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The existential dilemma of a broken smartphone

Cracked iphone
Praetorianphoto | Getty Images

Let's say you've accidentally dropped your smartphone on the pavement or into a pool. The screen is now cracked and the motherboard is waterlogged. What should you do? Get it fixed — this is likely your most cherished and frequently used device, after all — or drop the money on a new one?

"It all depends on the individual," said technician Oscar Ordoñez, of the Brooklyn-based Geek Shop. "It's not a need for every person. Some people would just rather buy a new phone."

For simple repairs, the choice is obvious. Defects like jammed buttons or erroneous operating systems can be fixed for as little as $15, said Ordoñez. Many people go this route, as according to market research by IBISWorld, Americans spent $4 billion on cellphone repairs in 2015.

The conundrum begins when the damage is more serious.

"The most prominent repair and the bread-and-butter of the mobile-device repair industry is the screen replacement," said Timothy Katsch, vice president of iDropped.

If you have an iPhone, and go through Apple repair directly, you'll pay upward of $200 if the phone is out of warranty or has no Apple Care. If the phone does have a warranty or Apple Care, the device needs to be "accidentally broken" to qualify for repair in the range of $50 to $100. Most customers are educated today and insure their phones, Ordoñez said.

Have an older iPhone? You're out of luck. The company's website only lists the iPhone 5 through the iPhone 6 Plus as eligible for repair. However, customers with "vintage" or "obsolete" devices are able to receive repairs or parts up to five years after a product is discontinued.

Samsung's warranty guidelines are almost exactly similar to Apple's. In fact, the company has a litany of things that will absolve them of having to fix your phone, such as exposure to liquid, electromagnetic stress and ordinary wear and tear.

However, third-party repairs can sometimes cost just as much as buying a new phone if the broken device is of recent make.

"Once a phone is released some parts may be available immediately, others can take a couple of weeks to become available," said Katsch.

Repair costs can change over time, however. For instance, when the iPhone 6S was first released, demand for replacements was low so they could cost almost $500, he said.

"As more people acquire possession of [the iPhone 6S], more repair shops acquire more parts. The price then comes down over time until it reaches a stable level," he said.

The folks at iDropped are capable of fixing cameras, batteries, buttons, proximity sensors and even water damage, but there's a 50-50 gamble in terms of full functionality with the latter. What they cannot replace is the motherboard, the essential backbone of the device.

Other companies along with iDropped also allow customers to repurpose their old Apple or Samsung Galaxy phones into an alarm clock, MP3 player or offline GPS. Or trade it in for cash.

Nevertheless, Katsch believes in preparing for the worst by dealing with insurance and deductibles.

Even with these precautions, he said you should check in after six months with a local trusted repair facility and "compare the costs and marginal benefit of having it repaired."