“Right to repair” survey: Which tech devices/brands break down most?
January 9, 2021 2:32 PM   Subscribe

An online survey that asked 3,201 Canadians about smartphone, laptop and tablet breakdowns and repairs revealed that an overwhelming majority of them are dealing with broken technology that is too difficult or too expensive to repair. In August 2020, CBC consumer advocate show Marketplace conducted the survey to find out which types and brands of devices were most likely to break down, and which were least able to be repaired. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives asks, When will Canadians have the right to repair?

From the CBC article: Almost three out of four survey respondents have had at least one device break down in the past five years. And 65 per cent have had multiple device breakdowns in that time.

Half (51 per cent) of devices taken to the manufacturer weren't repaired because the survey respondents said it would be too costly or the manufacturer couldn't fix the device.


Right to Repair Europe
Repair Association (USA)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (56 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think it is misguided to assume that everything should be repairable. Often, being able to make things better and longer lasting is at odds with repairability. Being able to replace a part that degrades over time, like a battery, or more vulnerable to damage, like a screen, is sensible, but otherwise designing for repairability doesn’t necessarily make sense. Also, smartphones are not full of gears and springs that can be replaced. If people want repairable products they should adjust their own buying choices accordingly. And if those products don’t exist, it is because it just isn’t valuable to most people when you consider the trade-offs.
posted by snofoam at 3:11 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


The main scandal I feel about the right to repair in the US has to do with modern tractors and how farmers are used to having to fix their equipment but now they basically aren't allowed to thanks to restrictions by the manufacturers. A $500,000 tractor is a much bigger investment than a cell phone. Right to repair should apply to both, IMO.
posted by hippybear at 3:25 PM on January 9 [40 favorites]


There are plenty of people with the technical ability to take phones and laptops apart to repair them, but the big tech companies refuse to sell spare parts and will take every action they can to prevent anyone else selling spares.
They want you to throw things into landfill just so they can sell you a new device.
In 50 years from now when precious metals become impossible to find, people are going to look back and wonder what on earth we were all thinking.
posted by Lanark at 3:30 PM on January 9 [35 favorites]


Just getting a battery replaced in an iPhone or Mac Laptop is crazy. And wrong.
posted by cccorlew at 3:37 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


This may be a misguided metaphor, but often can't help but thing about how biology deals with broken parts. It can be remarkably good at finding a way to repair things, mostly -- a broken leg, a broken heart -- but there are many other cases where the strategy is simply to throw away the broken part and tray again. Misfolded or damaged proteins are tagged for destruction and recycled; new proteins are synthesized all clean and shiny (so to speak). Virus-infected cells commit suicide and let new cells take their place. Old leaves are shed and re-grown. Skin cells are continually replaced. There are many examples. Indeed, some argue that a species' lifespan (humans live ~100 years, sequoias live ~1000, Turritopsis dohrnii lives forever) is not a hard constraint from physics and chemistry, but rather an evolutionary optimum of designed obsolescence for when it's more efficient and more effective to replace rather than repair. So it seems like the winning strategy very often is "it's too hard to fix this, but we know how to make more". Part of what allows this to be a winning strategy is that the broken stuff can be very efficiently taken apart and re-used -- and that the atoms themselves don't age, they are are "clean and shiny" as the day they were born, so making new things from them results in a perfect product. If there's any lesson here for electronic manufacturing and other human technologies, and I'm not sure there is, it is that it's about time we tried to learn really hard how to recycle material as effectively as biology does it. That's not happening any time soon, but some fraction of scientists and engineers ought to be taking the long view seriously.

This is also the reason I re-install my operating system with each new computer, rather than always upgrading and transferring. Turning off and turning on can fix so many problems...
posted by brambleboy at 3:37 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


snofoam, do our gadgets last longer?

Things like refusing to sell parts or even allow them to be salvaged and resold don't support this view. Sequentially numbering parts so that the gadget won't work even if the broken part is replaced. Like refusing to publish schematics and suing anyone who tries to reverse engineer them. Lying outright to your customs and allowing recoverable data to be thrown away because you'd rather sell them a new one than help someone save the picture of their loved ones. None of these speak to gadgets being unrepairable, just of the manufacturer being hostile to repair.

I fix stuff. Old computers at the board level, old hifi, lots of stuff. The old gear had schematics taped right to the inside case. Now? Well, my baby's bottle prep machine had a broken switch and sensor. I took the thing apart and identified the busted parts, but when I contacted the manufacturer and asked whether they'd sell me new ones or even tell me what the part number was, they just said "we don't do that."
posted by 1adam12 at 3:43 PM on January 9 [30 favorites]


I don't buy any of the usual arguments against repairability, I think people as a society have the right of control over the things they own. The only argument I accept is that high-tech products are basically a Humpty Dumpty problem, thousands of small parts in a single device. If I were a communist dictator I would require Apple, etc., to research and provide de-manufacturing capability, or something equivalent to that concept. Like an environmental tax, companies must somehow account for the public interest.

And I agree with 1adam12, I'm an engineer by training, I don't believe that modularity and MTTF are at odds, quite the contrary.
posted by polymodus at 3:48 PM on January 9 [8 favorites]


Also, smartphones are not full of gears and springs that can be replaced.

