver needed to open the Apple Watch Ultra isn’t one you’d typically find in a kitchen drawer. Apple has a penchant for the five-pointed, tamper-resistant pentalobe, so your collection of Phillips heads won’t cut it here, but it’s not as if these can’t be easily purchased on the web, not least from iFixit themselves.

Back of the Apple Watch Ultra

Back of the Apple Watch Ultra. Photo credit: iFixit

The company could hardly contain its excitement. Introducing the Flash clock teardown, it said: “Screws are a fixer’s best friend – they’re easy to remove, easy to replace, and less likely to break, so they should always be your first choice for repairs – not glue.”

That optimism was shredded almost immediately, a bit like what happened to the gasket, which is crucial to the watch’s 100-meter depth rating, when the team dived in with their screwdrivers. “We’re grateful the adhesive isn’t more aggressive, but replacing that painstaking gasket to seal your watch isn’t going to be fun at all,” they noted.

From subpar to worse, applying heat and prying the case away caused one of the band release springs to go AWOL, so preparing the watch for component replacement will be fiddly – and the team didn’t even have full access.

Once the backplate came off, however, there was more disappointment. Inside wasn’t a battery, but the System in a Package (SIP) of the back of the watch, meaning the team would have to go through the 1.92-inch display.

iFixit said of the process, “If you thought the standard Apple Watch opening procedure was difficult, the Ultra is, well, ultra-tough. The seams are tight, the lever angle steep, the risk of separating the display from the glass: high. And yes, you have to open from this side to get to the still consumable battery. We’re all for a more accessible rear sensor, but if we had to choose easy access to one component, it would absolutely be the battery.

Youtube video

Amusingly, in iFixit’s video of the process (above), the display broke immediately.

The clock became unusable, there were some benefits with the battery and the Taptic Engine, both of which were well protected by a metal casing and held in place with screws (hooray?).

“No glue, just four Y000 screws. Too bad you have to risk breaking the screen to get to this point,” iFixit noted ruefully.

The result is that while easily accessible sensors and SIP are all well and good, the screws are in the wrong place. If Apple is keen on placing the battery below the display and above the SIP, the easy-to-remove part should be the screen, not the backplate.

“The Apple Watch is an accessory, not an everyday staple,” said iFixit. “Accordingly, Apple is betting that you will be willing to part with it for a few days or accept a loan watch while your personal watch is shipped to a repair center. That means there’s less incentive to make repairs faster and they’re in control of the repair tools.”

Interior of the Apple Watch Ultra

Interior of the Apple Watch Ultra. Photo credit: iFixit

iFixit went deeper, crediting Apple with optimizing the distance of the watch’s display (compared only to previous models) and consolidating antennas into the screen and case. “This allows for fewer wires and more direct paths to the critical components – battery and screen – with less chance of collateral damage along the way.”

With this Taptic Engine, the notification buzzer was 16 percent of the Ultra’s weight at 9.8g, which iFixit suspected is the reason the vaunted “siren” feature was disappointingly quiet (86dB). Together with the battery, these components take up “almost the entire internal volume”.

Although the case was praised for its intricate antenna feedthroughs and manufacturing process, obstacles to a truly removable battery ultimately forced iFixit to damn the Ultra as “almost repairable.”

If you break it, Apple cites $99 for battery maintenance and $499 for “other damage.” Ouch. ®

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