I'm Lance Somoza, a professional IT Consultant with over 15 years of industry experience and an obsession for technology. This is my tech soapbox.

Modern device repairability or: How I learned to stop worrying and love fixed components

Microsoft’s Surface Laptop was eviscerated (literally and figuratively) during the iFixit tear down. Of note, the Alcantara fabric that outlines the keyboard has no conceivable way to be removed without damaging the product and there are no screws that allow access to the innards. Their verdict was as follows:

The Surface Laptop is not a laptop. It’s a glue-filled monstrosity. There is nothing about it that is upgradable or long-lasting, and it literally can’t be opened without destroying it. (Show us the procedure, Microsoft, we’d love to be wrong.)

Harsh words, but it’s still a laptop, given its form factor. John Gruber pointed out the similarity to Apple products–namely the AirPods, saying:

Apple’s AirPods got a 0/10 from iFixit. That just goes to show how little correlation there is between iFixit’s concept of repairability and whether a product is good or not. I consider AirPods to be Apple’s best new product in years.

I think the argument here is that a product can perform well and have a great experience no matter how repairable it is. It could also be a piece of crap. In other words, repairability does not a good product make. I often view iFixit’s concerns about this topic to be a bit heavy-handed, but then I remember they are in the business of selling tools for that very purpose.

This does beg the question… in this day and age, with miniaturization and precision engineering, what is a reasonable expectation for repairability?

Repairability and Modularity

To me, repairability and modularity go hand-in-hand. For the most part, I don’t think you can reasonably expect to be able to repair a system that isn’t modular.

Smartphones, tablets, laptops, and All-in-Ones are not built to be modular devices, and it’s all our fault. We all bought into convergence bliss and hyper-portable devices, which requires compromises and fixed components.

Conversely, being able to build a PC from scratch is a lot of fun. You can do as much or as little research as you want, pick everything out part-by-part, screw everything in, fire it up, install the OS, and feel extremely accomplished. Oh, it’s been a year and you need a new graphics card? No problem, it’ll be here in two days from Amazon. There’s also an associated level of repairability you would fundamentally expect. Stick of RAM or CPU fails? Order a new one and swap it out—piece of cake.

Device Categories

Let’s look at repairability and modularity expectations from a device category perspective.

Smartphones & Tablets

As of today, I don’t think anyone is expecting phones or tablets to be modular, as they require tiny components be soldered/glued in a precisely small enclosure to work properly. It’s not like you can just swap out the camera in the iPhone or Google’s Pixel. In the case of the iPad, they are built so well, Apple can’t even get people to replace their iPad 4s and Airs.

Interestingly enough, Google was working on modular smartphones as part of its Project Ara initiative. In theory, you’d be able to swap block components of the phone in order to upgrade the camera, storage, etc. Google was reportedly close to a release timeline, but the project was suspended in 2016.

There’s also Andy Rubin’s Essential Phone, which has a magnetic connector on the back to interface with accessories. As of right now, the only one available to order is a 3D camera. The first units were promised to ship in June, so we may hear first impressions of this interface sooner than later.

Screen and Digitizer

Right now, we can reasonably expect to at least replace the screen and digitizer when it gets damaged and that’s about it. It’s simple enough for those who want to replace it themselves to do it, but you really have to weigh in the level of effort versus having it done by a professional or the manufacturer.

iPhone Home Button

This is an area where you have to start to consider the privacy versus repairability factor. Since the iPhone 5S, the iPhone’s Touch ID sensor in the home button is hardware married to the Secure Enclave inside each iPhone. This means you can’t simply replace the home button with one off-the-shelf and have Touch ID work–only Apple can do this to ensure your fingerprint data is secure.

Laptops

This category is of course what prompted the post itself. Laptops have never really been made to be modular or particularly easy to repair. Sure, there may have been opportunities in the past to upgrade the RAM or Hard Drive, but you could argue that was due to laptops being bigger devices with bigger components.

It is becoming less of an expectation to be able to upgrade your laptop. Apple’s latest MacBook Pros don’t include any kind of modularity.

Given the state of super-thin, portable laptops, it’s simply a luxury that we cannot really afford. Devices these days typically last longer in terms of build quality and the advancements that have been made with components. You’re able to run new releases of an Operating System and software on the same hardware much longer than you could in the past. In short, we’ve reached peak performance for the everyday user.

One notable plus, however, is the external GPU market. Apple officially announced support for eGPUs in macOS High Sierra, as this is becoming a more accessible option for laptop gamers.

When it comes to a laptop though, no part of it should have to be broken in order to replace an underlying component, as was the case with the Surface Laptop. That’s just bad design, through-and-through.

All-In-One PCs

All-In-Ones definitely aren’t built to be modular, but I think you could make the case that they should be more easily accessible for repairs than laptops.

Let’s take the iMac for example. It clearly isn’t a modular system, as you can’t swap parts in and out with ease.

That said, the CPU and RAM in the latest models are actually replaceable, if not easily accessible. Should you be able to do it yourself? Maybe, if the design can allow for it. As iFixit says:

Most replaceable components (like the RAM) are buried behind the logic board, meaning you’ll have to take apart most of the iMac just to gain access to them.

Desktop

Circling back to the desktop PC, the spoiler of all other devices when it comes to modularity and repairability. Simply put: if you value both of these things, get a desktop.

Apple has recently said the next Mac Pro will be modular, after they ‘designed themselves into a thermal corner’ with the current generation desktop.

Final Words

It’s not going to become easier to repair these devices moving forward, so let’s embrace it. The next technological leaps of our time will not hinge on repairability for the consumer. If they did, we’d never have evolved past the PC. We’ll marvel in the experience these products provide and be in awe of just how long they last.

In the case of Apple products, AppleCare+ is amazing. So you pay a nominal fee for technical support and warranty coverage. Big deal? To me, it’s worth it knowing that if your device breaks, it’s going to be handled by the same company that made it (or a tightly-managed service provider).

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