There are many people with the equipment and skill to do board level rework of the tiny surface mount parts such as those used in phones. I don't care for Louis Rossmann as a personality but his Youtube channel documents what kinds of repairs are possible. Basically, the "gears and springs" can absolutely be replaced. Access to replacement parts and information is the limiting factor.
posted by wordless reply at 6:03 PM on January 9 [9 favorites]


Just getting a battery replaced in an iPhone or Mac Laptop is crazy. And wrong.

It's really frustrating because Apple used to be somewhat well known for being easy to repair off and on since the Apple II days and touting things like tool-free cases and hardware. Some of the pro G3s and G4s had neat tricks like origami-inspired cases that would open right up and unfold into a wide open chassis for easy component upgrades. Even the early to mid 2000s MacBook pros had easily replaced batteries and upgrades.

Then there were some real stinkers like the CRT eMac which involved something like 40 screws and basically gutting the entire case and half a dozen sub assemblies to simply replace the HDD or upgrade the ram.

My most recent encounter was trying to replace the swollen battery on a MacBook Air which was about as pleasant and fun as defusing a live bomb. Because it basically was a live bomb.

Super serious pro-tip: If you ever find yourself in a position to try to replace the battery on an Air - don't. Just don't. When the iFixit guide says it's difficult, believe them. I will never, ever attempt this repair again unless someone wants to pay some kind of ridiculous price while accepting that it might ruin their laptop permanently or light their house on fire.

If you do still want to go for it, get a bucket of sand, a bucket of water and a large ABC fire extinguisher.

I've done a lot of DIY repairs and even used to specialize in laptop support or repairs, and the Air was completely insane. Just getting the case open and the ribbon cables and sub-boards disconnected was basically rocket surgery, and that was even before you got to the part where you were supposed to use pure acetone melt the extensive adhesive gluing the totally insane 6 segment battery into the tightly machined pocket in the milled unibody chassis and then pry the battery out without puncturing the super fragile battery package envelope while it's coated in highly flammable acetone.

It took me something like 6 hours of nerve wracking work and improvised tools and the assistance of a friend holding various parts just so to get that swollen, spicy pillow out of the case and free of the super strong glue and double-stick tape they used on the battery.

And then the dodgy Amazon sourced battery didn't properly work and the whole process probably bricked the firmware on the mainboard because of how touchy it is with regards to isolating it from power - like, seriously, you have to make or buy a weird sort of plastic fork-spudger to pry up the mainboard and isolate it from the battery sub-board and contacts, and worse, the battery barely fit.

And then I was trying to finagle the battery in the right place and get it to boot a whole day later after this crazy long day of laptop surgery and managed to nudge the battery about a whole 2 millimeters, which then interfered with one of the sharp, machined standoff pegs in the Air's case that's designed to basically be right there next to the super fragile battery.

That sharp, machined peg punched a nice hole in the battery envelope right on the edge of one of the six lobes or petals, which it turns out that each of those six petals has something like 3-5 layers of battery cells, like each electrical cell was actually just one layer spread out over the six lobes or petals of this bizarre battery configuration, which means if you puncture or vent one of these lobes you're likely bridging and shorting out all six lobes and layers at the same time.

If you're still having trouble visualizing this, hold up your hand. Each finger and thumb is one lobe of this battery, and each lobe is connected in series by wires, which topographically would be your palm or the webs between your fingers. Now stack 5-6 hands like that. Each layer or hand is a continuous cell, with each lobe or finger connected to the next one, then this repeats for each layer, so that each lobe is really a stack of segmented cells. Look between these lobes and there's a tidy little bundle of circuits with individual conductors for each layer and set of lobes.

Or imagine an office building that's in 5-6 buildings and 5-6 floors with skyways or hallways connecting each floor together, but only one set of stairs connecting all of the floors together.

If you're still confused it's by design. That battery is one of the damndedst things I've ever seen in any piece of electronics because it doesn't make a lick of sense. The manufacturing costs of it must be totally insane and a significant fraction of the total manufacturing cost of the Air. For fuck's sake they even have terraced steps and contours in the cell to pack as much energy density as they can into the milled and similarly contoured chassis tray that it fits into.Like you can see the battery layers being cut back like rice paddies in a hill side or a layered/sliced topographical map.

Anyway, back to the punctured battery and anomalous event in question.

This was the most escaped angry pixies, magic smoke and actual fire and sparks come out of any repair job I've ever personally tried to do. Replacing a battery shouldn't be anywhere nearly this exciting at all, especially dealing with what is supposed to be a very expensive and high end laptop.

In the end the punctured battery did not go into a full thermal runaway, but in the process of trying to yank it back out of the laptop I ended up tearing all of the super fragile ribbon cables inside the Air because there wasn't any time to mess around with spudgers flipping up tiny ribbon cable edge connector flaps, because I thought I was about two seconds away from having to dump either the battery or the entire laptop into the bucket of water I had on hand just in case this happened.

I've worked on enough computers to know that they really didn't have to go this route designing the Air, that the design choices were all about wringing out nickles and dimes of profit margin and easier one-time assembly with no regard at all for repairability or disassembly.

