Sunday, December 27, 2020

Repairability

My Macbook Pro

I have a Macbook pro retina 15 inch, that I bought in 2016. A few days back, the battery started bulking up and the laptop has totally stopped working. It has grown so big now that I cannot keep the laptop in a flat surface; it almost rocks like a see-saw. The touchpad panel is also feeling the bulge. The Macbook pro is not even switching on now, presumably to safeguard against battery explosions.

I bought the laptop 4 years back, for about 200,000 INR (~2700 USD / 2200 EUR). Electronics are very costly in India :( This is the pre-touchbar Macbook pro. I did not like the new keyboard in the then new Macbooks (the first edition with the touchbar). Luckily, I did not purchase the touchbar version which probably is one of the worst electronic devices ever manufactured.

I took my macbookpro today to a nearby Apple service center and I was told that the battery replacement would cost about 40,000 INR (~550 USD / 450 EUR). For such a costly laptop, it has a terrible battery longevity. I have no interest in paying this much for just a battery for an old laptop which is anyway not fun anymore to work on. I could purchase a new laptop with this money. For this money I could even setup a private cloud of a few Rasperry PIs and even launch kubernetes in them for fun.

I thought that I could purchase a battery offline and replace the battery. But to replace the battery, you need to disassemble almost everything (Harddisk, Speakers, CPU, fans, etc.) in a macbook and use chemicals (acetone). Thankfully Apple is not yet making cars, otherwise, to change Engine oil, we may have to dissasemble the headlamps, engine, transmission, differential, etc. 

What is more evil is, The Macbook pro will not work without a battery even if it is plugged in an electric power supply. I do this for my old HP laptop (for parents+kids) whose battery is long gone. The magsafe charger of Macbook is another well-known disaster. I believe that Apple gets a lot of undeserving praise for their hardware. They have shiny aluminium body, a good screen and the best touchpad; But their Thermal management, Longevity, Repairability are all abysmally bad. I have replaced the charger three times in ~3 years because the plastic covering near the charging point goes bad in daily usage and the internal wire gets damaged. The wires also become very yellow and dirty in Indian climate, for some reason. Even people far more connected and influential than me, could not change Apple's behavior.

I personally, am never buying any apple device or Macbook pro ever again, for personal use. It's just because I do not like their greed and exploitation of vulnerable customers.

Thinkpads

The only reason I bought the Macbook pro in 2016 was because I had to do some iOS app development. Prior to that in my $DAYJOBs I have almost exclusively used Thinkpads right from the days they were owned by IBM (and had an extra-ordinary keyboard) until they were sold off to Lenovo (and have this chiclet non-sense). The old Thinkpads were a delight to have. We could replace the batteries, replace the fans, replace individual keys etc. We could also add RAM or Disk whenever we need, how much ever we need. All without needing anything more than a normal screwdriver set.

Good things are not meant to last. Just like how Macbooks have gone worse, Thinkpads too have gone worse. In my current $DAYJOB I use a Thinkpad E series (the cheapest version) and it is terrible. The management of Lenovo is either dumb and do not understand what its loyal customers want; or just plain evil (or capitalistic extremists) and embraced planned obsolesence.

The thinkpad now comes in many series L, T, X, P, E etc. and almost none of them have external batteries.  Almost all of them have the RAM soldered and cannot be replaced. If the soldered RAM goes wrong, we need to throw away the laptop. Thinkpads were supposed to be the most developer friendly laptops. But even in 2020, we cannot get a single 32GB RAM in any of the medium cost thinkpad ranges. If you want anything more than 32GB RAM, you must shell out a lot of money and go for a ridiculously high cost series with 4k screen or some such luxury that I do not want. And their fingerprint readers never seem to reliably work on Linux for some reason, despite most kernel developers using Thinkpads.

E Waste and Green Earth

When I was in school, I have lived in a house with no electricity. I have then grown up and lived in Indian towns where 8-12 hours power cut per day was not unheard of. Luckily I now live in a big Indian city where powercuts are just an occasional weekly-few-hours affair. If it were not for the powercuts, I would happily purchase a desktop instead of a laptop. Atleast until now, desktops (Not those integrated all-in-one pieces) age better than laptops. But powercuts are a part of life where I live and I need battery backup.

Mobile Phones

Laptops and desktops are only a small part of the story. Now, with mobile phones coming on, the amount of e waste getting generated is exploding (literally in some sense). Android is a bigger culprit than Apple here. Even Google (which does not have "Do no evil" as a motto anymore) is refusing to push updates for pixel phones that are just 3 years old.

Once electric cars become more available, it is going to be worse for third world nations which import e waste. Rich billionaires and millionaires will claim to be more green by switching to electric cars and will send off the batteries to electronic graveyards in the other side of the Earth.

By making it difficult to replace/recycle batteries in laptops, phones, OEMs are making the world generate a lot of e waste. The first world nations worry about e-waste polluting their water and land, so what do they do ? They simply dump it out to third world nations, like India, Vietnam etc. As if, us people of these nations, do not have enough things to worry about on our own, now we have to accomodate tonnes of these e-wastes, which spoil our water and pollute our air.

We cannot even protest against these e-waste processing units that import world's junk, because most of the third world nations do not even have healthy democracies where citizens can opine against the Government/rulers, unlike the west.

What to do ?

