Repairability

Back in 2010 I wrote a post where I ask for the impossible: a computer that can be used for 15 years. When I moved to Japan I was using an HP Pavilion zt3000 notebook that managed to keep up with me for just over five years before the LCD screen inverter started to act up. I couldn't get a replacement part for under $150, so had to give the machine up. From December 2008 to September 24, 2012, I used an Acer AspireOne netbook that would often overheat to the point where I had to have ice packs under the unit to use it more than 5 minutes. In February of 2016, after using a MacBook Air for three and a half years, I upgraded to a MacBook Pro because I wanted a better screen and a lot more RAM. Now, not yet three years later, I find myself dealing with a series of problems that are manifesting in my current machine that are not easily fixed for under $7501 and with a whole lot of patience2. Is this something I can afford to fix for another five years? Another 12?

A 2015-era MacBook Pro from the Side

There's no denying that the MacBook Pro is an attractive device. The machine has performed admirably over the last couple of years despite the unrealistic expectations I regularly throw at it and, aside from a few nuisances, it has encouraged me to never again return to a standard-definition screen. Pixellation is a terrible thing to deal with and I've yet to have eye strain when working with a higher DPI screen. What I would really like to see — which is incredibly unlikely, given Apple's product trajectory — is a decent notebook that is a lot easier to repair and upgrade as the unit ages. Despite Apple's claims to care a great deal about the environment and sustainability, their products often have terribly short operational lifespans.

Alternatives?

Fifteen years for a notebook is a tall order, and it would be hard to imagine doing my current job with the HP notebook I bought in 2003 today given how often I need to spin up a virtual machine or work through a large set of data. To get the maximum amount of usage out of any computer, it would make logical sense to not use a notebook and return to using desktop models. Doing this would make it possible to easily change just about any component as they fail, be it a video card, a power supply, or even a motherboard. Changing these on notebook devices is not always possible given the subtle uniqueness of most decent machines. Unfortunately this would prevent me from using the machine outside the house, which I would occasionally need to do when working from the office or in Tokyo.

Logically, Lenovo would likely be the best choice when it comes to using something a long, long time. There is a healthy market for repair parts online and it's sometimes quite easy to find notebooks from different years that use the very same external components, making unofficial upgrades quite possible. Would a Thinkpad (running Ubuntu) make it feasible to use a machine for as long as a decade? The T4x0 and T5x0 lines are quite versatile and there is a very healthy online market for Thinkpad components. The X1 Carbon and X1 Carbon Extreme models are also very attractive and come with higher-resolution displays, though lack the hardware replacement flexibility afforded by the less svelte T-lines.

Or maybe — maybe — I should just bite the bullet and manage all of the repairs for the current notebook to extend its functional lifespan to five years or more. This MacBook Pro does have an unfair number of limitations imposed on it by the manufacturer, but I knew all of this when I bought the device from Sofmap.


  1. $450 for a screen from Hong Kong, $200 for a new SSD stick, $100 for a touchpad

  2. I've not had much luck opening Apple devices … ever.