A lot of people are really comfortable with electronics. They’re arguably the most pervasive group of products in our lives, with mobile phone usage almost tripling from 2000 to 2010, home PC use increasing from 42.1% to 68% and a total PC ownership increasing from an estimated 113,774,408 to 209,946,966 (or an 84% increase) from 1998 to 2010. In that time, the internet has spawned hundreds of websites – like this one – dedicated to researching, purchasing, owning and repairing your favorite gadgets. Sites like iFixit tear down the newest gadgets to peek at their insides, posting guides for like-minded netziens who may later wish to repair their own electronics.
I remember in 2008, when I was on a deployment and collected broken iPod and Zune mp3 players, paying $10-20 for each, so I could repair and re-sell them for $100. Tear-down guides were a lifesaver, and helped me make a little cash on the side. However, it looks like our collective demand for “thinner, faster, longer” (keep your mind out of the gutter, folks) has led to the sacrificing of hobbyist repairability. We all knew this was coming, but when iFixit tore down the new Retina MacBook Pro, we got a true glimpse at the future of electronics repair.
When they opened up the Retina MBP, they noted that the batteries were no longer held in place with screws, but glue. Yeah, when this thing heats up, that glue will surely hold. Oh, and they ran a cable or two under them as well. Other issues included proprietary screws, RAM that’s been soldered to the logic board, a proprietary SSD, and a display unit that cannot be repaired, only replaced. All of this (plus some) added up to a “repairability score” of 1 out of 10, meaning it’s best left to the professionals, and you won’t be able to upgrade as you were in the past.
iFixit also tore down a Nexus 7 recently, eager to compare the “Kindle Fire” killer to the Fire in terms of repairability, which the Amazon managed to swing at an 8 on the ten point scale. After slipping the specialized plastic opening tools into the sleek edges, they got down to business, noting that unlike the iPad, the body was held in place with clips, not glue, which is perfect for the hobbyist. Overall, it received a 7 out of 10, meaning it’s not as easy to repair as the Fire, but much easier than the MBP, which is a statement unto itself. Points against the Nexus 7 include the thin copper sheet heatsinks, which are easily damaged or torn on removal, and a display unit that’s not repairable.
But what does it all mean? It means that the days of the electronics hobbyist are nearing an end. With such tight specifications, the average tinkerer is more likely to damage their system when they “fix” it, and will end up having to send it out for repair afterwards, or scrap it. It also means, that in our quest for the fastest mobile computer, we’re going to lose the ability to do incremental upgrades like RAM, or hard drive. Microsoft’s Surface, and the tablet they demoed running an Intel Corei5 processor, even gave us a glimpse at the construction of the device. There’s a lot going on, and dissipating the heat from that processor means that there’s no room to leave even a single wire out of joint when you open it up, for fear you’ll block airflow.
This day has been coming since Cingular closed down their in-store repair shops, preferring to warranty your phone or make you shell out hundreds of dollars for a new one. Sure, there are Apple repair centers, but those guys aren’t hobbyists. They’ve got thousands of dollars of specialized equipment, a hundred hours of training and nothing to lose. The guy in his garage with a soldering iron and a $400 investment cracked open is going by the wayside, and it’s because we can’t stand to have even slightly inconvenient gadgets.