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The new MacBook Pro trades convenience for reparability — and for most, that's okay

I recently purchased a 256GB SSD 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar as my latest laptop acquisition — and according to iFixit, there's not much chance I'll be able to upgrade that storage (or much else, really) in the future.

The company has given Apple's latest laptop a repairability score of 1/10, citing glued-in batteries and user-hostile casing; for those keeping score, it's the same score given to the last generation of MacBook Pro, and a few points lower than the last-generation MacBook Air (which netted a 4/10).

Replacement obsolescence

I've replaced many a part in my Mac laptops over the decade and a half I've owned them — a dead battery here, swapping a disk drive for SSD there. As a result, many of those laptops have lasted well beyond their AppleCare coverage point. My dad has an old Wall Street that, until very recently, he still used for email in the living room; I have a 2009-era 15-inch MacBook Pro that's still speeding along with a year-old SSD.

I've loved the thrill of cracking open my laptops and making them better. But it's always come as a bonus to me in my later years of laptop ownership — let's make this thing like new again! — rather than a selling point off the bat.

As Apple makes its computers lighter, thinner, and more power-efficient, it's sacrificing that reparability for greater off-the-bat convenience. My new MacBook Pro feels like a solid slab of aluminum in my hands, much like my iPhone — the engineering is hidden, rather than user-accessible.

But is the trade-off worth it? I go back and forth.

Pros and cons-umers

Removing consumer access to the inner workings of their Macs limits the computer's lifespan: A lithium-ion battery only lasts so many years, and all drives fail eventually. The industry moves forward, and those who can't afford a new laptop every two years can fall behind. It's one thing to pay $700 every two years for a new iPhone; it's quite another to pay upwards of $2000 for a new computer in that same time period.

Offering users the ability to upgrade their RAM and SSDs used to be a way to combat that growing obsolescence — make your old computer a little bit faster, let it work a little bit harder, and you don't need next year's model.

And in a vacuum, I worry about the lack of upgradeability in Apple's new Macs leading to computers being replaced faster. People can only afford so much at purchase time, and the "8GB of RAM is plenty" mentality could lead to unhappy users two years down the line. It also may lead to more electronic waste as people upgrade more frequently, or users being forced to pay more money over time to fix their computers solely through Apple and Apple-authorized resellers.

But here's the thing: Outside the core Mac enthusiast audience, the general population just isn't interested in fixing or upgrading its machines. We have a hard enough time helping our loved ones at Thanksgiving switch to complicated passwords and clearing off their desktop — explaining that you can take apart a computer to make it faster or fix it is often beyond the pale for many users.

Throughout my college and early work years in Apple Retail, many of my friends and customers insisted on trudging through life with broken laptop screens, missing key caps, or ever-slowing hard drives. When I mentioned that such things could be (with a little bit of work) easily fixed, they'd often shrug and say "It's not worth it. I'll upgrade eventually." My own fiancé uses an old MacBook with a completely shattered screen, but doesn't see the point in fixing it.

The laptop of the future

We, the computer enthusiasts, balk at computers without replaceable parts. "What if I need more space? I don't want to pay for Apple's RAM suppliers!" But it goes over the head of an average user. All they see is a computer that works for them — until it doesn't.

So it makes sense to me that Apple would focus its build efforts on sleeker, smarter, more portable machines over repairable machines, and offer recycling programs (opens in new tab) to keep older Macs from ending up in landfills and give users some monetary value for their old machines. There's another issue to think about here, too: As a computer's inside more and more resembles that of its mobile cousin, part replacement becomes trickier — the last thing Apple (or any company) wants is a customer attempting a battery repair and blowing up their device.

No matter our feelings over expensive SSDs and reparability, the future of the Mac is quite likely non-user replaceable. That doesn't mean we should give up fighting for repairable computers — I quite admire folks like iFixit fighting for a user's right to repair their technology, however complicated it's become to do so. But we need to plan for the future.

When buying a laptop, I now look to the computer I want two or three years from now, not the computer I want now. It's not a perfect solution — and often a very expensive one — but it's the decisions you have to make when it comes to extending the life of your new machine.

The same goes for things SSDs: I purchased a 256GB hard drive in my MacBook Pro because I largely rely on cloud-based services for my laptop use, but you may not — and you need to decide that for yourself.

This tack won't solve issues with glued-in batteries dying just outside the warranty period — that's where fighting for reasonable battery repair rates comes in — but it's at least one possible step in an age where all our devices are becoming more and more compact.

Serenity was formerly the Managing Editor at iMore, and now works for Apple. She's been talking, writing about, and tinkering with Apple products since she was old enough to double-click. In her spare time, she sketches, sings, and in her secret superhero life, plays roller derby. Follow her on Twitter @settern.

