Strong opinions, weakly held

Why are Apple laptops becoming harder to take apart?

You can probably imagine what the response of iFixit’s CEO was to the new MacBook Pro with Retina Display once he took it apart and found that it is probably the least user-serviceable laptop Apple has ever made. He hates it.

What I like about his piece is that he doesn’t place the blame on Apple. Instead, he puts it on consumers:

We have consistently voted for hardware that’s thinner rather than upgradeable. But we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Our purchasing decisions are telling Apple that we’re happy to buy computers and watch them die on schedule. When we choose a short-lived laptop over a more robust model that’s a quarter of an inch thicker, what does that say about our values?

I know a lot of people think that computers (and many other products) are becoming less maker-friendly because greedy companies want to get more money for parts and labor, or even better, shorten the upgrade cycle and sell more computers, or cars, or appliances, or whatever.

I doubt that is ever really the case. There are a lot of tradeoffs that go into product design. When it comes to laptops, there are capabilities (display resolution, processor speed, storage space, battery life, and so on), size and weight, cost, and upgradeability. Apple seems to have gotten the impression that upgradeability is the factor that people care about the least, and I suspect that they’re right.

My suspicion is that the number of people who upgrade any of the components of their laptops is very small — I’d be surprised if even 5% of customers did so. I would imagine that the number of people who repair laptops on their own is even smaller. What’s funny is that I’m one of those people. I unthinkingly set a magnet on a MacBook I used to have and destroyed the hard drive, and I was very pleased to be able to take it apart and replace that hard drive myself. That being said, I’d rather have one of the new MacBook Pros with Retina Display than that old MacBook any day of the week.


  1. Apple wants a short lifespan for devices so that they don’t need to support legacy hardware and so that Apple customers will always have pretty up-to-date hardware. This allows faster design cycle and faster introduction of new technologies.

    Serviceability also affects the looks of the device and may raise the costs of manufacture.

    You can also think about why laptops need serviceability. Most laptops can last two years without service without becoming obsolete or breaking down too much. After 3 years most laptops will either be obsolete or need: -more memory -new battery -new hard-drive

    Hard-drives have usually become obsolete because of speed or capacity. You can also run into problems due to slow processor, slow graphics card or lack of interfaces. It is also very hard to predict what things will be the bottlenecks for laptop in 3 years.

    Apple doesn’t deal with obsolescence problems and is pretty honest about serviceability.

    If you buy a cheap PC laptop it will most likely have hatches for changing the hard-drive, memory and battery but what use is that if it will just break down after 3 years? If you buy an expensive PC laptop with world class support it will work after 5 years but you have to deal with obsolescence problems.

    I’ve opted for the expensive, supported PCs for the last three laptops I’ve had but I’m not convinced whether it is the best strategy anymore. The last year of usage is always a bit painful as others may have switched gear twice and you have to deal with obsolescence problems.

  2. perfectfaceforradio

    June 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Yes, yes we all know, “It’s an Apple Product”, and “It makes it more portable, and that’s important”…

    I’ve seen, and participated in a few debates… arguments, this week about this.

    1. I think many are overlapping the expectations of a Consumer (disposable?) product onto of a Professional product. The lack of basic serviceability is barely excusable in a $500 item.. but a $2000-$3000 item you are potentially using to earn a living??? Give me a break.

    If you are a “Prosumer” with the money to spend on “Pro-level” gear, and use it to its fullest, editing photos and video while traveling, awesome. That’s where I started out. You may just have to understand that having that “Pro-level” power may include the “Pro-level” gear weighing more than your *consumer-grade” iPhone or Air..

    1. Take a good hard look at the amount of weight and thickness saved between the two 15″ MacBook Pros.. We’re talking about fractions of fractions here.. Literally the pea under the mattress.. Hell, the 5.11 backpack I carry my gear in weighs almost as much as the MBP-Retina.. Is it really reasonable to sacrifice basic serviceability in a Pro machine for that limited difference in portability? If you really need an Air, buy the Air..

    2. Yes, we know, we can just buy the “old one”… for now. Apple is making it clear that this is the direction moving forward, and for the Pro market, it is the wrong one.

    It would make much more sense for Apple to sell an 15″ Air, for people that think carrying an extra pound is so bad. (My first laptop weighed 7+Lbs and I don’t know anyone that travels w/ a laptop w/o another 10+lbs of gear, drives, cables, adaptors, paperwork, etc, so this obsession with anorexic laptops is hilarious to me) and continue to build a Pro laptop that offered the best portability possible without sacrificing basic serviceability anyone should be able to expect from equipment marketed, sold, and priced as “Pro” gear..

    /me puts on CarbonX boxers…

    Have a nice day.

  3. I have a mid-2007 MBP (Santa Rosa 2.2Ghz) still going strong. I’ve upgraded the hard drive twice (first to 320GB, now at 500GB) & upped the ram to 4GB. My daughter spilled lemonade on it last year so I removed & cleaned the logic board & keyboard and was back in business – that saved me at least $500 right there, thanks iFixit!).

    Now, the current configuration MBP probably has the juice to do what I need without a HD or ram upgrade. IMO though, Apple knows it’s losing money when people upgrade their computers, or are able to repair their computer themselves. A non-upgradeable/repairable model means that it will need to be replaced sooner. So it’s pretty simple, they’re gonna make more money when we can’t upgrade.

  4. Seth Steinberg

    June 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I don’t think the frontier for hobbyists is in laptops anymore. Most of them are more than adequate for what most people do – net surfing, gaming, home video, music management, Quickbooks and the like. The new frontier is in tiny Linux boxes like the Chumby Hackerboard or Raspberry Pi. Right now these are just processors, but they should be in frameworks for cameras, appliances, lamps, cook tops, assemblers, and accessories. I think we’ll start seeing the clunky versions in a year or two. It’s like auto engines. There is minimal payoff in hacking your engine unless you are a serious racer. The game has moved elsewhere.

