Friday, 15 November 2013

Are computers throw-away appliances?

With each new design, Apple moves closer to a view that computers should not be repaired or upgraded. Take the latest-generation MacBook Pro Retina: RAM is soldered to the logic board, and removing the battery is even harder than the last non-Retina generation, which required a special screwdriver. While this is no worse (mostly) than the last Retina model, Apple now has no high-end notebook, other than the 13" that allows memory upgrades and relatively easy access to internal parts.

Some argue this is no problem – you should think of a computer as an appliance, and letting an untrained person (you) fiddle with the insides is asking for trouble. Do you insist on fixing your own broken fridge or car, they ask?

Apple has been claiming since the original Mac in 1984 that computers are appliances with no user-serviceable parts inside. The original Mac was held together with then-uncommon torx screws, and popping the case was a non-obvious operation. And the RAM was soldered onto the logic board. Fixing the RAM at 128KB, then later at 512KB, turned out to be rather unpopular, because RAM prices dropped rapidly and a computer short on RAM is very limiting – no less so today, when you have VM, and a shortage of RAM means swapping to disk. I had a 512K Mac that I later upgraded to 1MB with significant complications to make the upgrade work.

For a computer a few years old, the cheapest and most effective upgrade is an increase in RAM. Why? Because CPU speed does not improve nearly as fast as RAM prices drop, and an old model with enough RAM for current workloads can still run pretty well. And also, RAM speed does not improve fast, so the relative speed gain of a faster CPU is not as great as you would expect just looking at clock speed or count of cores – RAM is the biggest speed bottleneck for a bigger range of speed updates than most expect.

For the last 30 years, then, a RAM upgrade has been a great way of extending the life of a 3–4 year-old computer by another few years. And there is no change in industry trends that suggests this will be overturned any time soon. By taking away this option, Apple is losing one of the Mac’s great selling points – you can keep running a Mac several years longer than a typical Windows machine because they last longer, and Apple has less of a problem supporting legacy hardware than competition whose OS must run on anything anyone can screw together.

So what about the argument that you shouldn’t want to crack open the case for fear of breaking something? How does this compare with things like cars?

It’s certainly true that 30 years ago there was a lot more reason to fix your own car. Cars today are more reliable, have much longer service intervals, and rely increasingly on computer-controlled electronics that you can’t set without a bit of research. But that doesn’t mean they should be inherently harder to repair when repairs are needed. Just because you have long-life spark plugs that may only need to be replaced a few times in the life of a car doesn’t mean they should be welded into the cylinder head, or that the plug for connecting computerised diagnostics has to be glued closed so you can only open it at risk of breaking something.

If these examples seem ridiculous, it’s because I could only think up ridiculous examples to compare with some of Apple’s recent designs – glued-in batteries, soldered-in RAM, components that are really hard to take apart without breaking something. These design choices imply you should toss your computer when something breaks, or give up on it when you discover it needs an upgrade.

Even if you buy the argument that only trained technicians should open your Mac, why design it so it’s almost impossible to repair without damaging something?

Case in point: I replaced the hard drive in my white 17" iMac. This machine had previously had its screen replaced under warrantee. When I opened it, I found the radiation shielding torn in parts, and 2 of the highly inaccessible screws holding the whole thing together were missing.

Apple today designs computers the way the Italians used to design cars: look great, great to use, terrible to repair. The only real difference is Macs are relatively reliable. Great design does not preclude design for repairability. Apple can do better.