21 Comments
  • Great post. However, I feel that if Apple (and other computer designers) is heading down this road then at least have some kind of trade in program. I would be able to trade in a two or three year old laptop for a new one. Just like car shopping. I totally agree that buying a Mac is way diffferent than an iPhone as far as price goes. ****, I throw my iPhone on my credit card, but no way would I do that with a $3000 computer. If I can trade my Mac in at a third of it's price I'd buy a new one more often.
  • I'd rather have the money in hand as the % of the price doesn't really mean much anyway, since trade-ins often will give u that price difference anyway. Plus, the assurance that u have control knowing u have the green $$ in your hand.. u have a choice to make.
  • Nice article, I own a Macbook Pro 2011 and it's really nice to be able to upgrade the storage and ram and battery ect ect. I can even remove the CD drive and put in another hard drive. I know it sucks not being able to upgrade anything but as long as the storage lasts me 5+ years without breaking. I'll be a happy customer :)
  • I'm afraid of what Apple is going to do with their upcoming iMac lineup. So I decided to hold on to my 2013 MacBook Pro for as long as I can.
  • What are you afraid of? You're making it sound like the 2016 MacBook Pro is a disaster
  • in order to make stuff thinner, u have to trade user serviceable for what users want.. The last mac is 2015 i purchased, until it dies (or till i do, whichever comes first).
  • Pretty sure it'll die before you, unless you're very old or live a very bad lifestyle
  • I have an order for the fully decked out 15 inch model and just today i picked up the base 13 with touch bar at an Apple Store. The 13 meets all my needs I think...but I would really like the oomph of the 15.
    Not 100% sure what I will do yet, the 15 won't get here for over a month so I have time to really test out the smaller laptop and make a decision. At this point I am really questioning everything about what I really need as opposed to what I want, in a post PC world i am not really sure what my real needs are anymore.
  • Great input but honestly i don't know many people updating their computer every 2 years unless they are doing very ibtebsive tasks on it. It's more like a 3 to 5 years period between each upgrade. My 2013 macbook pro is still more than capable for everyday task and as good as this macbook looks i can wait 1 or 2 years if my macbook doesn't fail before upgrading Sent from the iMore App
  • This is why I love my 2012 Mac mini. It makes me kind of sad they changed them but I know OWC still sells some. It is so upgradable and repairable. I take mine completely apart often to swap in or out hard drives, add more hard drives, ram. I can service the power supply or fan if needed. It just reminds me of a classic car. I also have a 2014 Mac mini, but it moved more to a less service friendly path, therefore shorter life it seems. Since I can't upgrade the ram. I was slowly able to put 16GB in my 2012 Mini to keep it with the times. Since the Mini has no battery for its dependency, I always felt they last longer as well. A phone or laptop always seems to be on borrowed time. I think all apple products are moving or have moved in this direction of design over function or repairability. As long as they continue to be well made and last many years, I think they can keep the balance. I can't imagine using any other OS so I always pay attention to what apple is doing with the Mac. My Mini is like a favourite pair of shoes though or jeans, so much that you feel you should buy another pair for when that one runs out because you love it so much. For my needs these mini's make me so happy.
  • This title is backwards. Surely it should be "trades reparability for convenience".
  • I never even noticed that, good spot. I guess my mind reversed the title itself
  • A trade is a trade :)
  • There time when repair car was easy but now it very hard to do compared to 1970 and 2016. So computing became more faster and every pluggable connector can slow down your laptop. The same story with phones. I remember time when it was easy to replace vibrator on my phone but now phone is just soldered modules. All what I can change just display and touch screen.
  • What worries me about this new age is the technology seems magic. With phones, consoles, and now laptops (and cars) - because there is no way to do anything yourself, you never open it and learn about it. Instead of masters of their technology who understand what it is and how it works, they are slaves to it. I wish every kid played with raspberry pis and built robots and wrote games in python. Even those who won't have jobs in technology, will interact with technology and will need to understand it.
  • I know I sound like a grumpy old man. "Back in my day we could just open up our Apple IIs and just had 8 bit graphics. And it made us better. Kids today are just spoiled!"
  • So, what u'r saying is the older generation of us are doomed to be slaved to the higher standards, while the young kids will be all fine as they'll grow up tinkering with Raspberry Pi
  • Actually, repairability was traded for convenience.
  • Really do not care about upgrading components outside of servers; the last time I've done that was around 2001. Especially with laptops, it does rarely make much sense now. Since CPU speeds don't really go up (for average daily tasks my new 15" MBP is not faster than my 2012 Retina MBP was) and since most improvements rely on newer chipsets, drive architectures etc. - you talk about a new machine anyhow, if you want these. Repairability is not my concern either. Once Apple Care runs out (in three years from now), a) has this machine paid for itself and b) most repair shops will have found ways to offer repairs for whatever can be repaired at all. The only tradeoff I see so far is battery life. My new MBP 15" (fastest CPU, GPU upgrade and 1 TB SSD) delivers a little over 50% of the battery life of my 2012 model (same clock speed, same 16 GB RAM) with its over 4 year old battery. Yesterday it died after exactly 4 hours and 13 minutes - the only thing I have been working on was a plain text MS Word document, and I went to three sites in Safari. I doubt it gets close to 10 hours in sleep mode.
  • the only thing u'd really be replacing now-days on a Mac a laptop would be memory and SSD (if you already could) It's always been that way, or spinning drive.... never been about CPU replacing/or GPU as Apple never gave that option in the first place. But i think users still want the freedom to do what they want.. by making it thinner, your saying kind of "This is still Apple's machine. You just paying for the use of it" til u replace it... Not the same but it feels that way if u can't do what u want, as in memory upgrades etc. The other side of it is "just change" and we say "Well,,, this is how it is, get used to it"
  • i got three words...: Throw away society... The only reason we can take apart DIY thanks to iFixit, but all that relies on the maybe no-tech savy user in all cases.