They effectively designed the MacBook Air to be a disposable luxury consumer good. The fit and finish of the milled unibody case is all show and supposed to make it feel like quality on the outside, not at all unlike how much work goes in to designing the look, feel and sound of a luxury car door closing even though it means nothing at all about the actual reliability or safety of the car itself

The logic board inside an Air is barely the size of a modern smartphone main board. They could have easily chosen a thicker, safer, cheaper and easier to replace uni-block battery design, moved it to the back of the case in the thicker part of the chassis near the hinge and put the logic board in the slimmer space under the trackpad and keyboard, then routed flexible ribbon cables to the ports, screen and such around the back. They already had enough ribbon cables and sub-boards going on connected to the main logic board that it would have been trivial - costwise - to do so.

They could have spent a few more pennies per unit to include serpentine ribbon cables that had enough give that you could open up the whole chassis and lay it flat without risking tearing the cables or having to unlatch them by working inside a partially opened laptop before you could open the chassis the whole way.

But instead they shaved off pennies in the wrong places and went for aesthetic driven design like how the computer felt in a users hands with regards to things like weight balance and the illusion of precision and quality. Yeah, if you put the battery in the back, it would probably be prone to tipping over backwards, or might not be a easy to open and close one-handed because the weight of the battery would no longer be forward under the trackpad.

So instead Apple designed the most complicated laptop battery in existence that I've ever heard about and crammed it into a space measured in thousands of an inch tolerances and glued that sucker in there just for good measure.

After this repair job I'm not surprised at all that earlier MacBook Airs became so well known as fire risks they were banned from some airlines for a time. I'm now personally freaked out by them, especially considering how many of the older MBAs seem to develop swollen batteries later in life.

Meanwhile I have a 2012 BMP Unibody running linux and still kicking ass that's on it's fourth or fifth battery and third HDD/SSD running more RAM than it's technically specced for.

And I can replace the batteries on my cheap ass budget smartphone without tools, and that phone is good enough that it made my iPhone-focused mom question why she was spending up to $700 on a phone when my $70 phone was good enough and fast enough that she couldn't really see a functional difference, and my mostly plastic phone survives severe drops much better than the mostly all glass or ceramic iPhones.

This right to repair problem isn't just about the right to repair but trying to mandate an informed design philosophy that values safety and durability over maximized profits and engineered obsolescence.
posted by loquacious at 6:15 PM on January 9 [142 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic, loquacious! They should make this comment into a movie.
posted by oulipian at 6:48 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


If it's okay, can you share the models of your computer and phone, loquacious?
posted by MrJM at 7:00 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I had no expectation that this thread would have me on the edge of my seat. Yes, the movie version, please!
posted by brambleboy at 7:38 PM on January 9


loquacious just reminded me the horror of replacing my 2009 MacBook Pro’s coffee spilled keyboard. Apple store claimed that laptop was beyond saving.

It was a two weekend job that have me rage quit at least once. That laptop’s keyboard have at least twenty(maybe more?) tiny screws attached to the laptop chassis. I still managed messed one screw that cause problem typing “M” letter. Luckily the problem resolved itself after two years of continuous typing.

2009 MBP is still not bad from upgradability standpoint. The RAM and hard drive are fairly easy to upgrade. Battery also looks like it’s an easy job.

In new Apple laptop everything are soldered in, while it’s still possible to upgrade memory and ram, it’s no longer a job for average tech savvy persons.
posted by Carius at 7:54 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


The MacBook in question I'm using right now is the 2012 MacBook Pro, if I'm remembering correctly the A1278. It was given to me by a friend after it hit the OS X upgrade wall and got to that well known point in the lifecycle of Apple computers these days where you couldn't even download or install an updated browser because you couldn't update the OS.

It's still wicked fast because I upgraded it to an SSD, maxed out the RAM and I run linux. It's easily faster than the touchbar MBPs and latest model MBAs that I meet running the latest versions of OS X, and possibly even more stable. I recently cracked the screen but it's hanging in there.

Shoot, that reminds me, there's a way to install a second SSD instead of the optical drive and I've been meaning to do that but it's a bit of a job getting the mainboard all the way out to remove the optical drive.

I have a much newer computer that was a combination birthday/christmas gift this year and it's one of the Lenovo Flex series and I love it. It's barely any thicker than a MacBook Air but is a touch screen convertible, and may actually be lighter than a MBA with much higher performance, more features, more ports and a screaming fast Ryzen 5. I will note that the RAM in this model is soldered in. It was on sale for $600 when I bought it but I think recent ram/chip price increases have pushed that number up a bit if you bought the same one today.

This newer machine running linux utterly smokes just about any other laptop I actually meet these days at 2-3x the cost and I really lucked out throwing the dart at this one on Amazon. It's a sleeper, like an old plain looking Civic that actually has a super tuned dual turbo street racing engine in it.

Side note: I do a lot of music production and media work and graphic design on this computer, so I do throw some real work at it beyond watching cat videos on YouTube, and even better I can do it entirely with free/open source software entirely outside of the Windows and OS X ecosystems.

My phone is a bog standard Motorola Moto E series. They go from about $70 to $150 depending on the model. This series is known for being a good budget performer. It just kind of works. The cameras don't suck, the memory is kind of limited but it has an SD card slot, and some of them even dual SIM, and you can replace the batteries without a tool.

