How Apple gave me a free, brand-new, just-manufactured iPhone 6s Plus in 2019

Everything old is new again. Especially when it actually is new. Join us on a story of repair, replacement, supply chain speculation, multiple trips to the Apple Store, and baked goods.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

It started off for me like any other visit to the store: I put it off as long as possible. I'm not a fan of the retail experience, which is why I can write about Amazon Prime with such authority.

But, as in most other visits to a physical store, the final impetus to get in the car and make the drive was wife-motivated. My wife's second generation iPhone SE was no longer holding a charge. She could make it about halfway through the day, and that was with minimal use. Given how integral her iPhone is in her life, this was unacceptable.

We missed the opportunity to take advantage of Apple's earlier $29 battery replacement deal, because at the time our phones were still pretty functional and because we were in the middle of a move. So now that it was time to replace my wife's battery, we were stuck paying the higher $49 charge.

Our closest Apple store is a little over an hour drive from here. That means that any visit would probably take a three to four hour chunk out of a day, what with the ride up and back, along with wait time, Apple rep time, more wait time for the repair, and so on.

I decided to optimize our time at Apple. I'm a bit of a fiend about optimizing my time, trying to get any productivity boost I can out of every opportunity. Sometimes it works. Sometimes, not so much.

This time, I decided that if we were going to go up to the Apple store to replace Denise's battery, we might as well replace the batteries in my two iPhone 6s Plus devices. Yes, I'm still still using the iPhone 6s Plus because it's awesome. It also has a headphone jack. And it's paid for.

I inherited the second iPhone 6s Plus, which I now use as a second 4K camera in video shoots, when Denise decided she wanted the smaller form-factor SE. We bought her the SE, and I got the second 6s Plus.

Before we left, I made sure to actually launch iTunes (ugh!) and do a complete backup of all three phones. Just in case.

Road trip #1

On the day we drove up to the store, we had them do three battery replacements. Beyond a slight bit of confusion when they realized one of the phones wasn't attached to a phone number, that part went smoothly.

We had to give them a bunch of personal information, unlock the phones (to prove we really owned them), and put up with a set of diagnostic questions that were generally unrelated to getting a new battery. But it was easy enough.

We left our phones in the capable hands of an Apple rep I'd come to call "Man Bun" and exited the store into the mall. We found a restaurant that advertised burgers and even barbecue. They lied. All their "meat" -- and they called it "meat" -- was not meat. It was vegetables on buns. That's just something unholy. Yes, I'm a curmudgeon. What of it? That can't come as a surprise to anyone who's ever read my column.

It was at this point I started to go through withdrawal. I realized that this was the longest time I'd been parted from my phone since I got it. My phone goes everywhere with me, to bed, to the bathroom, out, everywhere. It's on my person more than any other clothing item. It is with me more than even my wife and my dog. But I decided I was going to be strong and trust in Man Bun to get our phones safely back to us.

When we were done "eating" our "burgers," back to the Apple store we went. We were handed back our phones, tested to see that they worked, paid our bill, and left. From leaving the house to getting back home to a very excited little dog took just under four hours.

Something ain't right

My wife and I immediately started using our phones, with no problems. The next day, I set up the second iPhone 6s on a tripod and recorded about an hour of 4K video for an upcoming project. Oddly, when I took the phone down, I couldn't close the photo app. The screen just didn't respond to my touch. It had been a long recording session, and I was a bit tuckered out, so I put the phone on the charger and came back the next day.

I could not unlock the phone. It refused to respond to tapping in my access code. Nor did it respond to my fingerprint touch. I did a reset of the phone (holding Home and power) and the phone successfully restarted. Soon, the Apple logo on a field of white showed up. But I still couldn't get into the phone.

I did this a few more times, then called Apple. The tech walked me through the exact same procedure a few more times, again, and then suggested I go back to the Apple store. He didn't think it'd be a good idea for me to send in the phone for repair because the company might get confused and not realize this failure was a direct result of Apple's upgrade. It would just be much easier for everyone involved if I took another trek to the store.

Just so we're clear, let's recap. I decided to replace the battery on this phone, even though it wasn't bad, just because we were already going to the store. The idea was to get ahead of the eventuality of having to go back to the store later. So, as a result, we had to return for a second trip to the store, anyway. Life is like that.

Road trip #2

Our trip back to the store was an uneventful ride. We went through the not-too-long wait for a store employee to help us. We explained that the 6s Plus had died a weird death shortly after the battery was replaced. Futile tapping, much like our futile tapping at home, ensued.

After that, a small parade of store employees showed up to tap, mutter, and fail to elicit a response from my uncooperative phone. We were eventually asked to leave it for a while. We'd get a text when it was ready.

Rather than waiting at the fake hamburger joint (which neither served ham nor burgers), we went into the local Barnes & Noble, where paper books and magazines were everywhere, like a museum dedicated to the dream of the 90s. Plus, they had coffee and baked snacks.

Just after the iced lemon pound cake, but before I could make good on my intent to overdo things with the classic coffee cake, we were asked to return to the Apple store. My phone was ready.

We were handed a phone that worked. It was not, however, my original phone. That one, apparently, they could not get to work. Instead... wait for it... I was handed a brand-new, just-manufactured iPhone 6s Plus.

The rest of the story

I was concerned that it was a refurb. According to the store employee, Apple does not replace phones brought in for repair with refurbs. Instead, we were told that Apple is required to swap identical model-for-model. We were also told that repair phones are always expedited newly-built from the factory and flown to the store without a battery charge and that Apple is required to produce phones for five years for repair replacement.

That means, in theory, that Apple is still producing the iPhone 5C and newer models. My 6s Plus is only three years old, so Apple will apparently have it running through manufacturing for two more years.

Now, how true are these statements? I have no idea. I reached out to Apple's press relations organization for confirmation of the Apple store employee's statements. Instead of an actual answer, I was unhelpfully provided with links to Apple's repair and trade-in programs. I also could not get an official confirmation that repair phones were replaced with new models rather than refurbs.

So did we get a new phone? I think we did. I did some digging around the web. I found a number of articles that say that repair phones are replaced with refurbished, but those may be phones sent into Apple. The one constant seems to be that the first letter of the phone's model number, as shown in General->About, indicates the phone's status. M means it's a new phone. F means it's refurbished. N apparently means replacement. And P means the phone has been engraved with a personalized inscription.

My phone? Well my phone has the full M, baby! As best as I can tell, we have a branny-new, factory-fresh iPhone 6s Plus, manufactured in 2019. Given that the 6s Plus (as the last model produced with a headphone jack) is the last perfect iPhone, this is a brand new, retro phone that should have lots of years of life left in it.

It seems like that's the end of the story, but it's not.

Since the 6s Plus and the second generation SE have the exact same camera specs, it doesn't matter to me which phone I use. My wife and I decided it would be a shame to let such a pristine new phone languish in the workshop to be used once or twice a week for second camera video duties.

So she's going to give the bigger form-factor a new try and take this brand new phone as her daily driver. The SE will take up residency in the workshop.

And now you know the rest of the story.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Apple products you shouldn't buy: April 2019 edition

Editorial standards