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June 20th 2012 1:47 pm

Do we want "Built to Not Last"?

I recently read a post by Khoi Vinh titled "Built to Not Last" www.subtraction.com­/2012­/06­/19­/built­-to­-not­-last where he discussed the new Apple MacBook Pro and iFixit's complaint that the new MacBook was unfix-able in the broader context of the trend of companies such as Apple and now Microsoft building devices that are not user up-gradable or repairable, even down to battery replacement, much less memory or video upgrades. Is design trumping practicality? Andy Ihnatko may have said it best when he opined that was it worth thinning the retina MacBook Pro down to the point where you had to lose the Ethernet port for the sake of being able to stuff a copy of People magazine into your laptop bag?

I have always liked getting into the machines I use. I believe it helps you understand the systems better and can save some serious coin when you are not afraid to replace the hard drive or upgrade memory. Apple and Microsoft seem to be on a road to make that impossible for the users. Further, build quality itself is nothing like it used to be, and to be fair that is not something the OEMs should be held accountable for, its a recognition that many users are opting to toss rather than upgrade. Finally, what do we do with the junked tech? That is already a problem, and creating devices that do not appear to be easily recycled is only going to make it worse.

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I think it's worth noting that even when a machine is accessible/upgradeable, and it's owner is of the geekier 'tinkerer' set; wholesale replacement is still just as likely.

Back in 2003, I spent way too much time and money researching and purchasing PC components that became, at the time, a pretty sweet desktop. (9 years later, that machine still lives on, running XP in all it's glory; though clearly it's no longer anybody's primary computer :).

In building that computer, I had grand visions of replacing/upgrading those carefully hand-picked components over time; extending the overall life of the machine, and keeping up with changes in technology.

But did I? In that PC today are still the original components (the only exception being the optical drive...those things never lasted). For whatever reason, I didn't upgrade anything in the first couple of years; and then there becomes a point where replacement starts to make more sense.

Want a new graphics card? Sorry, your old motherboard has AGP slots, and everything is PCI-e nowadays.
More memory, perhaps? Damn, you need DDR1 chips and DDR3 is the new hotness.
How about a new CPU? Oh, you can only accept a socket 478 chip. Intel switch to LGA sockets years ago...

Even when individual components are replaceable, the interfaces that connect those components are constantly changing/improving (conspiracy theorists might argue this too is an example of planned obsolescence); so in many cases there is a knock on effect.
You want to upgrade "A", but to do so you need a new "B", which also means replacing "C"...

Before you know it, you're junking the whole thing and replacing it with a complete new system.
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Since I bought my desktop PC two years ago I've upgrade the power supply, the graphics card twice, and thrown in an extra hard drive, but I'll agree that the biggest hurdle to overcome when upgrading is the motherboard. I figure my motherboard will get me through the next couple of years, but when it comes time for it to be upgraded, I imagine my other components will, indeed, be outdated enough to necessitate an all-around upgrade.

I guess at a point it's a debate between desktops and notebooks; it will always be cheaper to build your own desktop, but it is nigh impossible to build all-in-ones and notebooks from the ground up.
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That is an excellent summary of the geeks dilemma. It is far truer now then when it used to be when case and motherboard standards did not change all that often. My concern is that with laptops at least, you could buy all the processor and expandability you could, secure in the knowledge that as you could afford it you could upgrade the memory and hard drive. As it aged, you could replace the hard drive or the fan or even the screen or keyboard. Part of that may be the "good enough" school, particularly when you don't need the bleeding edge and you would rather spend 10% of the price of a new machine and a couple of hours at the bench than junk an otherwise serviceable machine. I also tended to hand my old tech down or donate it. My concern is that we are losing the option altogether. Apple and Microsoft seem to be promoting a vision of use it till it breaks and then buy another one. No repair or donation options, just the dustbin.
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First, I think that's a great post, and I'm going to respond to it soon. (Micro-commented on it on Twitter: https:­/­/twitter.com­/ryan­/status­/215451488586174464)

Preview: I think the reality is very few people want or need to service their computers, while at the same time people do desire thinner, lighter machines (see: the runaway success of the Air, which spawned the so-called Ultrabook sub-category).

I think the reality is computers today will last you a lot longer than computers from five or ten years ago. We've long, long since passed the point where anyone but professionals who truly put their computers to the test even need the amount of CPU horsepower and RAM they get in a new computer.

tl;dr I think the idea of being "built to not last" is the wrong way to frame the discussion. I think the better way to think of it is that computers are on a new path to becoming simpler, easier to use tools that don't want or require the same frequent service and upgrades as their geekier predecessors, and that's a good thing.
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First, thank you for the kind words. I agree about your assessment of the mainstream user, especially one who travel frequently. I hope you are right that we are on a new path, but I think the jury is still out on the durability of the Air and ultralbooks, time will tell but it does stand to reason that with less heat and fewer mechanical parts the devices should last longer. However, as ungeclint pointed out that may not be what happens. Further, we still have the disposal issue.

