“So What Is Part Pairing On Electronics?”
So what is all this talk about parts pairing and serialization? Is it true that your iPhone 15 won’t work at all if you swap parts?
With some much conversation and dialogue surrounding parts pairing schemes. I wanted to take the time to clear the air of the many misconceptions and rumors I’ve read about OEM parts pairing and serialization. First of all, let’s tackle the differences between parts pairing and parts serialization because they are two completely different tasks.
A serial number is a unique number typically algorithmically created in order to identify unique properties about a device such as make, model, date, and/or location where the device was manufactured. Serial numbers play an important role in all of our electronics including cell phones, tablets, computers, even your blender has a serial number. Today’s smart gadgets are made up of lots of individual components manufactured by different companies. Each individually manufactured component, including screens, batteries, cameras and more often has their very own unique serial number. Depending on who manufactures the product the serial number may just be a white and black label that is printed on the component or it may actually be flashed directly to a small integrated circuit.
The mass production of printed circuit boards and small ICs has enabled a more secure method for generating serial numbers into the chips installed on the components themselves. Rather than simply relying on a printed sticker or label–which can easily be illegally copied–manufacturers now rely on printed circuit boards and integrated chips to store the encrypted serial numbers. As a whole this relatively new method of “serialization” is not adversely bad. It allows original equipment manufacturers to obtain data regarding specific component failure rates and ultimately allows them to pick vendors that produce the most successful components. It also allows smart devices to identify when a specific component has been changed and this is where part pairing comes into the conversation.
Part pairing is completely different from the serial number of individual parts. In fact when independent repair providers such as XiRepair, refer to part pairing they are often discussing the process of using an OEM’s proprietary software to “pair” a new genuine OEM part to the motherboard on a device. During an OEM authorized repair at either an independent or authorized Apple service provider, a technician must complete a “system configuration” via Apple’s proprietary GSX software in order to pair the new part to the phone. During the “system configuration” the new serial number on the new genuine OEM part is paired to the logic board on a customer’s iPhone. Failure to pair the genuine OEM part will result in an “important message” which states that the software on the phone is “unable to verify” if the new part is genuine or not. In layman terms, parts pairing is using software to clone a part’s serial number from one device to the next.
Parts pairing has been common practice among authorized Apple providers who have had access to the necessary GSX software required to complete the pairing process. However, in 2018 Apple decided to begin showing customer’s the information that Apple devices had access all along – the specific serial numbers of components. If a specific component’s serial number isn’t recognized by a user’s device then a message will appear informing the user that the part is unable to be verified.
This parts pairing message first appeared during screen replacements on the iPhone Xr, Xs, and Xs Max series in 2018. Although Apple’s GSX software was used to “pair” repair parts on models before 2018, the “non genuine” message would not populate on the screen. In other words, older iPhone parts were interchangeable between the same model of Apple device without receiving a non genuine warning. A technician might use a like new Apple iPhone 5c genuine OEM pull screen replacement to repair another iPhone 5c’s broken screen. When the iPhone screens were swapped, no message would populate.
In certain cases, an Apple device will lose some important functions when a part is swapped and not paired using Apple’s software. For example, an iPhone user will lose true tone functionality on their Apple iPhone when aftermarket screen replacements are completed*** Another example is when a front camera is swapped with another matching front facing camera of the same model, face ID will no longer function. This means that unless the user installs a front-facing camera purchased through Apple and paired through Apple’s software the iPhone will no longer unlock by scanning the user’s face. Why does this happen?
The infrared camera on the front-facing selfie camera of all iPhones with face ID enabled are cryptographically tied via the serial number of said front camera and the user’s device. In other words, unless you purchase the camera directly from an Apple service provider an iPhone user won’t be able to retain the ability to unlock their device using their face, which is one of the most important features on the entire phone.
Why is parts pairing a thing?
From many OEM’s perspectives including Apple, it’s important for them to retain the data on how often a device’s part is replaced. Such information is helpful in weeding out inferior parts suppliers and identifying failure points in their product’s individual components. Today’s smart gadgets are made up of components from hundreds, if not thousands of suppliers from across the globe. In a globalized economy, it’s vital for OEMs to possess the data surrounding changes to individual components, or at least that’s most likely their argument.
So parts pairing doesn’t seem so bad, why is there so much negative press around this topic?
It’s important to note that not all OEM’s have the same requirements or standards for how and when a device is “paired”. Some hardware manufacturers enable pairing by simply plugging in the new component, some manufactures want you to pair through their software but don’t alter the user experience without pairing, and some manufacturers go as far to create pop ups that explain immediate abnormalities without pairing.
