By Mitch Lipka
April 5 (Reuters) - While a drop or near-drowning episode may not be quite fatal for an iPhone or iPad, the cost of repair may be so prohibitive that buying a new device may seem a better option.
Consumers have bought more than 100 million of Apple Inc's gadgets, and that total is growing rapidly, with 52 million iPhones and iPads sold just in the last 14 weeks of 2011.
But accidents can and do happen, with one out of four of those iPhones breaking within two years, a ccording to a June 2010 study by San Francisco, California-based SquareTrade, a company that offers extended warranties for gadgets. That adds up to a sizeable number of people needing repairs or replacement of their devices each year.
The simplest way to avoid expensive repair work is to invest in preventive measures, such as an Otterbox Defender - a basic but robust protective skin which costs around $50. Otterbox offers waterproof versions for those prone to spilling coffee, as well as kid-proof screen protection against sticky fingers.
Apple device lovers can also buy an extended warranty or third-party gadget insurance. Apple offers its AppleCare+ extra year of warranty coverage for $99, plus a $49 service fee per damage repair. The warranty covers up to two incidents.
Payment with a credit card may double the length of a warranty, so check with your issuer to see if you can turn Apple's one-year limited warranty into a two-year warranty.
Indeed, Apple has ample rivals in the market for plans to fix and protect its devices.
Gadget expert Josh Smith, editor of GottaBeMobile.com, says the two best ones are offered by Apple and SquareTrade.
"Both provide two years of coverage that includes drops and water damage for under $100," he says.
If your goal is to save money, you'll need some courage and savvy. For simple repairs, there are online guides, such as the ones on Fixit.com.
Apple, however, warns that no one, other than an authorized agent, should attempt to repair or modify an iPhone.
In an owner's manual for iPhones, the company says, "Disassembling iPhone, including the removal of external screws, may cause damage that is not covered under the warranty."
Indeed, Apple recently introduced a tamper-resistant screw that can't be opened by standard screwdrivers, aimed precisely at discouraging home-repair efforts.
Chris Zane, owner of Zane's Cycles in Branford, Connecticut, was a consumer who wasn't deterred by the iPhone manual's warning. He bought seven iPhones for his employees, and decided it would be quicker and cheaper for him to fix them himself when they broke.
He found that it cost just $12 for him to replace the glass screen of an iPhone 3, compared with multiples of that figure for similar repair work done at Apple's Genius Bar if one's extended warranty has expired. According to information available on Amazon, from which Zane orders his screens, it costs about $24 to buy a replacement screen for an iPhone 4, and about $40 to $50 for iPad screens.
Zane has replaced four broken screens, and at least another 10 for friends and family.
"If you can envision how things work and you can watch a YouTube video, you can figure it out," he says.
Drying out a wet phone, according to Zane, is even simpler. Simply toss it into a sealed contained filled with (uncooked) rice to draw out the moisture, and leave it there for two days. (This method only works if you don't try to turn on the phone when it's wet, thereby frying some components.)
Most consumers, however, lack the skills or confidence to pry apart their device or to attempt homemade remedies.
Indeed, Hayden Dawes, owner of MyiBroke.com, a Lake Park, Florida-based company that repairs iPhones, iPads and other devices, says it's common for well-meaning self-repairers to damage the internal electrical components.
Dawes says the cost of a basic post-dunking water repair is $38.99 in his shop, and that it's the most popular repair request from his mail-in clients, many of whom are in rural areas without access to an Apple Genius Bar. He caps repair costs on iPhone at $160; any higher and it makes more sense to buy a replacement phone, he says.
Meanwhile, at the Genius Bar, if the repair work required on your device is simple, you could be one of the lucky customers getting it done for free. Many consumers have posted happy stories of their encounters with helpful Apple Genius Bar staffers.
Alternatively, your problem may be solved, and your wallet lightened, too.
Gina Freize, 45, who runs the Venissimo Cheese shops in San Diego, had owned her new iPad for just 36 days when a dish fell out of a kitchen cupboard and smashed its screen.
"I didn't have insurance, but took it to Apple to see what they could do," Freize says.
"Within 15 minutes, I had a brand new replacement for $300," she says. "To me, that was better than $600."