I accidentally upgraded my phone
by Matt Marshall on 2023-03-11 | License Permalink
I’ve just upgraded my smartphone. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t want to. It’s — luckily — not massively impactful on my life or finances but a series of decisions and mistakes have lead to me upgrading a few years early.
I only ever swap out or upgrade technology when it becomes basically unusable for the majority of what I want to do with it. My tolerance for workarounds and putting up with things is quite high these days, and I value trying to eke out as much life from a device as possible before consigning it to the scrapheap and replacing it. When I do need to replace a device I generally have a few operating principles or values:
- I always buy secondhand gear. It’s new to me, but it doesn’t need to be cutting edge. Generally I get smartphones and laptops off of eBay
- I don’t pay more than around £80 to £100 for a new-to-me smartphone. I just don’t need the latest models. Generally I’m about 3–4 years behind the latest releases which is where I’m comfortable
- I try to get my devices to last around 5 years a-piece (but this often doesn’t happen unfortunately)
- I try to repair devices, or have them repaired, before I commit to buying a new one
- For smartphones, I’ve run a de-googled phone since early 2018, so I’m generally only looking at phones which are on the list of LineageOS supported devices
Although the model isn’t important to me it does bear some relevance to the story. Since October 2018 I’ve had a OnePlus 5 which cost me about £80 on eBay. I Lineage’d it as soon as I got it and kept it relatively up to date for about 6 months before the auto-updater stopped working and it was on LineageOS 15 (Android 8) since then. I understood there were a few security risks, but the device barely contained any apps at all and there was no personal data on the device other than a few scrappy notes and some music files and podcasts. Maybe my contact list could’ve been valuable? I’d had in the back of my mind I should be thinking about upgrading to a later version of Android but life kept happening to me and it wasn’t a priority; the phone worked fine other than the battery being a little shonky and starting to show its age (but it still got me through an average day about town unless I went needed to use the GPS for long bouts).
That’s the context. Let’s run through the timeline of events.
My phone dies
During December 2022, my phone’s battery had ran down to a pretty low level and the screen starting glitching. It looked like a 90s hacker movie – the screen repeated itself vertically halfway down the screen, there were multicolour lines dancing around, and the screen distorted randomly. After connecting the phone to power I rebooted it and it all seemed fine and I forgot about it for a few weeks. Then it happened again during the worst day of my life as my partner and I were leaving the hospital after losing our early pregnancy to miscarriage. My phone was on 2% battery as it was late and, understandably, charging the device hadn’t been my top priority when I was hastily grabbing my gear to head to the hospital. As we were leaving, I looked down and the phone was so glitchy as to be unusable. I turned it off focused on just getting home and being with my partner.
When at home I stuck the device on charge and promptly forgot about it. Unfortunately the next morning, the screen was still glitching heavily. I managed to use it, barely, to message a few friends about our current situation and how I was simultaneously phoneless. I’m fine (even actively enjoy) going sans phone for a few days and I was glad of the lack of distraction and messaging while I began to process this latest round of grief. I picked the device up again later that day to see how it was faring, pressed a little too hard during a reboot and then the screen turned black. I could feel the phone operating and vibrating beneath as I entered my pattern on the lock screen, but nothing was happening on-screen.
As noted, I’m fine going without a phone for a little while, but I was confronted with some 2FA problems when I was trying to sort out a few things, so I was indeed prompted to reflect a little on the situation. My philosophy on possessions, tech, and most things can be summed up as “Minimalism. But with back-ups." Two is one and one is none, after all. I did a little soul-searching and I decided on a strategy:
- I’d try to get this phone repaired, because repair is better than replacement
- I’d try to get a cheap secondhand device off of eBay, which could run LineageOS, and would serve as a back-up device for if/when my main device actually breaks down beyond repair
I had myself a strategy but unfortunately it was now Christmas Eve and the world turns off for a few days across this period. Good for grieving, not so good for seeking out a repair shop and ordering a new phone. It also didn’t remain my top priority for a few days.
