Apple is switching to an unusual and rare type of exterior screw for its iPhone and other mobile products, making it much harder for users to take them apart and fool around with the internals, according to a Website that specializes in dissecting popular electronic devices.
To counter this "diabolical plan to screw your iPhone," iFixit.com is offering a $10 kit with a matching screwdriver for the new screws, and standard Philips screws, so end users can remove the tamper-resistant hardware and install tamper-encouraging hardware.
This is not entirely new: the new screw design has been used in a pair of Mac laptops, starting in mid-2009, and in many of the non-U.S. iPhones. But they are now starting to appear in U.S. models, and Apple's own repair technicians have started to replace the existing exterior Philips screws with the new tamper-resistant screws whenever they work on an iPhone, according to the lengthy blogpost by iFixit co-founder and CEO Kyle Wiens.
The Website was launched in 2003 by Wiens and Luke Soules, then engineering students at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Calif. The Website's mission: "Our goal is to provide you with everything you need to fix things yourself. You can fix it. We make it easy."
The new exterior screws are intended to make it hard, according to Wiens.
"Apple is switching to a new type of tamper-resistant screw," he writes. "Apple chose this fastener specifically because it was new, guaranteeing repair tools would be both rare and expensive. Shame on them." The headline of the blog post calls the change a "diabolical plan."
But there may be other reasons, or more than one reason.
The new screw, according to photos posted by Wiens, looks rather like a 5-lobed cloverleaf, and Wiens says Apple refers to it as a pentalobe. In his post, he says it is not, as many first thought, a standard Torx screw, which resembles a six-pointed star. (iFixit posted a diagram showing the differences).
According to the Wikipedia entry, the Torx design (and trademarked name) was created by Camcar Textron mainly for use in manufacturing processes to eliminate "cam out" – the action of a screwdriver intentionally slipping out of the screw head when it reaches a certain amount of torque, to prevent over-tightening. But the action can potentially damage the screw, the driver, the assembly, or any combination of these.
By contrast, the Torx design, coupled with more precise torque-limiting automatic screwdrivers, "achieves a desired torque consistently" which Camcar Textron says "can increase tool bit life by ten times or more," according to the online encyclopedia. Several variants of the Torx design have indeed been developed specifically to prevent tampering.
The first appearance of the pentalobe screw in an Apple product was in the mid-2009 MacBook Pro battery case, according to Wiens, and then in the outer case of the current unibody MacBook Air.
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"This screw head is new to us," Wiens writes. "In fact, there isn't a single reputable supplier that sells exactly the same screwdrivers Apple's technicians use—which is Apple's point. They picked an obscure head that no one would have. This new screw defeats even our vaunted 54-bit driver kit, which until now we've been able to claim that it's all you need to disassemble just about any consumer electronics. Alas, no more. Thanks a lot, Apple!"
A forum thread at Macrumors.com reveals the frustrations of some users in trying to get their hands on a screwdriver that will defeat the pentalobe. "I just ordered one from a Hong Kong seller on eBay. For $9.99 I figured it was worth a shot. I'll keep you posted if/when it arrives," commented kfscoll.
"Ya please keep us updated on that," replied nreweaver. "I was going to order one but saw the seller had never sold anything before and had 2 other random things for sale as well, id be curious to see what happens. good luck"
In the case of the iPhone 4, the screws are very small. Using a substitute driver could "round out" the screw heads, making them much more difficult to remove later, or cause them to be either overtightened, or not tightened enough.
In a different thread at TUAW.com, another user, Mike, claimed that Apple keeps tight reins on the distribution of the official screwdriver. "To buy a pentalobe [screwdriver] from a reputable dealer you basically have to provide proof from the OEM that you're authorized to use one," he writes in an October 2010 post.
"This screw head clearly has one purpose: to keep you out," writes Wiens. "Otherwise, Apple would use it throughout each device. Instead, they only use it at the bulwark—on the outside case of your iPhone and MacBook Air, and protecting the battery on the [MacBook] Pro—so they can keep you out of your own hardware."
iFixit has been marketing its own unofficial version of the pentalobe driver, complete with several caveats: "It's not [a] true Pentalobe driver - the tip is more star shaped than "flowery," so there may be some slight play in the fit when using...This driver does not meet the quality standards we usually require for our tools, however it is currently the best solution available. It is not an industrial or heavy duty tool." It offers a different size 5-point driver for the MacBook Air.
The iFixit "iPhone 4 Liberation Kit" includes the 5-point driver, two properly sized replacement Philips screws, and the appropriate Philips driver, for $9.95.