If you’ve kept up with recent tech news you’ve likely seen Apple’s recent withdrawal from EPEAT environmental standards, only to reverse that decision. For the uninitiated, EPEAT is an organization dedicated to encouraging environmentally sound manufacturing in electronic devices. Apple had long been a part of the rating organization, allowing its products to be purchased by local and state governments that require EPEAT certification. Apple caved to public pressure and re-certified much of their product line with EPEAT days after leaving it. So why the short lived abandonment?
The fault lies in a few areas. One is the age of EPEAT’s guidelines; some pundits have stated that their standards have not been adapted to newer, less user-serviceable but longer-lived devices. For example, EPEAT doesn’t evaluate any of the latest (and best selling) devices like smartphones or tablets. According to Jim Dalrymple “Companies like Dell have 171 products listed…[but] none of their computers are even Energy Star compliant.” (quote courtesy of DrBobTechBlog).
Another issue is the changing manufacturing process of Apple’s new products. The iPhone and iPad aren’t made to be user-serviceable; the devices are sealed and all components are soldered onto or glued to the motherboard. The new Retina MacBook Pro shares some of the manufacturing bloodlines of its smaller siblings: to reduce device thickness and weight the laptop’s aluminum case acts as the frame for the LCD screen, eliminating the need for an additional glass cover over the LCD. The downside of this manufacturing feat is that the screen becomes almost impossible for users to change should it be damaged. This and other changes (like the soldered-in memory) earned it an “almost unrepairable” designation from iFixit. This may seem unnecessarily restrictive, but bear in mind the vast majority of computer owners lack the skill needed to plumb the depths of their machine’s guts. Most opt to have a third party do the dirty work or repairs, and Apple seeks to keep your experience (and money) within the ecosystem by channeling you to their repair associates instead of your local vendor. Who better to repair your device than the ones that made it? Couple this with the convenience of an AppleCare plan and it’s like owning a luxury car; the service is excellent provided you keep your business in house.
Even some of their earlier computers aren’t so user-friendly inside. I upgraded the memory of my early 2009 Mac Mini and can personally attest to the difficulty of doing something Apple didn’t have in mind when they designed the device. As with many aspects of their ecosystem, things are effortless if you follow the path Apple has engineered (in this case relying on buying the device built to order and Applecare for repairs). Woe be to those that deviate from this course; while there may be tutorials and instructional videos out there, tinkering inside the aluminum confines of a Mac isn’t a task for the faint of heart.
Despite my earlier statements the design of Macs is one of the factors that made me switch. I was a digital shade tree mechanic for years, building PCs that I’d keep until the latest game I was infatuated with would overcome it’s components and then upgrade. While building your own PC can be a fun hobby I eventually tired of it and opted to abandon my frankencomputer for Apple’s alternative, ditching the rubber-coated copper spaghetti trailing from the back of my PC and cluttering the floor behind my desk for the iMac‘s clean, power-cable-only form.
A recent article from TechHive makes the argument that Apple isn’t the only manufacturer to accept the benefits of non user serviceable products. For most of its lifespan the iPhone has been lambasted for not having a removable battery, yet some of Motorola’s new handsets (like the Droid Razr MAXX) have the same construction. The iMac has seen several competing all-in-one desktop competitors hit the market over the past year, inspiring this post from PCWorld pining over the pending death of the PC. Mini-computers like the Raspberry Pi further the trend by making the computer so small and inexpensive it would be easier by far to just replace the entire PC should it fail.
As components have become more powerful and smaller manufacturers have made devices sleeker, but at the cost of configurability. The integrated GeForce or Radeon GPU in your all-in-one or laptop might be plenty powerful for most things, but the avid gamer won’t be able to change that integrated part out for something newer and more powerful when the heir to Crysis comes out. Consumers may need to be more aware of exactly what they are buying due to the inability to upgrade the internal components of their device; tailoring the product line to the majority of users that would never even consider swapping out their 5400 RPM hard drive for a solid state one isn’t without a price. While I doubt that self-built PCs will disappear entirely in the near future, the cobbled-together power machine may soon be a thing of the past.