The main benefit for me is that they're pretty durable, they're affordable and they mostly don't suck. I've had this one for almost two years without any kind of case and it's come loose from my bicycle handlebar mount and it slid and tumbled over gravel and dirt for 30 feet and it just kind of roughed up the plastic corners. Granted I've also cracked screens in the same series dropping it just the wrong way on a wood floor, but dollar for dollar these dumb cheap phones are pretty well engineered and durable.

I wouldn't say that any of these are particularly good examples of repairable tech, but at least you can replace the batteries on them and do basic upgrades.
posted by loquacious at 8:21 PM on January 9 [15 favorites]


Flagged as fantastic, loquacious! They should make this comment into a movie

I had no expectation that this thread would have me on the edge of my seat. Yes, the movie version, please!


You guys are weird. Go watch Hurt Locker or something. Also there's probably a how to video of this already if you really want to see it.

I mean you could whip up a script about it but the reality based version of the film is about 6 hours of me hunched over a laptop outside and occasionally swearing a lot and taking smoke breaks.

I think bigclivedotccom has that market cornered. Or Electroboom, or Playing with Junk.

I still don't ever want to see the inside of a MacBook Air ever again. Replacing a battery shouldn't be that thrilling. And just seeing the layout of the guts inside a MBA is weirdly offensive and anger-inducing to anyone that used to work on computers when they were designed to be tinkered with and repaired.
posted by loquacious at 8:41 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


loquacious, this goes straight into MeFi Hall of Fame or I'll eat my hat. And I'm on a diet.
posted by hat_eater at 9:07 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


I love eking out additional life for old mobile phones, but being able to repair them has become much less of an issue when I can't even get the security updates to keep my information safe. I mean, I used to use cyanogen-mod and lineage OS in place of android, but it seems like eventually you get an update that makes your phone freeze up or worse, run so hot you wonder if it will catch fire.

Just recently I came to the depressing realization that I can't replace the battery on my LG Stylo 4 without a heat gun, and I'm not sure I can source a reliable battery anyway.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:21 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


METAFILTER: the reality based version of the film is about 6 hours of me hunched over a laptop outside and occasionally swearing a lot and taking smoke breaks.
posted by philip-random at 9:28 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


METAFILTER: the reality based version of the film is about 6 hours of me hunched over a laptop outside and occasionally swearing a lot and taking smoke breaks.

One of the slower episodes of Mr Robot, then.
posted by hippybear at 9:54 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


@BrotherCaine, a little hair dryer worked fine for me when i replaced the one in my Z1 compact. that got me two more years before my carrier decided to stop allowing the model on its network because it can't do volte.
posted by Clowder of bats at 10:12 PM on January 9


"trying to mandate an informed design philosophy that values safety and durability over maximized profits and engineered obsolescence."

That is almost exactly wrong. We glue and solder everything down because the main failure points are the mechanical connections and moving parts. People pay really good money for the lightest, fastest wizzbang stuff. The margins on repairable stuff is normally negative and subsidized by the service providers. Companies selling hardware with negative margin have a hard time staying in business, hence the relative paucity of the goods.

If you legislate that companies build it, you'll probably need to legislate that people buy it.

And, for the love of god, don't screw around with batteries without the proper safety gear, equipment, and training.
posted by pdoege at 10:48 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Often, being able to make things better and longer lasting is at odds with repairability

“Better” is certainly the argument they’ll give you (and is true to an extent if you prioritize compact designs etc.) but “longer lasting” seems fundamentally contradictory?
posted by atoxyl at 11:14 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


What company did the survey find most reliable? Oh yeah, ... Apple.

Repairs and upgrades I have done: replace drive or SSD on 2009 iMac, 2010 MacBook, 2012 MacBook, change broken back panel on iPhone 4, upgrade memory on 2008 MacBook Pro and 2016 iMac. Repairs I have paid others for: replace screen on iPhone 6, fix 2017 iPad charge port, replace battery on iPhone X, change hard drive on 2016 iMac. Repairs under warranty: new logic board and memory and battery for 2016 MacBook at 2 yrs 11 months, right before the extended warranty ran out (one of my two lemons from Apple, the other was a Performa 6300).

Replaced because they were too slow but still running fine so I gave them away to people who couldn’t afford a new device: Mac Plus, Graphite iMac, 12 inch PowerBook, MacBook Pro 2008, iMac 2009, MacBook 2010, MacBook Pro 2012, iPhone 4, iPhone 6.

Things I have had to replace more frequently than my computing devices because they can’t be repaired at a reasonable price: ink jet printers, dishwasher, toaster, furnace, hot water heater, dryer, milk frother, coffee maker, electric kettle, ceiling fan, Dodge minivan. Note that none of these products have had functional improvements that come anywhere close to the improvements in computing devices over the past 10 years.

I want to buy a new Apple silicon computer but I have to wait until one of my now 5 year old computers breaks down to justify it, as they are both faster than I need.

Yes, we live in a throw away society but computing devices are not the prime example of this.
posted by FungusCassetteBicker at 11:42 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Apple's new M1 system on a chip incorporates the CPU, GPU, and RAM for advantages in speed and power efficiency.

