This article originally ran with Wired.
This week, Apple delivered the highly anticipated MacBook Pro with Retina Display—and the tech world is buzzing. I took one apart yesterday because I run iFixit, a team responsible for high-resolution teardowns of new products and DIY repair guides. We disassemble and analyze new electronic gizmos so you don’t have to—kind of like an internet version of Consumer Reports.
The Retina MacBook is the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart: unlike the previous model, the display is fused to the glass—meaning replacing the LCD requires buying an expensive display assembly. The RAM is now soldered to the logic board—making future memory upgrades impossible. And the battery is glued to the case—requiring customers to mail their laptop to Apple every so often for a $200 replacement. The design may well be comprised of “highly recyclable aluminum and glass”—but my friends in the electronics recycling industry tell me they have no way of recycling aluminum that has glass glued to it like Apple did with both this machine and the recent iPad. The design pattern has serious consequences not only for consumers and the environment, but also for the tech industry as a whole.
Four years ago, Apple performed a market experiment. They released the super thin, but non-upgradeable, MacBook Air in addition to their two existing, easily upgradeable notebooks: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. Apple’s laptops had evolved over two decades of experience into impressively robust, rugged, and long-lasting computers. Apple learned a lot from the failings of the past: the exploding batteries of the PowerBook 5300, the flaky hinges of the PowerBook G4 Titanium, the difficult-to-access hard drive in the iBook. Apple’s portable lineup was a triumph—for consumers and for Apple itself. IT professionals the world over love working on the MacBook. I’ve disassembled a few of them myself, and I can attest that they are almost as easy to repair as they are to use.
The 2008 Air went in a new direction entirely: it sacrificed performance and upgradeability in exchange for a thinner design. Its RAM is soldered to the logic board (as in the Retina MacBook Pro), so upgrading it means replacing the entire expensive logic board. And like all laptops, the Air has a built-in consumable. The MacBook Air’s battery was rated to last just 300 charges when it was introduced. But unlike laptops before it, replacing the Air’s battery required specialized tools and removing some nineteen screws.
When Apple dropped the MacBook Air to $999 in 2010 to match the price point of the MacBook, they gave users a clear choice: the thin, light, and un-upgradeable MacBook Air or the heavier, longer lasting, more rugged, and more powerful MacBook. Same price, two very different products. At the time, I wasn’t very happy with the non-upgradeable RAM on the MacBook Air, but I respected that Apple had given their users a choice. It was up to us: did we want a machine that would be stuck with 2 GB of RAM forever? Would we support laptops that required replacement every year or two as applications required more memory and batteries atrophied?
Consumers overwhelmingly voted yes, and the Air grew to take 40% of Apple’s notebook sales by the end of 2010.
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. And again, we voted with our wallets and purchased the device despite its built-in death clock. In the next iteration of the iPad, the glass was fused to the frame.
Once again, with another product announcement, Apple has presented the market with a choice. They have two professional laptops: one that is serviceable and upgradeable, and one that is not. They’re not exactly equivalent products—one is less expensive and supports expandable storage, and the other has a cutting-edge display, fixed storage capacity, and a premium pricetag—but they don’t have the same name just to cause confusion. Rather, Apple is asking users to define the future of the MacBook Pro.
Apple isn’t fundamentally against upgradeability and accessibility. The current Mac Mini has compelling finger slots that practically beg people to open it. When Steve Jobs released the “open-minded” Power Mac G3 with a door that opened from the side, the audience oohed and aahed. Apple products have historically retained their value quite well, in part due to third-party repair manuals, but also due to a number of very modular, very upgradeable designs.
Even the MacBook Pro was originally touted as an accessible, repairable machine—at Macworld in 2009, Steve Jobs said, “Our pro customers want accessibility: […] to add memory, to add cards, to add drives.” That’s part of what I love about my MacBook Pro. I’ve upgraded my RAM, and I even replaced my optical drive with an 80 GB SSD.
On the other hand, Apple has consistently introduced thinner, lighter products. They learn from experience. They react to their customers. They’re very adept at presenting us with what we want. And they give us options from time to time and allow product sales to determine their future designs.
We have consistently voted for hardware that’s thinner rather than upgradeable. But we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. Our purchasing decisions are telling Apple that we’re happy to buy computers and watch them die on schedule. When we choose a short-lived laptop over a more robust model that’s a quarter of an inch thicker, what does that say about our values?
Every time we buy a locked down product containing a non-replaceable battery with a finite cycle count, we’re voicing our opinion on how long our things should last. But is it an informed decision? When you buy something, how often do you really step back and ask how long it should last? If we want long-lasting products that retain their value, we have to support products that do so.
Today, we choose. If we choose the retina display over the existing MacBook Pro, the next generation of Mac laptops will likely be less repairable still. When that happens, we won’t be able to blame Apple. We’ll have to blame ourselves. They gave us the choice.