Repair attempt and a backup device
I took my phone to a local repair shop and was told that the LCD screen likely needed replacing. By then, the phone had decided to “behave” again and was back to glitching visibly. Hey, at least it meant I could export my 2FA keys and import them onto a tablet for backup. The proprietor of the shop got on the phone to his supplier and managed to track down a replacement part. Parts and labour would cost £95 which is usually more than I’d spend on a new phone but it seemed agreeable to me given the chance it could increase the lifespan of my device for another few years at least and would contribute a little less e-waste to the environment.
I left him my contact number and a promise to keep the phone powered on so he could let me know when the LCD screen arrived. He said the repair would be a “same day job” so I was broadly optimistic that I could go a week or so with using my tablet for 2FA and keeping my phone in my desk drawer during work hours.
When I got home, I decided to act on the “backup” portion of the plan. I hunted on eBay for another OnePlus 5. I had decided that I liked the model enough and knew it took LineageOS so figured it’d be available for even cheaper than what I paid for in 2018. Sadly, I couldn’t find any in a reasonable state and price ratio but I did manage to nab its successor, the OnePlus 5T, for around £90. Delivery was estimated around New Year’s Eve, so was perfect. In fact it came a little early (2022-12-29). I installed LineageOS in the evening and everything looked pretty shiny.
Unfortunately things didn’t stay shiny for long.
My original plan was to swap my sim card into the 5T to see me through until my 5 could get repaired and then swap back to using this device. The 5T would then go into a box/drawer as a back-up device for then the 5 finally gave up its ghost, and would technically be a soft upgrade as a treat. It was a good plan and it was going smoothly until I got over-excited.
While I was downloading the LineageOS builds for the 5T, I noticed that there were now builds for LineageOS 19.1 on the OnePlus 5. I had a fully functional phone now and the screen on the OnePlus 5 was mostly behaving. So really it would be reasonable to slyly wipe/upgrade the OnePlus 5 while it awaited repair, and I’d have injected some new life into the device with its new OS and its repair?
Wrong. I followed the instructions on the LineageOS site, but when it came to upgrading the custom recovery from an old TWRP build to the latest Lineage Recovery image… it booted into a black screen with a pale LED light. I panicked and started messing around with the device via
fastboot. My phone still could boot into LineageOS 15 and was still ostensibly my phone, but I felt so confident and sure of myself that I wanted to upgrade. I read somewhere that running
adb sideload would work, as occasionally recovery images indeed flashed to black screens.
The command didn’t work. It rebooted my phone into “sideload mode” and it was no longer recognised by
adb. In addition to this, rebooting the device just brought it back into sideload mode with the black screen and the pale LED. At this point I could connect to the device via
fastboot but if I ever booted into either the recovery or system partitions I was met with the same black screen and pale LED. Flashing newer versions of TWRP didn’t work.
I’d successfully bricked my first device. Go me.
USB port? What USB port?
I began the next day by returning to the phone repair shop. The proprietor recognised me straightaway and greeted me. I promptly informed him that I’d managed to brick the phone and thus wouldn’t be requiring a repair so he could cancel the order for the replacement screen. He thanked me for informing him and I went about my day.
I figured that I could order a new phone for a backup in about a month or so as it wasn’t urgent anymore. I had my new 5T and although my trusty phone was bricked, it had had a good run.
When I got home to sideload some albums onto the new device the 5T wasn’t being picked up by
adb. Odd. I ensured that it had the USB permissions enabled and tried again with a new cable. Nothing. I also noticed that it wasn’t vibrating and informing me of charging when I plugged it in. Oh dear.
I ran upstairs to check that it could still charge via USB. Nope. Nothing. No cable or charging configuration coaxed any more power into the device. Luckily the device had a relatively full charge, but otherwise it was only a matter of time before I had another brick on my hands.
For some reason unbeknownst to me, I took to the internet rather than hitting up the phone repair shop again. Maybe I didn’t want to confuse the poor owner of the shop, or maybe I felt some weird sort of embarrassment about breaking two phones within a day of one another.
In any case, I managed to source and order a replacement USB board for the 5T and a repair kit (Torx screwdrivers, spudgers, etc.). I figured I may as well learn a new skill. I’m not a hardware or electronics person but luckily iFixit exists.