Would it be better to keep these three elements separate to allow repair and upgrade options?

Within the decade, smartphones will have no ports, enabling a sealed waterproof shockproof slab design.

While modular smartphones such as Fairphone and Google's Project Ara are intriguing alternatives, the market still votes with their pocketbooks for streamlined commodity simplicity.

We're moving towards a future of fully solid-state smartphones, tablets, and laptops that will require us to reevaluate the meaning of repairability and upgradeability and the trade-offs they will entail.
posted by fairmettle at 12:34 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


That is almost exactly wrong. We glue and solder everything down because the main failure points are the mechanical connections and moving parts.

I finally got rid of my beloved Nokia 6800 because the components that were sandwiched together in the case with pins contacting the board had worn completely through the copper traces from the phone flexing minutely in my pocket over the years.

Things I have had to replace more frequently than my computing devices because they can’t be repaired at a reasonable price: ink jet printers, dishwasher, toaster, furnace, hot water heater, dryer, milk frother, coffee maker, electric kettle, ceiling fan, Dodge minivan. Note that none of these products have had functional improvements that come anywhere close to the improvements in computing devices over the past 10 years.

My Zojirushi water boiler is going strong about eight or ten years in (after burning up like one kettle every six months previously). My Dualit toaster is almost twenty years old, but cost so much I could've bought a $17 toaster every year for the rest of my life. The hand-me-down Miele dryer I had was 30 years old when it caught on fire inside because it had so much lint buildup because I didn't know I had to clean out that part of the unit. I sold my car after 21 years because a neighbor needed a car and I cycle everywhere, but It ran fine. My laser printer at work is probably 15-20 years old. Before that I had an IBM laser printer that had a centronics cable.

I like repairable things, because I don't like filling landfills, but all the stuff that lasts me a long time and is repairable costs a ridiculously huge premium over less repairable stuff. Sometimes to the point like with the dualit where I could be buying the cheap thing every year forever for the same price. Sometimes the high end repairable product is worth it financially.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:21 AM on January 10 [5 favorites]


In 50 years from now when precious metals become impossible to find, people are going to look back and wonder what on earth we were all thinking.

When precious metals run low people who own the garbage dumps will be like mine owners.
posted by srboisvert at 2:48 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


the market still votes with their pocketbooks for streamlined commodity simplicity.

The wisdom of the market votes for disposable plastic bags and straws while being well aware of the societal cost and welfare capture by industry owners and corporate interests. This is another example of the same kind of biased reasoning happening.

The idea that integrated circuits are not fixable... is not a counterargument either. It's like saying people want to fly and responding well, gravity makes flying impossible. That there are some constraints doesn't say much at all about the space of what is meaningfully achievable, for the technological empowerment and emancipation of a society of users.
posted by polymodus at 4:47 AM on January 10 [6 favorites]


I bought a Mr Coffee coffee maker in March that started spitting an error code instead of making coffee. Some internet research told me what the problem is but I can't fix it because they've used security screws to prevent disassembly. It was easier for me to just order another coffee maker on Amazon than try to get this one serviced. Definitely didn't buy another Mr Coffee.
posted by simra at 4:55 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Tangentially related to 'repair' but solidly related to 'planned obsolescence' ... vehicle GPS:

Some years back I replaced a Mio bought at Radio Shack (no longer supported) with a TomTom — a promise of lifetime map updates helped sell that deal.

A few years later map updates were no longer available. Their position was 'lifetime' meant the lifetime of the product. Well, the *device* was still alive — 'lifetime of the product' to them basically meant they were no longer selling these devices and no longer wanted to support them. They said they could no longer provide map updates because they now used a different format for their maps.

They offered 'discounts' on replacement models — but I bought a Garmin. I'm sure that's going to have the same issue a few years out — but I wasn't going to turn around and reward TomTom for bad support with another purchase.

I bought a Mr Coffee coffee maker in March that started spitting an error code instead of making coffee. Some internet research told me what the problem is but I can't fix it because they've used security screws to prevent disassembly.

I did buy a set of security screw heads at an Ace Hardware for a different project ... but you're right that often the time and effort and added costs become prohibitive.
posted by rochrobbb at 6:11 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


simra, an iFixit kit would cost the same -- so you could fix the coffee maker and also the next dozen items that croak.

Not everyone can or wants to tinker, but that was my calculation a few years ago. Some stuff I can upgrade/fix (kettle, 2011 MacBook Air, et al.), and other items have to be junked: anything that doesn't have to be thrown away is a win.

This summer my wife and I spent an entire day tracing all the electrical lines on an old riding mower before I noticed she had connected the battery wrong. We learned a ton and it still limps along, so I didn't feel it was a total waste.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:18 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Yeah when iFixit tells you to disassemble everything in a Macbook to use poured-in acetone to dissolve the battery glue, that's fucking nuts. Instead, I didn't disassemble anything, just used a piece of twine gently tucked underneath the battery pods to slowly saw away at the glue, back and forth, which worked very well. I did it outside of course because I'm not batshit. But a lake of acetone isn't really a great idea to have inside either.

