Many years ago—when the iPhone was still a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye—iFixit started tearing down the latest gadgets and giving them repairability scores: how easy is it to open? How many parts are modular and replaceable? Is the manufacturer trying to keep you out by requiring special tools? Once upon a time, these may have seemed like nit-picky questions, but as the decade wore on, they became crucial to whether you truly owned the phone in your hand.
So imagine it’s 10 years ago: you’ve got your Justin Beiber haircut, a vuvuzela stashed in the corner of the room, and you’re trying to take apart your iPhone 3GS. You wouldn’t have too tough a time: it contained all Phillips-head screws, didn’t have adhesive around the edges, and the LCD was separate and removable from the front glass.
Glance over to the other side of your desk and you might see a first-gen iPad and a MacBook Air, both of which were decently repairable by today’s standards. The original iPad wasn’t even glued together, and the MacBook Air was somewhat modular, despite being difficult to open.
Unfortunately, the Air gave us some hints of what lay ahead. Some of the MacBook Air’s basic components, like RAM, were soldered to the logic board, meaning you couldn’t upgrade your machine. Once the specs became a little outdated, you were forced to buy a new machine entirely. “I’ve heard this story too many times,” says Jeff Suovanen, teardown engineer at iFixit. “When I worked in laptop repair, customers would walk up clutching their beloved MacBook Air and say something like, ‘I need to run Windows in Parallels, but I’ve only got 2 GB of RAM—can you upgrade it for me?’ And I’d have to tell them that sadly, it’s not possible.”
Windows laptops had often proved easier to repair, but as consumers embraced thin, non-upgradeable machines, device makers saw which way the Air was blowing. Intel started promoting thin, low-powered Ultrabooks, and Microsoft started pushing their own Surface tablets and laptops, which were often more difficult to open. It wasn’t all bad, though. Dell may have adopted the soldered-in RAM in their XPS 13, for example, but they kept certain parts modular enough for some parts replacements.
Android phones suffered a similar fate over the course of the decade. Most Android phones of the early 2010s had back panels that allowed for instantaneous battery replacement, plus storage expansion in the form of microSD cards. There were many models, sure, but only a fraction of the depressing diaspora we now have. What a time to be alive!
Then things got rough.
In 2012, Apple killed their standard unibody MacBooks in favor of the thinner, pixel-packed MacBook Pro with Retina Display, ensuring none of their laptops would be easily repairable for the rest of the decade. After years of highly repairable MacBooks (the 2011 models earned a 7 on our repairability scale), the Retina MacBooks received 1s and 2s thanks to proprietary screws, firmly glued-down batteries, and fused display units that require total replacement if something breaks—not to mention soldered-down RAM and (ugh) storage.
The iPhone 4S took things in a similar direction for phones. In a frustratingly anti-repair move, Apple started using pentalobe screws to secure the rear panel in an effort to keep you out of your iPhone—a practice they’ve kept up with to this day. Special screws are nothing new in the electronics industry—Nintendo was using them all the way back on the Super NES—but the trend has increased in recent years, with manufacturers adding more obscure screws like tri-point and tri-wing.
Android manufacturers followed suit, adopting thin, unibody designs, which required ditching the removable batteries (and, in some cases, SD cards), not to mention adding more adhesive around the edges of the body.
Part of this, of course, can be attributed to the water resistance we enjoy in today’s phones. “Sometimes manufacturers just want to discourage you from opening your device, but waterproofing is actually a good thing that can make repairs more difficult by accident,” says Suovanen. “We’re somewhat accepting of that tradeoff because it prevents liquid damage, which can be one of the toughest repairs of all.”
Samsung phones have become particularly tough thanks to their infinity display, first introduced in the Galaxy S6 Edge in 2015. “The infinity display made things difficult to repair, not to mention refurbish,” explains Suovanen. “When you crack the glass on your phone, the display underneath is often still good—refurbishers can remove that broken glass and replace it. That’s much more difficult to do with a curved infinity-style display.”
Here’s what’s interesting: while all phones became less repairable over the course of the decade, the iPhone stopped its decline about halfway through, while its Android counterparts continued their downward descent. Today, the iPhone is more repairable than most Android flagships.
“The iPhone is an interesting example,” explains Suovanen. “Apple really figured it out with the iPhone 5, and the fundamental construction hasn’t changed since then. You can do screen and battery repairs—which are the two most important repairs for a mobile device—pretty easily.” We expect this was intentional, since it happened around the same time Apple started doing in-store repairs—after all, repairability doesn’t just help you, it helps the techs at the Genius Bar too.
But now it’s 2019, and we’re in the midst of the worst period of design anorexia we’ve ever seen. Devices keep getting thinner and thinner until they’re completely impractical to repair—or plagued with durability issues, like Apple’s flexgate and butterfly keyboard-laden MacBooks. It is…a depressing state of affairs, to say the least.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still standout exceptions, though. “We’ve seen a lot of good stuff from HP,” says Suovanen. The HP Elite x2 G4 is the only tablet we’ve ever given a 10 out of 10 (tablets being notoriously difficult to repair), and the HP EliteBook line is surprisingly modular while still being thin and attractive. “Dell has also made some thin-and-light laptops that are decent to work on, and Microsoft really went out of their way to make more repairable devices, including designing a new adhesive on the Surface Pro X that can be separated without heat.” Apple even went back to their old scissor-switch keyboard on the latest MacBook Pro… though it’s still stubbornly intolerant of basic repairs and upgrades.
It’s hard to look back on the decade and not feel despondent at the state of electronics repair. But these exceptions—especially the reversals from Apple and Microsoft—keep us hopeful for the future. Maybe next decade, we can turn things around.