With the release of its new MacBook Pros, Apple has officially stopped selling the only one of its Macs that is user-upgradable, marking the beginning of a long-foreseen future in which its computers are disposable.
Earlier this year, I argued that the 2012 non-retina MacBook Pro is the most flexible and ultimately had the potential to be the most powerful laptop Apple sells, because it used nonproprietary, upgradable RAM and the CD drive could be easily replaced with many types of solid state hard drives with minimal effort. The battery was also screwed down, rather than glued down, which made it easy to replace without hurting yourself or damaging the computer’s case.
Last week’s refresh killed off that computer for good. The new MacBook Pros are a performance upgrade for a product line that had gone four years without a significant redesign, but the move to smaller, thinner, sleeker has sacrificed customizability, repairability, and upgradeability.
The new MacBook Pro, like its earlier Retina designs, has a glued down battery and has RAM that is soldered into the computer’s logic board. Unless you’re an expert microsolderer, the specs of the computer you buy are the specs you’ll have until the end of its life.
The new MacBook Pro logic board has soldered-on RAM (the red boxes) and a soldered-on Wi-Fi card (in the yellow box). Image: iFixit
Two potential bright spots: iFixit’s teardown showed that the touchpad is easily removable, meaning you’ll probably be able to clean yours up with minimal difficulty if you spill beer on it. The SSD, too, is removable. The downside here is that both the touchpad and the SSD are proprietary, which means finding replacement ones will require going to the grey market—Apple does not sell replacement parts to the public or to independent repair shops for MacBooks or iPhones.
Until it got stolen this summer, I used a 2010 MacBook Air without feeling a particular need to upgrade it, and I’m sure there are tons of you out there in the same boat. As a general rule, Apple’s computers last for a long time regardless of the specs it has. So to consumers, maybe upgradability doesn’t matter as much as it used to.
"When paranoid recyclers ground the SSDs into dust, you end up with hundreds of beautiful laptops that are no longer viable computers"
But there’s another side of the electronics market that we rarely think about, made possible precisely because Apple computers last a long time: The people who repair, refurbish, and resell computers. I spent last week at the Electronics Reuse Conference in Houston, and people who fix Apple computers know they will soon have to change their business models.
Apple has little incentive to help these people and arguably has little obligation to build computers that can be repaired and resold on the secondary market. That said, a computer that can be salvaged from the scrap heap and used for several more years is many times more environmentally friendly than one that has to be shredded into a million tiny pieces because it has a bad stick of RAM or because you can’t buy an affordable replacement SSD.
“There is no viable Chinese 3rd party replacement at a reasonable price, so when paranoid recyclers ground the SSDs into dust, you end up with hundreds of beautiful laptops that are no longer viable computers and can only be parted out,” John Bumstead, founder of MacBook refurbisher RDKL, Inc., told me.
Bumstead specializes in repairing and reselling MacBooks and MacBook Pros from 2008, 2009, and 2010. He sells thousands of these computers every year (some of his stock is shown in the image at the top of this article). The old computer sitting in your closet is very much not trash to people looking for an entry-level laptop for their kids, or people with low incomes, or school groups, for example.
Common problems Bumstead sees like fried sticks of RAM, computers without hard drives (because they were removed by recyclers), and bad Wi-Fi chips (also integrated on the newest MacBook Pro) are easily repairable on older MacBooks and MacBook Pros. On new ones, these problems are potential death sentences.
Repair professionals are learning how to adapt, but the fact remains that the days in which the owner of a MacBook will be able to fix it are just about over. A small but growing subsection of repair professionals are learning how to use microscopes, voltage readers, and soldering irons to diagnose and fix problems on the logic board itself, but this is a much more time consuming and skilled task than, say, doing a traditional RAM swap.
“Because I live in the past, I can see my future,” Bumstead said. “I am not looking forward to learning logic board repair, but I think it will be inevitable to have to learn it, because eventually it will be about the only part involved. Unless the screen is smashed, or the keyboard needs replacement, there just isn't much else.”