Until the kits arrived though, I needed to sort myself out a device.
At this point I was effectively left with two half-working phones. One had a naff screen and couldn’t boot into the system while the other couldn’t charge itself. Although I’m fine without phones, people were trying to get in touch with me about the miscarriage and I was starting to feel the pressure to be able to respond to them.
I took to the forums again for discovering how to unbrick my old phone. I figured that “where there is
fastboot there is hope”. Luckily I came across a random post suggesting that flashing stock ROMs would help with the situation. I didn’t quite believe that it’d work, but I hunted down and downloaded the OnePlus 5 stock ROMs anyway. For anyone interested – there’s a system image and a recovery image for a total of two you need to rescue a bricked phone.
Flashing the recovery worked like a charm, and at about 2145 (way past my usual turn-off-the-computer time) I began flashing the stock ROM for the system. After a gut-wrenching 15 minutes the OnePlus logo finally booted into the pale blue of Google’s android EULA. On top of that, the screen was behaving itself. Score.
I turned off the phone and went to bed, too tired to do anything else right now.
LineageOS again, and screen failure… again
The next morning I re-flashed Lineage onto the 5 and got to doing my setup again. Thankfully the most tedious item is setting up my banking application and hooking up the CardDAV; oh except Signal decided that it didn’t like me and I’d tried too many sign-ons.
I also earmarked some pages of the web for a replacement LCD screen in case it went again and my repair of the 5T went OK. The repair kit still hadn’t arrived. The guy in the shop wasn’t actually taking much profit; the screen kit was listed as about £80 and the repair was leaps and bounds more complex than what I suspected I was capable of. Hopefully it’d go OK.
I got a whole two days or so out of my old phone before the screen gave out again. Damn. I slotted my SIM cards into the ailing 5T and aimed to only turn on the phone for a few minutes at a time to catch up on messages.
By the end of the day I was anxious about my ability to repair either phone and what would happen if there was an emergency and I was left without the ability to actually reach out and contact people. I trawled eBay again and found another OnePlus 5T and ordered it. It was cheaper but appeared to be in better condition than previous one.
Conclusion: Accidental upgrade (and a minor repair)
The new phone arrived within a few days and I went through the now familiar motions of flashing LineageOS and setting it up so as to be able to contact people. This phone, the second 5T, is currently my daily driver and has shown no signs of breaking so far.
The repair kit arrived on the same day as the replacement USB board. I waited a few weeks until I had the headspace and the will, and then opened up the broken 5T with a view to repair it. I opened this handy repair guide and watched the video through a few times to make sure I knew roughly where I was going.
It turns out that I needn’t have bought a replacement USB board. When opening the phone I discovered that the bottom case screws were missing, indicating that someone had been inside before. This was expected as it was a refurbished phone. When I opened the phone, though, I found that the ribbon cable connecting the USB port to the main board was already disconnected (for reference: disconnecting it is a key step in replacing the board).
I reconnected the cable and, lo and behold, the port worked again. The main problem as far as I can see is that whoever repaired the device previously, had either lost or harvested the shield which keeps the USB board ribbon cable in place. I imagine it’d shaken loose as a result of activity and I’d lost the ability to charge or exchange data.
Going forward, I may or may not seek a replacement shield. I’m not even sure what the correct term is for the part I’m looking for. I don’t know how generic they are or whether one needs a particular size/shape for the phone or main board. It is nice to know, though, that I can safely assemble and disassemble some electronics and diagnose a problem there.
Other than being out of pocket — and generally exhausted at mobile devices — I’ve pretty much landed where I originally wanted. The main difference is that my OnePlus 5 was sent to the recycling centre and I have accidentally upgraded to a OnePlus 5T for my daily driver. Its twin with the missing shielding is sitting in a drawer, ready and waiting to jump in if there’s a problem with my main device.
Hopefully I manage to get the full five years out of these next devices. Given my frustration with these and my move to limit the amount of computing I do on mobile devices, they may very well be the last smartphones I ever buy.