The European Union atleast is trying to do something, while rest of the world seem to be not bothered. The USA especially has a lot of responsibility, because most of the OEMs like Apple, HP, Dell, etc. are walking the evil path of denying repairability and increasing sales, only to please the wallstreet and their $SHARE_SYMBOLs in the American stock market. It is pointless to spend millions for green-earth initiatives, if you do not produce re-cyclable / repairable electronic gadgets.

What can we Engineers do to combat such planned obsolecence and promote right-to-repair and recycling ? 

Honestly, I do not have an answer. May be we could influence in our small circles of hardware purchase. When your $EMPLOYER is looking to update the company hardware and get laptops for everyone, insist them to get only hardware which can be easily repaired.

If you work for an e-commerce giant (like Amazon, Walmart, EBay, etc.) push your employer to provide "Repairability score" as a filter condition in the product pages (similar to 3*, 4*, 5* , etc.) of electronic devices. May be if enough companies/customers start demanding these, the OEMs will have a financial motivation to do the right thing.

Are there any other steps that you believe that we as individuals could do to bring a change ? If so, please comment. 

What laptops do you like using that have a good repairability score, even in 2020/2021.

Thanks for coming to my TED talk ;-)

PS: If you know any good third party battery (which wouldn't explode in hot Indian weather) for Macbook Pro please let me know. If you refer a mechanic/shop who does the Macbook battery replacement in Chennai/Bangalore, India, that would be even better.


11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was given an MBP 2015 retina at work and we've replaced its battery 2 times in 4 years! The battery seems to last a bit more than a year before the laptop becomes dangerous to use. The cost to repair is expensive, because it requires replacing the entire keyboard assembly, assuming there is no motherboard damage. I would never buy Apple products for personal use.

Regarding exporting waste: it has been historically known that the West is expert at exporting the problems it creates :)

Anonymous said...

I haven't bought it yet, so I can't say anything about it's repairability, but my next laptop will surely be from Tuxedo Computers: https://www.tuxedocomputers.com/en/Infos/Help-Support/Frequently-asked-questions/How-do-I-get-a-replacement-part-.tuxedo

Bernhard M. Wiedemann said...

Then there is the problem of planned obsolescence because companies seeking services make more money if they break often and you have to buy a new one.

Engineering in 1980s in soviet countries was very different, because the goal was to make great products that last. There are still many diesel trains from this era in daily use in Germany.


One way out could be for people to not buy stuff (unless it comes with 5-10 years full warranty), but to perma-rent and whenever something breaks, it is the vendor losing money.
Changing incentives.

opengears said...

Thanks for this great writeup - I have had exactly the same issues with Macs and with Apple products. For me it was not the battery, but the SSD which got fried and was unrepairable (and also it is super-propretary, so no chance of accessing it with linux, as the hardware pins are different).

I switched to Lenovo notebooks, as they are linux certified and work without any issues. Also there are a lot of repair manuals out there.

The most "repairable" notebooks are older ones (or not so "fast" ones), such as the Lenovo Thinkpad X200, X200 and T400. The Pine64 PineBook Pro is also fantastic and you can get it for $250.

Anonymous said...

The same goes for dishwashers. My dishwasher electronic boards (smaller than palm of your hand) failed although all mechanical parts were working perfectly. The repair man said the board is not available and had to dump the entire dishwasher! Governments should penalized manufacture who limit repairability of their products.

Anonymous said...

You make excellent points, and I wish this opinion had a louder voice because it's downright criminal what these companies are doing.

On the topic of e-waste, honestly, it's your government that is to blame for the importing of foreign waste, not so much the fault of those wanting to export it. It sucks, but that's the truth. Every gov. is going to screw the people so long as it's allowed. :(

ansum said...

I have been buying personal and business laptop for the places I have worked and been the procurement advisor to these places for the past 15 years. I'd say that Macs have really not been great for about 10 years and have not been very repairable for a long time. The last great Macbook was the one before they removed all the ports and left the users with 4 USB-C ports and a useless touchbar. Back at one of my companies we had a pile of broken Macbooks we used to use as repair parts. We also used T and X range Thinkpads and I think we only had one break in the 2.5 years I was there.

Lenovo have tried to cover all the bases when it comes to the Thinkpad range and they've really watered down the brand. You really have to search hard to find one with ram slots and a decent array of ports. The E-range is a good entry point though I'd go for the L-range. Even then you have to be careful. The L13 has soldered ram, the L14 and L15 do not for example. The L-range was launched as a range with more recycled plastics in it, but I dont know if thats still the case. At least they will now run Fedora out of the box.

Nikanth Karthikesan said...

This should be part of the climate change agreements/plans.. Replacing parts should be possible and cost less. But the world is moving away from that. At least they should be recyclable. IOW partially broken equipment should be sellable. But in reality it takes more money to properly dispose partially failed equipment! Seems extended warrantees is the only option here! Governments will probably force it on the consumers.

Radhika said...

Great writeup! Informative.

Anonymous said...

Excellent writeup. Indeed, as good as a TED talk.
Particularly I liked the proposals in the end.

@priyakathiravan

Sankar P said...

@anon: Thanks :-)
@anon: Thanks
@bernhard: Danke!
@opengears: Thanks
@anon: Thanks
@anon: Thanks. Agreed :)
@ansum: Thanks. Will check.
@nikanth: spot on
@radhika: Thanks
@priyakathiravan: Thanks :)

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