Computers · Opinions

Repairable laptops

The new MacBook Pro has prompted some argument about how repairable a laptop should be. Its screen can’t be detached from the protective glass, the RAM is soldered in, and the solid-state drive uses some sort of obscure (proprietary?) connector.

The mainstream article prompting this is here from Kyle Wiens, the founder of iFixit. I use and enjoy iFixit, and I’m broadly sympathetic to this point of view.

Dissenting views from Christina Warren, John Gruber, Nick Chaves.

There are some things in all of these that I find a bit odd.

Kyle Wiens:

The success of the non-upgradeable Air empowered Apple to release the even-less-serviceable iPad two years later: The battery was glued into the case.

I don’t think Apple were waiting to see whether people would mind not being able to upgrade the Air before releasing the iPad. This idea of testing consumer response like that doesn’t ring true to me. I think Apple knew at the outset that upgradeability and repairability were among the things people cared least about.

Christina Warren:

If you buy a car today, you can’t self-service it the same way you could in 1992… the fact that computers are now powerful enough to be built more as appliances is great news

True enough about cars, but laptops have always been harder to service than most common appliances. I’ve repaired our dishwasher, washing machine, bits of stereo equipment, and various pieces of household lighting and electricals over the years—and I don’t know anything about dishwashers or washing machines. Laptops are becoming less like most appliances, not more.

What laptops are becoming more like is TVs. Is that good? Is it also good that TVs are less repairable than they used to be?

John Gruber:

That’s the world’s tiniest violin, playing a sad song for the third-party repair and upgrade industry.

I don’t think I knew there was a third-party repair and upgrade industry. At least, not a big one. I guess it’s iFixit.

Nick Chaves:

My 2008 MacBook Pro did get a not-totally-necessary battery replacement after a year, but my 2010 has run strong for two years. I’d expect nothing less from the Airs or new MacBook Pro. So short-lived might be a relative characterization if anything

I’d expect any decent laptop to last two years, but he does also say

I don’t take enough laptops through to the end of their life to be a representative sample

I do generally take laptops through to the end of their life, or at least I seldom get rid of them. Since my youngest laptop is now over two years old, I thought I’d make a little tally of how they’ve got on and how much I’ve repaired or upgraded.

Some of these are mine, some my wife’s. In chronological order of manufacture:

Sony Vaio R600MX (2002)

Still working, but not used any more

Upgraded RAM from 256 to 384MB. Upgraded hard disc (can’t remember the figures). Replaced the battery. I loved this laptop and used it for about five years.

IBM Thinkpad T40p (2003)

Still working and still in use

This is my main machine for writing papers on at work. (It has the best screen for writing.) I bought it fairly recently, upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, installed more memory, and replaced the keyboard and wrist rest. I love the fact that these machines were built with glyphs inscribed on the bottom telling you which screws to undo to get at particular components.

There, I’ve totally revealed my bias now.

Fujitsu Amilo-A (2005)


My least-favourite laptop and the only one I’ve ever sold. I never fixed or upgraded anything on this one.

Dell Latitude D420 (2007)

Still working and still in occasional use

These were great little machines, except for the 1.8″ hard drive which was appallingly slow.

I switched the hard drive to an SSD in 2009, but it failed and I couldn’t find another supplier to replace it affordably so I put the original drive back in. I also upgraded the RAM, replaced the keyboard assembly after some keys failed, bought an extended battery, and replaced both standard and extended batteries. The replacement batteries were all unbranded.

Sony Vaio SZ-1 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My wife’s current main work computer. Upgraded the RAM and fixed a sticky trackpad button, otherwise it’s still working much as new.

Apple 15″ MacBook Pro (2007)

Still working and still in use

The silver MacBook Pro keyboard is surely the best there’s ever been on an Apple laptop. The battery on this one failed: its original battery was replaced in a recall, but the replacement failed more recently. It won’t hold more than a few minutes charge. The machine is still going fine, but we always plug it in rather than springing for a new battery.

Had to replace the power supply after the connector frayed, but that didn’t involve opening the computer.

IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad T60 (2007)

Still working and still in use

My current main work computer. This is another one I bought recently. Upgraded the hard drive to an SSD, exchanged the keyboard for a better one found on eBay. I’m typing this on it.

Sony Vaio Z (2010)

Still working and still in use

I have never had cause to open this one.

Of course, I opened it anyway. Just to see. I might replace something some time, just because I can.