Repairability Is Less Important Than Upgradeability

Repairability Is Less Important Than Upgradeability
Image: iFixIt

I really love looking at iFixIt’s teardowns of recently released hardware. And they also do some great advocacy work on the “right to repair” – something many tech companies including Apple have been fighting against. iFixIt gives each device a repairability score – their view of how easy a device will be to fix if something goers wrong. But is that measure all that important?

The company’s recent teardown of the new MacBook Air gave Apple’s latest notebook computer a repairability rating of 3/10. By any measure, that’s a poor score.

But it’s only half the equation worth considering. What we don’t have good data about is how many devices require out of warranty repairs. In my view, the repairability score is only a factor if the device needs to be fixed outside the warranty conditions. And it’s worth noting that in Australia, the manufacturer’s warranty period is overridden by consumer laws which aren’t limited to a specific number of months but are about a reasonable timeframe given the value and expected use of an item.

So, in the case of a new MacBook Air, you’ll have little trouble getting it repaired within the first year and, beyond that, if you’ve not mistreated the device, get further warranty support – without purchasing Apple Care – for a while longer.

Where I think the repairability score is more interesting is if we consider it an “upgradeability score”.

In the old days, I used to buy computers with the understanding that about two years after purchase, I could add some RAM and storage easily in order to extend the life of the device. But with Apple and others now soldering memory and flash storage in place in many computers, such upgrades are no longer possible. So, we either turn devices over every three years or so or buy higher-than-we-need-today spec machines up front.

I caught up with a couple of colleagues yesterday. One was carrying an external keyboard and mouse with her laptop – a two-year old unit – as the “A” and “S” keys had died and the others around it were becoming flakey. It should be easy to replace a keyboard. When I was IT manager at a school, my tech support team were pretty adept and swapping broken keyboards on laptops out.

Those sorts of fixes should be easy – especially for computers being deployed in large fleets.

Another friend and I were discussing how the computers most people buy are significantly overpowered for what they’re used for. In most cases, CPUs are only utilised at low levels – we speculated that over the course of a year most CPUs would not see much more than 1% utilisation. And frankly, in over 20 years of using PCs, I have never upgraded a CPU. But storage and memory should be more easily upgradable.

It’s also important to note that if we want thinner and lighter devices that design decisions and compromises need to be made. For example, soldering storage in place limits repairability and upgradeability but results in a smaller and lighter device as there’s no need for a connector and cables.

When we look at those repairability scores I think we need to consider several things.

  • Device reliability
  • Are you thinking about upgrading in future?
  • Warranty support

While a single repairability score makes for a good headline, there’s more to consider when looking at the construction of a device.