Not saying it isn't absurd to have to do this, but sometimes it's useful to get a second opinion on how to repair something.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:36 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I had a washing machine where the little ceramic magnet in the lid latch crumbled away to the point where the machine would no longer operate because the safety interlock could never be engaged.

I spent a couple days online trying to research how I could bypass the interlock (not easy--the machine actively probed so the switch would have to be sorted only when the machine expected it to be closed) before I finally found a replacement part from a very dodgy looking parts site.

The part didn't quite fit right, but it worked well enough to take some satisfaction in having fixed it. Still, I was kind of relieved a few weeks later when the central bearing started making enough noise that I could justify getting a new machine.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:47 AM on January 10


If manufacturers can't or don't want to provide repairable products, they should instead have to provide regulated service life guarantees and replace any device that fails or significantly degrades in performance before that time is up.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:49 AM on January 10 [4 favorites]


I didn't disassemble anything, just used a piece of twine gently tucked underneath the battery pods to slowly saw away at the glue, back and forth, which worked very well.

Two words: dental floss.

And just seeing the layout of the guts inside a MBA is weirdly offensive and anger-inducing to anyone that used to work on computers when they were designed to be tinkered with and repaired.

Seconded, thirded, fourthed, fifthed, sixthed, seventhed and eighthed.
posted by flabdablet at 8:00 AM on January 10 [7 favorites]


The tradeoff for non-repairability ought to be adequate performance at very low cost.

I own a Chinese-made Xgody phone. It has a 6 inch screen on a metal case, a four core processor, a nice big battery, a 13 megapixel three-camera rear camera and a 5 megapixel selfie camera, a rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, dual SIM or single SIM + microSD side caddy, the right radios for any of the Australian 4G providers without being locked to any of them, and it came with an Android Pie installation that's as close to plain vanilla as any I've seen.

It's been the least annoying Android device I've owned so far. It does all the things, and does them without fuss. The case is even a nice colour.

The battery isn't designed to be user-replaceable but the whole phone cost me AU$130 in 2019, new from the factory, including shipping to rural Victoria, on eBay. That's less than I've seen iPhone owners pay for a battery.

So it's essentially disposable by design, but here's the thing: no Apple or Samsung phone works ten times as well as this one. The majors aren't paying significantly more for their electronics than Xgody does, so charging as much as they do for phones that are equally difficult to repair is pretty much a straight-up scam.
posted by flabdablet at 8:35 AM on January 10 [9 favorites]


but here's the thing: no Apple or Samsung phone works ten times as well as this one.

the mark-ups are not as extreme but the same logic holds with regard to Apple laptops vs non. A quick check reveals they're still about double the price of an "equivalent" Windows option, and that's not factoring in Apple software options being both more limited and more pricey.
posted by philip-random at 8:46 AM on January 10


To be fair, the M1 versions have shifted that balance a fair way. They're clearly still making a killing on them though.
posted by flabdablet at 8:53 AM on January 10


Can’t apple just make a rear battery cover that slides off? They have those in $5 kids’ toys. I don’t give a shit about 100% waterproofness. Just don’t use your phone in the tub or a rainstorm. Similarly, my older laptops had battery covers. I love my Apple stuff and agree with users in the article ... it’s mostly the batteries. Also don’t give an iPad to a little kid to play with FFS!!!
posted by freecellwizard at 8:55 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


That is almost exactly wrong. We glue and solder everything down because the main failure points are the mechanical connections and moving parts.

Strongly disagree with this, because as I see the glue everything down trend started long before hard-soldered connections as a way for cheaper, faster mass assembly. Example basically anything Sony Vaio branded from the beginning of the brand mark back in the early 2000s. If anything all that adhesive tape and glue was to increase planned obsolescence and deny customer repairability.

We also had cutting edge compact, light electronics that were designed to be repaired. The venerable IBM Thinkpad is an example of this, as is the Toshiba Satellite and related laptops before they went to crap and followed HP's lead. The Toshiba Protege and Libretto ultra-portables also could be readily repaired but you'd need a nice set of jewelery or watch grade screwdrivers.

And if this was true we'd be seeing less need to repair things, not more.

And, for the love of god, don't screw around with batteries without the proper safety gear, equipment, and training.

This statement is positively un-American. No user serviceable parts inside my fat ass.

Despite the best efforts of some/most manufacturers to screw everything up, we also live in a world where some people have x-ray machines and scanning electron microscopes in home shops. I've watched videos of people laser cutting their own tiny solder masks to repair and replace SMD chip packages. Shoot, I've repaired broken circuit traces with foil gum wrappers.

Also I mostly know what I'm doing with regards to batteries. I used to repair and service laptops for a living. There's a reason why I had a bucket of sand, a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher and it wasn't because batteries are inherently dangerous (they are) but because the MacBook Air battery in particular is a remarkably artistic piece of shit that's so bad it shouldn't pass go for safety reasons and definitely shouldn't have a UL or related certifications.
posted by loquacious at 9:11 AM on January 10 [10 favorites]


I think there's some nuance missing in people's minds when they hear right to repair. It's not just the lack of reparability that's a huge problem, is the active and intentional planning of obsolescence within items. If something isn't easy to repair, I understand. But companies are out here intentionally make things break to force consumers to consume. It's not only immoral, it's environmentally devastating.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:20 AM on January 10 [9 favorites]


Yeah when iFixit tells you to disassemble everything in a Macbook to use poured-in acetone to dissolve the battery glue, that's fucking nuts. Instead, I didn't disassemble anything, just used a piece of twine gently tucked underneath the battery pods to slowly saw away at the glue, back and forth, which worked very well. I did it outside of course because I'm not batshit. But a lake of acetone isn't really a great idea to have inside either.

