Repairing your own devices doesn’t have to be a daunting affair. Armed with an iFixit tool kit, here’s how I managed to save my favourite smartwatch, along with hundreds of dollars in the process.

My Garmin fēnix has been with me through thick and thin, good times and bad. You could say we were joined at the wrist. It was my trusty workout companion, tracking every rep, set, kilometre and step… until it didn’t.

The Day My Watch Died

I first noticed that something wasn’t right with my Garmin fēnix watch right after a relaxing day at the beach. Thought the device was rated as 10 ATM, or able to withstand up to 100 meters of water pressure, enjoying an extended dip in the ocean and the construction of a sandcastle had left one of the physical buttons non-responsive. This was odd, as I had swam, showered and submersed the watch in water when cleaning it plenty of times. It had been splashed, rained and sweated on many times across a variety of sporting activities. Could a pesky grain of sand somehow have entered the device?

Perhaps it didn’t matter. After all, the watch was now nearly 5 years old and had served me well, travelled with me across continents, navigating hikes and trails, through a marathon and literally thousands of strength and cardio sessions. I had known that its time was limited, but somehow wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge and pick up a replacement just yet. Plus, I wanted to see if I could avoid adding to unnecessary e-waste by salvaging the device. But what were my options? Pay for out-of-warranty repair? Or take it to a repair store and hope they could find a fix that would cost less than a new device?

There had to be another solution.

Turning to the internet, I looked up every article, video, post and guide I could find on how to fix non-responsive buttons. I tried placing the device in a bowl of warm, slightly soapy water for 30 minutes, rotating the button caps, even lubricating the button with mechanical oil, all to no effect. It was no use.

Deciding To Do It Myself

I began coming around to the idea that this was a project I could realistically achieve.

Along my travels I came across a repair guide from iFixit, a well-known site that advocates for the right to repair and helps consumers fix their own devices by providing both the instructions and tools to do so. I’d initially dismissed the guide, hoping that there was an easier solution. And besides, I didn’t have the tools nor was I qualified to start opening up consumer electronics… or so I thought. See, after a bit more research, I began coming around to the idea that this was a project I could realistically achieve. There was an active repair community, customer support, affordable parts, tools and a guide on how to tear down and reassemble the device. So, I decided to back myself, and take the plunge into DIY repair.

Getting The Right Tools For The Job

I fired up iFixit and jumped to the appropriate guide, which helpfully listed the few tools I’d need for the project – just 3 screwdrivers. Instead of picking up each individually, I decided to spring for their Essential Electronics Toolkit, which came with an assortment of screwheads and other items which I figured could be used for future repairs, should this first venture be a success. Best of all, it only cost a fraction (around $80 AUD/$55 USD) of what a repair shop would charge. Later that same week the kit arrived, and I was ready to begin the operation.

Repairing The Device

The iFixit tools came in a svelte, magnetically sealed container, emblazoned with pro-repair iconography and a brochure which followed the same theme. A hand proudly brandishing a spanner was on the packaging, inspiring me to go forth and put my un-tested repair skills to the, uh, test.

Without hesitation I powered off the device and set aside the required tools. Would I find that annoying grain of sand, or would there be another issue causing the button to jam? What if I couldn’t follow the guide, or it significantly deviated from the listed steps? Or worse, what if I damaged my watch even further! Suddenly I felt out of my depth, a million thoughts racing through my mind. You’re no engineer, I thought, what are you even doing!

But then, the rational side of my brain kicked into gear. From my earlier research and discussions with prominent figures in the right to repair community, I’d become aware of just how many people were now fixing their gear themselves, using resources like iFixit and local repair cafes. Heck, I’d already seen videos, teardowns and a literal step-by-step guide to follow. So what if I broke another button with my nascent repair efforts. With one of my main buttons broken on the watch, the functionality of the device was severely limited anyway. It was time to suck it up and get to work fixing this device. Win, lose or draw it would be a learning experience.

Somehow water had slipped in through the top button and damaged the motherboard.

I powered off the device and got to work removing the external screws. The outer titanium shell came apart easily, and I was careful not to rip the screen or battery ribbons, instead unclasping them via their connectors. I also put aside the internal rubber gasket that I presumed helped to provide waterproofing. After a few more steps, I was able to free the motherboard, where I noticed some serious corrosion around one area that lined up with the top-left button. Oddly, it was the middle button that was non-responsive. This button was also rarely used, save for manually illuminating the screen, whereas the middle button was used in a daily basis as one of the main navigation controls to cycle through menus and the like. My initial diagnosis was that somehow water had slipped in through the top button and damaged the motherboard. I’d need some close inspection.

Removing the buttons carefully, I checked each for sand or debris, yet found none. At this point I naively thought that perhaps the fix was in, so I reassembled the device and powered it back on. Only to find the button still unresponsive. Heartbroken, I decided to give it another crack and worked my way back through the guide. On a hunch, I decided to deviate from the guide and disassemble the components of the faulty button on the motherboard. We were now flying solo.

Stepping Even Further Out Of My Comfort Zone

I had gone rogue. Casting aside the guide, I pried open the clasp that contained the button’s sensor and other components which interacted with the motherboard. Was this a wise move? Out came a piece of plastic used to press into sensor, revealing a silicone-like sensor that could be clicked in. I reattached the battery and screen and pressed into the silicone, mimicking what the button would do. Nothing. Digging deeper (after disconnecting the battery once more) I noticed the silicone looked weathered, a similar colour to the corrosion on the main board. I picked it off the sensor itself using the supplied needle nose pliers. Reconnecting the battery, I now directly pressed into the sensor itself and watched with delight as the menu moved one step down. Hooray!

Turns out the silicone sheath had become busted, which was stopping the physical button from making contact with the sensor, blocking it from ever registering my button presses. I discarded the tiny piece of silicone, not knowing what that would mean for the waterproof rating of the device but making peace with avoiding water when wearing the watch if it meant I’d have a function device the other 99% of the time I wore it.

Before I reassembled the watch I made sure to clean up all the corrosion I found with some rubbing alcohol and double checked the insides for any pieces of sand or grit, finding none. With everything connected, I tightened the final screw and put away my now trusty iFixit repair kit, eager for the day I’d get to use it again.

I Fixed It (And So Can You)

If someone with virtually no knowledge of electronics repair, who’d never seen the inside of a toaster let alone a thousand-dollar Garmin watch, could fix their device, you can too. Just because something is on the fritz, it doesn’t mean you have to throw out your much-loved hardware, or part with your hard-earned dollars for a new device (which nowadays is often little more than a spec bump).

So, skip the side-grades and invest in sustainable, self-repair. ■