Chromebooks' short lifespans are creating 'piles of electronic waste'

They may be a worse options for schools than more expensive laptops.

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Chromebooks have always been a popular option for schools due to the relatively cheap prices, but they exploded in popularity during the Covid pandemic as kids did their schoolwork from home. However, they may not be such a good deal after all, according to a new report called Chromebook Churn from the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). They found that many Chromebooks purchased just three years ago are already breaking, creating electronic waste and costing taxpayers money.

Chromebooks in schools typically see rough use, and repairability is a key issue, due to a lack of parts and expensive repairs. For instance, 14 out of 29 keyboard replacements for Acer Chromebooks were found to be out of stock, and 10 of the 29 cost $90 each — nearly half the price of some models. "These high costs may make schools reconsider Chromebooks as a cost-saving strategy," the report states. In another instance, HP only stocked power cords and AC adapters for one model, but no other parts.

The devices also have built in "death dates," the report reads, after which software updates end. "Once laptops have 'expired,' they don’t receive updates and can’t access secure websites." Google does provide eight years of software updates for Chromebooks, but that's only from the date of release. Since many schools buy Chromebooks released several years before, support can expire in half that time.

Chromebooks aren’t built to last. Professional repair techs tell me they’re often forced to chuck good Chromebook hardware with years of life left due to aggressive software expiration dates.

"Chromebooks aren’t built to last. Professional repair techs tell me they’re often forced to chuck good Chromebook hardware with years of life left due to aggressive software expiration dates," iFixit's director of sustainability Elizabeth Chamberlain told PIRG. Those expiration dates also make it a challenge for schools to resell their devices. PCs and Macs may have a higher purchase price, but they can easily be resold after a couple of years and can get updates for longer periods of time.

The organization said that doubling the lifespan of the Chromebooks sold in 2020 (some 31.8 million) "could cut emissions by 4.6 million tons of CO2e, equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year. To do that, they recommend that Google eliminate update expirations and that its manufacturing partners production a 10 percent overstock of replacement parts, and that those parts be more standardized across models. They also say that consumers should be allowed to install alternative operating systems like Linux.

In a statement to Ars Technica, Google said: "Regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks, allowing us to continuously iterate on the software experience while ensuring that older devices continue to function in a secure and reliable manner until their hardware limitations make it extremely difficult to provide updates."

It added that it's "always working with our device manufacturing partners to increasingly build devices across segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and over time use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions."

Google needs to do better, though, according to the group. "The least we can do for students who rely on their laptops is ensure these devices are durable and repairable—not part of a constant churn," said PIRG's Lucas Rockett Gutterman. "With more tech in our lives and classrooms, if Google wants to be a trusted source for tens of millions of students, they need to make laptops that families and school districts can count on."