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Questions raised over long-term ultrabook support

A report from Greenpeace on e-waste highlights a growing problem in the maintainability of modern laptops

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Apple and Microsoft laptops have been shamed in Greenpeace’s latest assessment of electronic waste (e-waste), scoring just one point out of a possible 10 for repairability.

At the other end of the scale were HP and Dell, each scoring 10 out of 10.

The Apple MacBook Pro 17in, Apple Retina MacBook 2017 and Microsoft Surface Book all lacked replaceable batteries and screens, offered no spare parts and required special tools to repair, according to Greenpeace.

Greenpeace East Asia, in partnership with iFixit, assessed more than 40 best-selling smartphones, tablets and laptops launched since 2015. A total of 17 IT brands were represented in the study.

The assessment was based on iFixit’s repairability score, which considers the time required to repair the product, the device’s upgradability and modularity, as well as the availability of spare parts and repair manuals.

“Electronics take a massive amount of energy, human effort and natural resources to make, and yet, manufacturers produce billions more of them every year, while consumers keep them for just a few years before tossing them away,” said iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens.

E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world,” he added. “We should be able to make electronics a more sustainable part of our lives.”

How laptops stack up

The highest scoring notebook PCs were Dell’s Latitude ES270 and HP’s EliteBook 840 G3, each given 10 out of 10. The Acer Predator 17.3, meanwhile, lost points due to a lack of spare parts, gaining a score of seven out of 10.

“E-waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. We should be able to make electronics a more sustainable part of our lives”
Kyle Wiens, iFixit

“Of all the models assessed, we found a few best-in-class products, which demonstrate that designing for repairability is possible. On the other hand, a number of products from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft are increasingly being designed in ways that make it difficult for users to fix, which shortens the lifespan of these devices and adds to growing stockpiles of e-waste,” said Gary Cook, IT sector analyst at Greenpeace USA.

The highest scoring smartphone was the Fairphone 2, which achieved 10 out of 10. Apple’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7+ and Google’s Pixel all achieved a score of seven out of 10. None of these handsets offered replaceable batteries, spare parts or publicly available repair manuals.

Prioritise repair options in product design

“Improving the repairability of electronic products is technically achievable, and brands should be prioritising this in their product design,” said Cook. “As a first step, it’s critical that all brands follow in the footsteps of Dell, Fairphone and HP, and make repair manuals and spare parts publicly available.”

Greenpeace found that design complexity, combined with the practice of soldering or gluing separate pieces together, has made repairs time consuming. Samsung and LG’s smartphones and Apple’s laptops have become less repairable.

Nearly 70% of all devices tested had batteries that were impossible or difficult to replace due to design decisions and the use of strong adhesives to affix the battery to the casing. “Samsung’s Galaxy S8 smartphone and Apple’s Retina MacBook exemplify this bad practice, with batteries thoroughly adhered to the device panel,” Greenpeace noted.

The campaining organisation urged the IT sector to design products that could be more easily repaired or upgraded and to offer adequate post-sales support. This could be done by making repairs accessible and affordable, making spare parts – particularly batteries, displays and other components with high failure rates – available to customers for at least seven years, and by promoting standards and laws that encourage product repair, it said.

Managing IT lifecycles

From an IT manager’s perspective, there appears to be a shift in the corporate market towards desirable high-end laptops, convertible devices and ultrabooks, which tend to be designed primarily around aesthetics rather than long-term maintainability. As such, the practice of trickling high-end laptops down the organisation as the first users of these devices upgrade may no longer be viable.

The PC industry is also experiencing a price increase. Over two years ago, the price hike was attributed to the local currency deterioration against the US dollar. According to Gartner’s latest market share data, it is now component shortages that are leading to price increases.

“A number of products from Apple, Samsung and Microsoft are increasingly being designed in ways that make it difficult for users to fix, which shortens the lifespan of these devices and adds to growing stockpiles of e-waste”
Gary Cook, Greenpeace

“DRAM prices have doubled since the middle of 2016, and SSD has been in short supply as well,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “The price hike started affecting the market in the first quarter of 2017. This issue will grow into a much bigger problem in the second quarter, and we expect it to continue throughout 2017.”

In large organisations the IT department may need to handle hundreds of new hires and leavers. As devices are handed back to be refreshed for the next new employee, the IT department will generally rebuild the software on the device, often from a gold image containing the core enterprise software being used.

But Gary Barter, director of pre-sales at CoreTx, a full service, mid-market IT provider, which has a focus on IT asset lifecycle management, said there is no guarantee how long the chipset will be supported in a lot of ultrabooks, so they do not lend themselves easily to being rebuilt with a gold image.

He recommended that IT departments should issue the majority of users with more mainstream PC devices that offer long-term support plans, while ultrabooks and Apple Macbooks should be treated as special cases, issued only to a small number of users.

With prices set to rise over the course of this year, and the inability to repair or provide long-term hardware support on many premium laptop devices easily, planning a major enterprise PC refresh is set to become all the more challenging.

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