Do we want "Built to Not Last"?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Edit: And the greater restrictions on customers replacing their own hardware also increases the necessity of AppleCare. It's brilliant, but I hate it.
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
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.
When Apple engineers a product, you can bet 9.5 out of 10 laptops will be maintenance free.
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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