IPod Mechanics Keep Damaged Music Players Alive

Doctors are often lauded as miracle workers, but even the most skilled have patients they can't help. Demetrios Leontaris keeps a picture of one on his cell-phone organizer.

Tapping at his keypad, he smiles as he pulls up a picture of the ill-fated patient: an iPod Nano left badly bruised after being run over by a car. While it still played, attempting to repair the casing could have broken the device.

A self-styled "iPod doctor," the affable Leontaris is a full-time iPod resuscitator, part of a cottage industry catering to music devotees whose musical companions have fallen ill, usually from mistreatment.

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Aaron Vronko, co-founder of iPodmods.com, chuckles when recalling some of the grisly injuries he's seen.

Some devices have been slammed in car doors, another was partially melted when left too close to a light bulb. Still others have unwittingly been made into rather expensive chew toys for dogs. Some are sent through washing machines.

For the grieving, the third-party repair shops offer hope. Even the most earnest-looking iPod owner would be too sheepish to try to exchange a water-logged iPod.

In one such case, Vronko notes, the familiar whirr of the spinning hard drive took on more ominous sound: "You could hear it swishing around in there. There wasn't much we could do."

Apple Inc. (AAPL), maker of the popular music players, doesn't, for example, accept exchanges on iPods under warranty if their screens have been cracked or if it's clear they've been dropped. Customers can purchase a warranty extension that tacks a second year onto their coverage; the cost varies depending on the model.

The entrepreneurs have stepped in for those hoping to repair their iPods rather than buy new. Leontaris began repairing iPods and other digital music players about three years ago after he bought a used iPod online only to find it didn't work.

While Leontaris has long had an interest in tinkering with electronics he also has a well-ingrained entrepreneurial sense. As a child in Union, N.J., where he still lives, Leontaris and his brother would charge a dollar to haul groceries upstairs when their building's elevator went out.

"We were poor growing up so you didn't just throw it out and get a new one," the 32-year-old said. "If the VCR broke it was going to be another few months before we got one."

So the idea that people would want to repair portable music players — iPods range from about $80 to $350 — seemed logical to Leontaris.

He set up his Web site, http://www.nycipoddoctor.com, to draw customers from nearby New York City.

Leontaris most often brings his SUV-cum-workshop to the customer, many of whom wait in the passenger seat, watching as he goes to work on their ailing device.

One customer, Tausif Husain, 38, of Queens, N.Y., recently watched as Leontaris gave a scratched video iPod a facelift by replacing the front and the back covers.

Leontaris searched his cache of impossibly small screwdrivers — kept in what was once a cup holder — and placed the back plate of the now disjoined iPod over the windshield's defrost vents.

The heat from the vents loosened the adhesive that helps hold some of the device's parts in place.

Husain had a new protective case at the ready so the iPod wouldn't again be scarred by keys and loose change.

"This is going to be a collector's item," he joked of the newly pristine iPod.

Leontaris said customers are often surprisingly happy to have their personal DJs back in working order. "It makes people happy."

Adding to their sense of satisfaction: Leontaris' one-year guarantee.

As iPods and its competitors shed their girth and the devices rely on ever-smaller components, Leontaris expects his job will grow more difficult. "They're getting more complex. I'm probably going to be obsolete as time goes on."

For now, though, he has found a business that enables him to help support his wife and three children, charging $45 and up to replace a battery and $59 and up for a new screen, for example.

Others have carved out a business as well. Web sites likes http://www.iPodResQ.com and Vronko's http://www.ipodmods.com have sprung up for those looking to inject new life into their iPods.

Vronko, 24, founded iPodMods in Kalamazoo, Mich., with a friend after studying business in college; they set up the Web site in 2004. It has drawn customers from more than 65 countries.

With 90 million iPods sold, Vronko sees a growing pool of potential customers.

"We've gone from five a week to 500," he said. "Within a week of the model debuting, we get a phone call saying someone dropped it and broke the screen."

While the repairs could mean fewer iPods are sold, third-party repairers say iPod owners are more likely to feel confident about later buying a new iPod knowing there are options should an accident occur or the warranty expire.

Apple doesn't make repairs to products outside the warranty except to replace the rechargeable batteries. It will offer a 10 percent discount for trading in a broken iPod for a new one. Many third-party repair services buy broken iPods for parts.

Apple declined to comment on the role of third-party iPod repair.

"I think honestly they kind of happily ignore us," Vronko said.

Meanwhile, customers have posted recommendations for Web sites that do repairs in user forums on Apple's Web site.

Not all customers want to repair their iPods.

Dan Williams, an 18-year-old college freshman in Akron, Ohio, has a nearly two-year-old iPod that's had difficulty retaining its charge since he dropped it.

While he'd consider trying to have it repaired, he confessed to wanting to trade up to more storage capacity for a burgeoning music collection.

"I'm probably just going to go get a new one," he said.

And of course there are music lovers who might have difficulty facing a gloomy prognosis.

Vronko recalled a man who was listening to his iPod while doing yard work and didn't realize he dropped it until after he'd run over it with the lawnmower.

"I don't think we did a lot for it," Vronko said. "We refunded his shipping to him and sent it to a metal recycler."