The issue has come about specifically because with each new Apple iPhone release more and more components require parts pairing in order to retain their full functionality and designed purpose. Many opponents to the so-called “Part’s Pairing Schemes” might say, “what’s the purpose of replacing your front camera if when you use a grade A pull part face ID is disabled on your iPhone?”. A valid question, but proponents might say “How do consumers know that the part being installed themselves or especially in the case of service by a third party is actually a genuine OEM part?”. It’s common knowledge that many repair shops across the country, some willingly and some ignorantly, have falsely advertised cheap quality aftermarket parts as “Apple Genuine OEM Parts.” Both of these are legitimate concerns by both parties, however it’s important that as an industry we work together to address the concerns of both the user and the manufacturer, afterall the user has a right to repair as one might see fit, but the user might never purchase the product to begin with if the OEM’s brand is tarnished by widespread use of inferior components across their devices.
So what is a solution?
I’m not going to pretend to be the world’s best expert on electronics manufacturing, there are plenty of others who can hold that title today. That said, we know that serial numbers are often cryptographically secured and verified using common checksum algorithms including CRC32, MD5, or SHA-1. I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume that it would be entirely possible to verify the status of a device’s parts in the settings of the device without requiring external parts pairing software.
Afterall, tools like 3uTools have enabled Apple users to access information such as battery cycle count or serial number for free over the past five years. Although Apple has chosen to not make much of its component information user accessible, that may be changing. Recently Apple decided to display the cycle count of batteries inside of the iPhone which is a huge policy change from previous years. In addition to the battery cycle count, the serial number and component information of all parts inside of the iPhone should easily be accessible for users directly in the settings.
I believe the full transparency of internal components would solve many issues. Individuals who purchase pre-owned iPhones in retail stores or from a friend often have no clue what the status of the parts inside the Apple iPhone are. Are they genuine? Are they aftermarket? Are they pulled from a used device? Displaying the part information of every part with a status as “aftermarket” or “genuine OEM” or “genuine OEM pull” could easily solve the problem. Apple has concerns that some low quality service providers might lie about the quality of the parts, however this legitimate concern can easily be solved by showing users the quality of all their device’s components without limiting compatible parts to only brand new components.
Again to repeat the solution in layman terms. It’s important that all manufacturers show customers the quality of parts installed on their device without limiting the functionality of said device. If a used apple screen is installed, so be it. The user decided it was in their best financial interest to obtain an used display so let the parts setting of their iPhone display “genuine OEM pull” under a parts setting inside the phone, but don’t disable features of the device.
Legitimate concerns about parts pairing
If the most important goal of both the user and the manufacturer is to track the supply chain of individual components down to the last second it was removed then the parts pairing standards Apple has in place are adequate. They do a great job of collecting and organizing the data of repairs using genuine OEM parts.
However, if the most important goal of both the user and manufacturer is to enable reuse repair options–which we know are much better than recycling–then OEMs such as Apple need to find new solutions to solve their data collection needs without stifling the use of new OEM pull or aftermarket parts.
Additionally the burden of parts pairing adds unnecessary labor hours, under the current system, which only leads to a more expensive repair for the customer. There is at least a 30 minute difference in repair times between using an aftermarket part that doesn’t require part pairing software and a new genuine OEM part which does require part pairing software.
Lastly, there is also a legitimate concern of accessibility. Parts pairing software such as Apple’s GSX requires an internet connection and an authorized user account that is secured via two factor authentication. In rural communities and disaster recovery situations, an internet connection may not always be available. It’s in times of distress that we most often need a repair the most, so preventing the proper repair of the devices we rely on more than ever simply because the infrastructure doesn’t exist sounds silly. Could you imagine if car owners weren’t able to replace the oil in their vehicle without being connected to wifi?
All in all, It should be a mutually beneficial goal of the manufacturer to develop new ways of verifying the authenticity of parts without relying on their current cloud based software for verification which is prone to down time, accessibility concerns and ultimately discourages the reuse policies that are necessary to usher in a circular economy. But it’s important for repair advocates to recognize the concerns manufacturers have around protecting their brands and sorting through inferior part suppliers.
*On iPhone Xr, Xs & Xs max or newer. Older models do not display this message when none paired parts are installed.
**A genuine OEM pull is the terminology used in the electronics repair industry to refer to a genuine OEM Apple part that is “pulled” from another device. In some cases these parts are graded A,B,C or D based on their condition.
***There are however third party tools that can be used as a work around to re-enable true tone.
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