  5. I think Apple should only make things that Shmoo and Mike agree should be made, the way they think things should be made. Because clearly, only Shmoo and co. know what’s right for all of us.

    I just put to rest my last iLamp, 10 years later. What was that about obsolescence? You want the latest, gotta upgrade. And comparing custom parts to off-the-shelf makes you look as dumb as Farhad Manjoo over at Slate.

  6. I’ve upgraded various PC laptops… mainly to put in a better wireless card. (Which upgrade was – ironically – typically an eBay-sourced Apple 802.11N card.)

    Apple ships non-bottom-end hardware to begin with, thus obviating the need for most “upgrades”… and I’d rather have thin and sturdy cases than a little screw-off compartment to replace RAM. And no spinny-disks.

    (Contra Shmoo, there’s a problem with that thesis; here in the laptop market there’s a lot of competition with Apple – and people still buy those Apple products very happily.

    Double contra, there ARE tradeoffs with “serviceable” hardware – weight and size. Those access panels reduce rigidity (and thus require more weight from reinforcement around them) and add size.

    Do any of the “ultrabooks” allow for much easier access than an MBA? A spot check of eg. the Asus Zenbook suggests they do not (though perhaps some of the “I’m calling it an Ultrabook but it’s really the size and weight of a “normal” laptop” ones do).

    Doubtless Asus is missing a rich opportunity to make their product thicker to allow upgrades that are deeply desired in the real world, outside of Apple’s Reality Distortion Field, right?

    Alternatively, maybe, as their money shows us, consumers mostly really don’t give a flying goddamn about upgradeability or letting someone else “service” their hardware, but care a lot about size.

    I’ve been running Macs and PCs and Linux for ages now, and I build my own PCs. And I seriously don’t want to ever own a “traditional” laptop again, or care about the ability to “upgrade” them. Buy decent specs to start with and the need to “upgrade” your commodity hardware stops mattering.)

  7. I had a bondi iMac that ran for ten years without a single problem that I gave away three or four years ago to a writer who still uses it. And I’ve had MacBooks that lasted without a hitch for over five years.

    I’m on my third year with an original iPad that’s running smoothly too.

  8. We’re basing our expectations on the Win/DOS model of personal computing, where computers are something that consumers SHOULD be able to put together, take apart, and modify with upgrades.

    Apple was never on board with this idea. We don’t put together, take apart, and modify our televisions, dishwashers, or blenders. When HD television came out, no expected to be able to replace the video board in their old TV set. Apple has always felt that a proper consumer-friendly computer should be the same way.

    Moore’s law doesn’t really make old PCs obsolete the way it used to, because of the internet. I have an old Windows XP desktop hanging around that was never a top of the line machine to begin with, but 7 years later it is still a perfectly usable web browsing machine.

  9. I’ve always been a desktop guy. I was an obsessive up-grader for almost 20 years. During the 1990s my Macs were extensively renovated. All three 680×0 machines got RAM and HD upgrades and all were overclocked (one required soldering a new chip on the logic board). In addition to RAM and HD, my PowerPC 604 machine got two new CPU daughter cards (ending life as a G4), two new optical drives, a new video card and a new PCI based hard drive controller that supported more HD upgrades. My G4s and G5s got RAM and HD upgrades and each one also got an upgrade to the video card or optical drive.

    Since the switch to Intel processors my Macs have only received RAM upgrades. My collection of external hard drives is now 6 times the size of my internal HD and much easier to upgrade.

    Ultimately, however, my acceptance of difficult to upgrade machines has been fueled by something even more significant: the realization that moderate improvements to computer specs have never made a meaningful difference to my productivity or changed the way I used my home computer.

  10. I have a late-2008 MacBook unibody (bought refurbed in mid 2009). it has a removable battery.

    Its still running great (even after one recent coffee spill on the keyboard).

    Its been so good, I am kinda waiting for it to die so that I can go on to the retina MBP.

    Now, if a 4 yr old macbook works so well, why the hell would a consumer (the 95% who dont bother to tinker) want to open it up?

  11. The MBP though is supposed to be a pro model, to me that suggests that it should work for professional use. I use computers in a professional capacity and would never buy anything that couldn’t have its main components (especially HDD)easily replaced.

    Say I’m using it the MBP and the RAM or HDD packs in, my only option is to take it to Apple and basically pay hundreds in repairs.

  12. Will: you’re attempting to over-generalize your opinion a bit. Most professional users pay someone else to fix their computers anyway and it’s worth noting that these changes also provide reliability improvements so those people won’t be trucking the laptop in to have RAM reseated. Anyone who makes money using their computer is also likely to pay for a support contract since the cost is not a significant business expense.

    The other point which was commonly overlooked is that a baseline laptop has more capacity than many people need and a significant chunk of those who need more need enough more that no single laptop can handle it. I’d bank on laptop upgrades becoming even less common as the power users start using cloud services for heavy computation or storage and actually lower demand on their local computer.

  13. One point most of the commentators here have not addressed is serviceability. Not upgrades, per se, but the capability of, say, replacing a faulty SSD (and they have a tendency to break completely without warning).

    If anything breaks, it’s usually cheaper to just repair the faulty part rather than buy the entire machine. Would you buy a whole new car if the oil filter stopped working?

    There’s also another thing: maintenance. After 2 years of usage a laptop usually has quite a bit of dust in it, not to mention all the random bit and pieces of other stuff. Sealing up the case in a way that allows no access is setting the machine up for trashing much sooner than otherwise.

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