I do take issue with you about the older machines. I would submit that the older computers tended to last and be more durable than the ones of today. My first "laptop" was an old Zenith I got used in 1988 that saw some hard use from then till 1997. It sat in the closet till I gave it to an neighbor a few years back. He is still using it to write with because it keeps him from being tempted to get on the net. I am also aware of an original IBM PC that had the 640K board in it and a, brace yourself, 30 MB hard drive in a law office in use from 1984 to about 2008. I freely admit these illustrate extreme outliers, but it does go to show that the older machines didn't die, they were made obsolete. Now it seems that fans, screens and and power supplies seem to fail on a regular basis.
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To give credit where credit is due, I was very impressed recently when I pulled out a 286 from storage and was able to hook it up to a relatively recently made wireless mouse and keyboard (via PS/2) and a brand new LED monitor.
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This sounds a bit like what I was thinking on this topic. I think this is ultimately just the next logical step in a future where computers are no longer the machines we're used to thinking of now. I believe we're ultimately working towards a future where computers that are vastly more powerful than we have now (obviously) and much more complex are integrated into our surrounding environment with sensors and other input methods then we're currently used to. Imagine a home where your computer is just built in hidden away and you just use tablets for everything and voice control interaction with the computer for anything else. When you get to that point, the computers would have to be so complex that you can no longer have a hobbyist interacting with them in the same manner so would theoretically be a compartmentalized easy to swap out system. I'm thinking of complex in the nature of neural network computing or the like.
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My biggest beef with the new MacBook Pro is that the customer has become entirely beholden to Apple for upgrades. When I bought my MacBook three and half years ago it came with 2 gigs of RAM and a 160 gig hard drive, which I have since upgraded to 4 gigs and 320 gigs, respectively, at a fraction of the price that Apple would have charged at the time. In effect, I have delayed my computer's obsolescence without making a larger initial financial commitment. By placing more restrictions on what customers can upgrade, Apple is either potentially making an ideal computer financially out of reach, or creating a sub-par user experience. I would like to think that this will eventually backfire on Apple, but its install base is rapidly increasing and I doubt it'll slow down anytime soon.

Edit: And the greater restrictions on customers replacing their own hardware also increases the necessity of AppleCare. It's brilliant, but I hate it.
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Built to not last. Planned obsolescence. Use and throw away. Call it what you want, this is nothing new. In fact, you could argue that computers are one of the few things, where replacement makes some kind of sense, since a 10 year old computer have problems coping with the tasks of today, simply because the development have been extremely fast.
But historically, building stuff so it won't last and capitalism have been going hand in hand for at least a century. The logic is simple. If the stuff people buy lasts too long, they won't buy new stuff. So we make sure they want new stuff by making sure that the old stuff breaks.
If you are interested in more about this I can recommend the documentary "the light bulb conspiracy" ... www.youtube.com­/watch­?v­=lvFs9N­_xeK4
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The retina MacBook Pro is a first generation device and it takes forward Apple's trend of preventing users from tinkering with their products. The company is obsessed about it to an extent that they use custom made pentalobe screws to seal their devices.

However, the question to ask is this, how many times do we upgrade our notebook or change its battery. This maybe true for the professional user or the road warrior but Apple is a consumer electronics company, with some high end professional products. It started out making computers which appealed to the professional but over the years they've transformed themselves into a consumer focused company.

To respond to the junked tech argument, the unfortunate solution is to get rid of them by recycling or selling it if someone buys it or build a museum. Technology has always changed at a brisk pace but one must acknowledge that the days of rapid processor upgrades are gone, Apple usually updates their line once or twice a year with better specs.

The configuration of the new MacBook Pro should suffice for a couple of years for the professional after which an upgrade is imminent, but that was the case even when the devices could be tinkered with, but were parts available for a 3 year old machine?

The battery is really not an issue as Apple will replace yours for a price, the only hassle here is taking it to an Apple Store or shipping it to a place where they'll do it. The technology that Apple has ditched was almost obsolete anyways, we hardly use the optical drive (except for some professionals who need it) and almost everywhere we go has a wireless network (excluding some hotels) and there is a wired adaptor which should have been thrown in the mix anyways.

So machines should be built to last and these are pretty durable and can last you a while, but we as consumers are into the groove where we switch them every 3-4 years.

And if you do wanna take a peek inside, just unscrew the bottom and look, but you can't touch.
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Any average user doesn't get under the hood of their computer anyways, they care about how well it works for them surfing, checking emails, editing photos, or whatever the case maybe. It's only the tech nerds who worry about the the “fix factor"

When Apple engineers a product, you can bet 9.5 out of 10 laptops will be maintenance free.
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Meh, I can argue both sides pretty effectively. I think there's a common sense balance that should be put into play after you make a purchasing decision:

Is it more important that your device be fashionable, or functional?

For the people more obsessed with fashion and appearing trendy, there are devices. If the price-point is low enough that everyone can play, it becomes a moot point (see Nexus 7). You can just get a new one. And if your income far exceeds your common sense, they are all disposable.

For people more concerned with being able to replace lithium ion batteries (they last about a year) because they'll be using this machine for 4-6 years (read: student) there are better options with batteries you can swap out at lunch for the rest of the day, and inputs you can use for removable storage if your prof doesn't have a wireless connection in his lecture hall.

I personally prefer a balance of the two where you have something nice looking that has a battery you can get at.

Other than battery though? Unless you are running Linux or OSX or one of the other rare UNIX based OS's, CPU performance matters (read windows). Most of us still use Windows for everything. Thing is, Windows requires more and more memory and CPU every time it's released. Within two years at this point you need a whole new machine anyway, unless you plan to stick with an older version. So you'll be looking to upgrade every few years anyway.

But you also have the consumer argument. How DARE a company expect me to pay for a device that I can't modify/upgrade/expand. That's ridiculous, and there's no excuse for it.

But what do I know? I'm the lead technical guy at a leading healthcare company, and I use an Asus Transformer Prime to do everything now. It isn't even rooted. Take my perspective with a grain of salt lol. I'm using a locked in design with a battery I can't get at, and I'm salivating at the opportunity to replace it in a week with a TF700T.
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It funny you should ask what do we do with old junked tech. I build a system about every 3 years. Guess what, my wife get a new rig. I've even rebuilt systems for the grand children. I have donated to the boy scouts for senior center projects and donated printers to the church. There is always someone in need you just need to look around. Not everyone has to have the latest and the greatest.
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