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For Apple, Repairability Rules Don't Apply

For Apple, Repairability Rules Don't Apply

Because of the genius of Steve Jobs, Apple is a little psychotic about the internal design of its products -- not only must they be functional, they need to be beautiful, and if you can't actually ever see it, no big deal. In fact, it's better if you don't. The nastiest move Apple made in this regard has to be the tamper-resistant and proprietary Pentalobe screws for the iPhone 4.

By Chris Maxcer MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
12/06/12 5:00 AM PT

Apple is frequently taken to task for its design choices, many of which revolve around the battery. For years, the naysayers were irritated that Apple's iPods and iPhones, for example, didn't have user-replaceable batteries. Worse yet, you couldn't swap in a new battery while on the go if you ran out of juice.

Then Apple took away the removable batteries in its MacBook line, favoring instead to glue them inside to the cool, new unibody aluminum frames. And each time Apple squishes a product to an insane new level of thinness, like the gorgeous new iMacs, we lose some tinkering option or ability.

In the case of MacBooks, sure, a guy can argue that most consumers don't actually end up replacing their batteries anyway -- after the effective lifecycle of the battery, they've already moved on to a new unit altogether or have relegated the device to the garage or playroom. In the case of the iMac, how many users bother to upgrade RAM?

Upgrades are one thing, but what if a piece of an expensive gadget breaks? What if it's basically serviceable with a lot of life left in it, but it just needs to be fixed? More importantly, what if it's well out of warranty and it needs to be fixed cheaply?

The Self-Repair Manifesto

There are a number of shops and repair organizations around the world that can fix Apple products, but iFixit is an organization I hold in high regard. These tinkerers buy all the great gear they can get their hands on, then start tearing them apart to see what's inside, how they are made, what they are made with, and how they might be repaired in the event of a component failure or breakage.

In fact, iFixit has a self-repair manifesto, which explains its core beliefs: repair is better than recycling, saves the planet, saves you money and teaches engineering -- and if you can't fix it, you don't really "own" it.

Makes sense to me.

More importantly, when it comes time to do things like replace the battery on my aging iPhone 3G and iPhone 4, if not replace a recently broken glass back on an iPhone 4S, I turn to these guys. Why? First, paying someone to swap out a battery for many old devices that you barely use just doesn't seem like a smart way to spend money. Second, sometimes you don't have the budget to pay for labor as well as new parts. And third, some things a guy just likes to attempt himself.

Except that these days, with each new Apple product I buy, I can see how each one is harder and harder to get into, how they are harder to fix, and how if I don't shell out for the extra AppleCare warranty, I might end up with a paperweight that's a pain in the butt to safely recycle.

Because of the genius of Steve Jobs, Apple is a little psychotic about the internal design of its products -- not only must they be functional, they need to be beautiful, and if you can't actually ever see it, no big deal. In fact, it's better if you don't. The nastiest move Apple made in this regard has to be the tamper-resistant and proprietary Pentalobe screws for the iPhone 4. I wanted to believe that Apple had created a new screw to make assembly more efficient, but for even a die-hard Apple enthusiast, that explanation is hard to swallow.

In the case of the MacBook Pros with RAM that's soldered into the unit, as well as batteries that stick to the frame with gobs of super-powerful adhesives, I think these choices suck. I can't remember the last time I owned a Mac and not needing to upgrade the RAM after two or three years. A guy's got to squeak out a little extra performances as operating systems and applications start to need more memory. And hard drives? I've replaced four out of my last five Mac notebook hard drives with larger and/or faster units, sometimes twice in the same Mac.

The new MacBook Pros make these relatively simple upgrades hard. If you want details, iFixit publishes detailed teardown reports as well as sells repair tips and kits to get the job done. Know what a spudger is? If you do, you're one of the gadget geek elite. Are you willing to point a heat gun at your Mac or iPad screen? I'm not.

New iMac: A Massive Step Back Despite Rave Reviews

In the case of the iMac, which was been getting consistently rave reviews for its thinness and new mostly-glare-free-yet-glossy screen design, it's upgradability and repairability have taken a major hit to the head. According to iFixit, the previous generation iMac utilized "lovely" magnets to hold parts of it together. The new iMac turns to adhesives. And for upgrades? How about the RAM? iFixit reports, "Good news: You can upgrade the iMac's RAM. Bad news: You have to unglue your screen and remove the logic board in order to do so. This is just barely less-terrible than having soldered RAM that's completely non-removable."

Ultimately, the iMac's repairability score dropped from a 7 out of 10 to a 3 out of 10. (The 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina garnered a rating of 2.)

Meanwhile, this is the trend for nearly every Apple product: fewer screws, more adhesive, less accessibility to simple things like memory and batteries. It's not like we're trying to upgrade the CPU in an iPad, so why do the designs have to remove all chance of access?

Voting With My Wallet

So I find myself in a small bit of a quandary: I want easy repairability. I want to be able to upgrade a unit easily. And yet, I also want the svelte creations that are carved from the mind of Apple design guru Jony Ive.

Not only are Apple products pretty, they are strong, thin, and generally come with excellent reliability.

So does Apple get a pass because it produces such great products? Do these feats of engineering mean that we'll accept things that can't be upgraded or repaired in cost-effective ways?

Does great design and engineering challenges make it impossible to have user-upgradable RAM, user-replaceable batteries?

I don't think it does. I'm not sure how the new iMac might look with a handy panel on the back for memory upgrades, but I know how it looks on the Mac mini, which has excellent access -- a twist-off back panel. And remember when Apple notebooks let you lift up the keyboards to insert new memory modules?

But when push comes to shove, there I am, standing in line to buy another sealed bundle of Apple joy. So am I complicit? Am I giving Apple a pass here?

Yes. While I appreciate repairability, the thing I hold higher is that the units don't break at all in the first place. Sure, I've had to retire many Apple devices that could still function, technically, but I attribute the fact that they functioned at all -- after years of service -- to their rigorous design standards. Things that are sealed, that don't flex or jiggle around -- it just seems to me that these structural elements help keep out dust and moisture, help reduce vibration, and help keep the things working longer.

But Apple shouldn't take that as a free check to design whatever it wants -- there's a certain responsibility that comes with manufacturing things -- and enabling usefulness is high on the list. Unfortunately, when I look deep inside myself, I'm just a pale figure compared to the iFixit crew: I keep choosing Apple products, despite these limitations.

And I know I ought to be ranting and raving about soldered RAM and glued-in batteries, but because the quality is so high, and everything else is so good, I'm personally willing to ignore those shortcomings in favor of durability and design. Of course, have I mentioned how many times my iPad 2 has been dropped? A lot. On hardwood floors, too. It's still kicking. I'm just glad I haven't had to repair it -- yet.


MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com.


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