Not saying it isn't absurd to have to do this, but sometimes it's useful to get a second opinion on how to repair something.


Yeah, I went with the dental floss trick first. No dice. As for acetone I used a bulb with a blunt tipped syringe to apply small amounts and keep the acetone contained in each well of the battery compartment. They talk about this in the i-Fixit guide, you're not just splashing acetone all over the place. The precision required for applying the acetone was definitely a huge stress, though.

I'm not sure what version of the MBA you had but the one I was working on did not open wide enough to get dental floss or spudgers under the batteries because the ribbon cables were right there in the way, plus you had to try to work inside of it like working on the engine of a car with the hood only propped open a few inches.

Plus there's the risk of damaging/bricking the main board if you didn't isolate the compression-fit battery contacts with the fork-spudger thing and press and hold the little microbutton remove it entirely from softpower. There's a dinky little indicator LED in there and everything. As far as I know it's part of the official Apple procedure and way to do either a battery or main logic board replacement.

I know I did this part right because after the replacement battery failed to take the recommend slow/low first charge I tried the old battery and it still worked and booted.

My failure point was when I tried the new battery again and ended up accidentally puncturing it which prompted the manual rapid disassembly method because: fire.
posted by loquacious at 9:28 AM on January 10


Also, a note on flexible circuit ribbon cable interconnects:

They used to reinforce the ends of these with a layer of stiff plastic and even a tab of plastic so you could actually handle them and get them to seat in the flip-top sockets without mangling the circuit. Some companies still use this technique. The ribbon cables that don't use these reinforcements totally suck and are almost impossible to get seated right or handle without damaging them.

It would take a lot to convince me that Apple (or others) aren't skipping this step just to shave of fractions of a penny and isn't an engineering driven design decision at all, but an accountant-driven design decision. Hell, you can get replacement third party ribbon cables that do include this reinforcement and they'll fit in the OEM connectors and sockets just fine because all the socket cares about is that the tiny exposed edge of the ribbon edge connector is the right size and thickness for the socket and hold-down assembly.

The third party Amazon battery I used was utter crap, but they helpfully included new mainboard ribbon cable harnesses and they included reinforced ribbon cable harnesses. The thin plastic reinforcement fits in just fine next to the socket connectors because it's still thinner than the total height of the socket when installed.
posted by loquacious at 9:37 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


It's not just the lack of reparability that's a huge problem, is the active and intentional planning of obsolescence within items.

This. I'm also surprised to see so much faith in the free market to somehow just magically solve this problem without any guardrails or regulatory guidance. It's not working; the market is actively failing to deliver what consumers want, which is why we're seeing "right to repair" initiatives popping up. People don't have to just "vote with their pocketbooks", they can vote with their votes. That's as valid a signal of consumer demand as anything the market can provide. I think people actively want stuff that's more long-lasting and repairable, but the market isn't providing it, and in fact some manufacturers are actively working against it. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that manufacturers have actively or passively conspired against repairability, to boot.

The only valid alternative that I can see to increased longevity and repairability is closed-loop supply chains, which is what Apple claims they want, but I think we need to view manufacturers claims here with a lot of skepticism: they have an obvious interest in making stuff as short-lived and difficult to repair as possible, to keep consumers on the upgrade treadmill forever. Naturally, they are going to point to closed-loop supply chains as their preferred solution, where they take back the slew of old devices and disassemble them or whatever.

But without regulation, what's stopping Apple or other manufacturers from just taking back devices, grinding them up, and landfilling the waste? Not much that I can see.

I think we need a two-pronged approach: we need better repairability (and longevity to begin with) in devices where it makes sense, like desktop and laptop computers, SLR cameras, etc. Stuff that used to be repairable and has become less so over time. And then for devices that can't be made repairable without major engineering concessions, there we need regulated takeback and reuse/refurbishment/recycling, ideally by a disinterested third party rather than the manufacturer (because they are, frankly, just not trustworthy), to close the loop on the supply chain.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:08 AM on January 10 [8 favorites]


Let's not get me started on my Samsung refrigerator that's had two motherboards go out. Why are refrigerator needs a motherboard in the first place is beyond me.
posted by cccorlew at 10:11 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]


I mean my bike now has a motherboard in the form of a motor controller but I know I can buy replacement parts both electronic and mechanical as well as upgraded versions of those parts, both from the OEM and from a variety of third party sources.

But then again it was made and designed in China where they seem to think copyright laws are a useful tool for innovation.

That's one of the reasons China is eating our lunch in manufacturing, and it isn't just lax environmental or employment labor laws. It's because they have access to parts and have a tool making and DIY culture that's totally blowing up.

For a number of years I've been thinking I could almost see myself living in China if it wasn't for the political and social factors.

