You cracked your iPhone 4’s screen, now what?

I’ve owned three iPhones — the original, a 3GS and now an iPhone 4. I’ve dropped each one, and until now, the worst damage incurred was a dent in one corner (the 3GS). Last week, I dropped my iPhone 4 from my lap onto a wooden stair — a total distance of approximately 12 inches — and cracked the front screen.

Compared to other drops I’ve seen, my phone’s damage is minor. For example, the iPhone at right belongs to Nik Fletcher of Realmac Software. Sorry about that, Nik.

My iPhone suffered a hairline crack which runs from the upper left-hand corner to the edge of the earpiece. It’s about 1.5 inches long. Fortunately, it missed the font-facing camera and hasn’t affected the phone’s functioning in anyway. Still, every time I wipe off a smudge I worry that the pressure will cause the crack to grow, and when I take a call I’m afraid it’s going to gash my ear like Mike Tyson.

The irony of the glass

The irony is that I was quite pleased when Apple announced that the phone’s front and back would be made of glass. I didn’t use a case with my original iPhone. By the time I sold it, the plastic back was scratched up (from normal wear, not damage) but the front was pristine.

I did put a case on my 3GS but left the front screen exposed. Again, it was beautiful when I sold it to the guys at SellYourMac. I was convinced that using the sturdy glass on the iPhone’s front and back was a great idea.

What I didn’t count on was just how slippery that glass can be. It offers much less friction than the old plastic case, and when paired with the new squared-off shape, the iPhone 4’s design just begs to slip out of your hand (my hand at least). In fact, I nearly dropped it on the day I brought it home, but managed to catch it before it hit the ground.

I understand that, with more than 3 million units sold, a certain number of users are bound to drop and crack their phones, statistically speaking. Unfortunately, I was one of them. I also believe that the current design is more likely to slip than others.

What to do

If you’re stuck with a iPhone with damage resulting from a drop, there are few things you can do.

1. Visit a Genius and cross your fingers

Here’s a story from Stewart Henshall at Mosoci. His daughter’s iPhone received a hairline crack straight across the front screen. He brought it to a Genius Bar and got it replaced. He doesn’t mention if he had AppleCare coverage, but Apple’s Limited Warranty for iPhone excludes coverage for damage resulting from “…accident, disassembly, unauthorized service and unauthorized modifications,” so that probably wouldn’t have helped in his situation. Still, Stewart got what he wanted so it’s worth a try. Remember, Apple is not obligated to replace phones that suffer accidental damage. So be nice.

2. Call your credit card company

Many credit card companies like AMEX and VISA offer a “Purchase Protection Program” that covers accidental damage or theft for up to 90 days. Give them a call and describe the damage. They’ll send a form for you to complete. Use it to record an estimate of the repair costs. There are monetary limits (per occurrence and annual), but we’re not talking about a mountain of money here. You should have good luck if your card company offers the program.

3. Swap with Apple

For $199, Apple will swap the damaged phone with a replacement. Dropping both your iPhone and $200 really stings, so gird your loins when selecting this option.

4. Fix it yourself

This is easier said than done, but not impossible. I spoke with Kyle Wiens at iFixit about the situation, and this is what he had to say:

“We’re still working hard on getting displays for the iPhone 4, but they’re not going to be cheap when it does happen thanks to Apple’s decision to glue the glass to the LCD. We still don’t have an ETA on parts. We’ve got tons of samples, but we run them through a battery of quality tests before we list the part and start selling it. We haven’t been able to get the quality high enough to sell parts just yet.”

iFixit has published a terrific, unofficial iPhone 4 repair manual that you’ll want to bookmark. Kyle makes me believe that the DIY route will be pricey and arduous, but a fun challenge for the right person.

What I did

My nearest Apple Store is 2-3 hours by car, depending on traffic, so I’m not driving out there. As I mentioned, the crack is minor so I’ve decided to do the eqivelant of putting black tape over your car’s Check Engine light. I bought a Gelaskins protector and applied it (at right). It looks nice and, I assume, will keep the crack from progressing. Plus it offers more friction than a naked iPhone 4. It works for me, but I do not recommend this Band-Aid approach.

In the end, I think the iPhone 4 is beautiful but slippery. If you crack yours as the result of a drop, there are some steps you can take to get it fixed. Good luck, and feel free to share your tale of woe.