Could you imagine living near some of those Shenzhen parts and tool markets? You can walk into one of those with cash in hand without being a licensed buyer and build up any number of phones from mainboard to screens and cases. They have booths and stores in those markets where they'll even perform on-the-spot remanufacturing or critical assembly steps like bonding screens to cover glass or reflow soldering like you're ordering a cheeseburger.
posted by loquacious at 11:47 AM on January 10 [9 favorites]


And you see the way the West is impressed when Japanese culture shows how repairing a bowl with gold filling is of profound cultural and philosophical value, then the West turns around and insists we can't possibly do that with the modern things we produce and consume.
posted by polymodus at 12:51 PM on January 10 [3 favorites]


the active and intentional planning of obsolescence within items

That, and the contracting up the supply chains to ensure that independent repairers are completely locked out of the spare parts markets.

Louis Rossmann has repeatedly documented instances where parts that used to be available via general electronics supply houses like Mouser and Digikey are no longer obtainable, not even in wholesale-size orders direct from manufacturers, because of exclusive supply agreements made with Apple.
posted by flabdablet at 2:48 PM on January 10 [6 favorites]


Louis Rossmann has repeatedly documented instances where parts that used to be available via general electronics supply houses like Mouser and Digikey are no longer obtainable, not even in wholesale-size orders direct from manufacturers, because of exclusive supply agreements made with Apple.

You also can't potatoes from the largest nor second largest potato farms in the United States because McDonalds perpetually buys out their harvest because you, hypothetical potato wanter, aren't going to pay enough for any potatoes to make it worth not just selling them all to McDonalds.

TSMC's entire initial 3nm fab run is (reportedly) all bought by Apple, but Rossmann is more than welcome to scratch up the ~$20B and get whatever parts he wants made during their next round.

I have a feeling he won't be able to come up the cash.
posted by sideshow at 4:00 PM on January 10


If, like me, you swoop in to buy otherwise expensive cars after their first owners trade up - any benefit you get from the -90% floor price is lost when companies do this. I can't even change over a radio antenna amplifier without engaging a dealership to provide a security code. Even professional mechanics are limited to what they can do.
posted by a non e mouse at 9:10 PM on January 10 [2 favorites]


TSMC's entire initial 3nm fab run is (reportedly) all bought by Apple, but Rossmann is more than welcome to scratch up the ~$20B and get whatever parts he wants made during their next round.

The chips he's complaining about being unable to source are not the fancy shmancy new 3nm Apple Silicon, but ordinary jellybean stuff like USB charge controllers.
posted by flabdablet at 3:38 AM on January 11 [1 favorite]


That's funny, I can go onto AliExpress and order a five pack of USB charge controller boards, already assembled with USB micro socket and ready to solder onto a battery, for about $2 US. If Mouser doesn't feel like stocking them, that's on them. The parts are there.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:43 AM on January 11


Sorry, a detail had faded in my mind since the last time I'd seen the video in which Louis relates the customer dissatisfaction that followed from being unable to source a replacement CD3217 chip.

The CD3217 is not a USB charge controller, it's a USB-C mux. Still a jellybean. A jellybean wired directly to an external connector, therefore susceptible to ESD damage, therefore an obvious candidate for easy replacement in any properly engineered product.
posted by flabdablet at 7:04 AM on January 11


I also think it's unlikely that this is merely a case of McD's buying up spuds whole farms at a time; Apple has long displayed a consistent hostility to "unauthorized" repairers who offer services that Apple itself claims are impossible.

More CBC links:

Expert disputes Apple on data recovery from water-damaged iPhones
How data was recovered from a water-damaged iPhone
posted by flabdablet at 7:30 AM on January 11 [4 favorites]


Apple also likes to pair modules such as cameras and batteries with their original logic boards using proprietary tools that are not available to anybody else, guaranteeing that third party repairers will not be able to perform successful module replacements even if they can get hold of the correct parts.

Hugh Jeffreys demonstrates how this works, breaking a pair of factory-fresh iPhone 12s by swapping their main logic boards, then fixing them by swapping the logic boards back, then breaking them again by swapping their cameras, then fixing them again by swapping the cameras back.

Note that the replacements don't cause the phone to fail altogether, and nor do they present the user with clear warnings about non-original parts; they just make the phone behave weird and flaky, as if to give the impression that it's been fiddled with by somebody incompetent.
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


I recently got a PineBook Pro. It is a super thin and light laptop with a long-lasting battery. It is also designed to be easy to open up (just 10 Phillip's-head screws holding it closed) and repair, as all the components are modular. It is also open-source. The company sells spare components for every part of their laptops right on their site.

It is an ARM Linux machine, so no-where near as powerful as a MacBook, but it is proof-of-concept that it is possible to build modern easily-serviceable laptops.
posted by fimbulvetr at 9:43 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]


In case anyone is interested, in Oregon, and still reading this thread...

There's a Right to Repair Town Hall on Thursday, January 21st, 5:30pm

Register: https://ospirg.webaction.org/p/salsa/event/common/public/?event_KEY=1025

via the Repair PDX (site down right now; archive.org copy) email list
posted by sibilatorix at 10:16 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


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