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More MacBook Maintenance Malarky: examining the arguments that none of it matters

Last week I wrote a rather, shall we say, "robustly worded" post discussing the lack of upgradability in the new MacBook Pro with Retina display (MBPwRD). This contentious post turned into one of my highest-traffic articles for TUAW ever, and certainly my highest-commented one (possibly helped a bit by Livefyre being the best comment system we've ever had). I am grateful to everyone who took the time to write one of the 192 (and counting) comments on my original post, even the ones who voted for "Gaywood is an idiot!" in my tongue-in-cheek poll. Many of you disagreed with me, and in so doing, raised a number of counter-arguments again and again; I want to dig a little deeper into those counter-arguments in this post and explore some of the issues I hadn't fully thought through when I wrote my first one.

Since my post there has been a wave of great articles around the web exploring the same topic: some decrying the MBPwRD, others asking what the fuss is about. Kyle Wiens (co-founder of iFixit), writing for Wired, boldly dismissed the MBPwRD as "Unfixable, Unhackable, Untenable" and OWC asked "was the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display originally a MacBook Air?" Many people, like John Gruber, dismissed these posts because both iFixit and OWC have a financial stake in repairable Macs, leading to an undeniable conflict of interest. Personally, I felt both posts were written from the heart, rather than the wallet, but I urge you to read them and judge for yourself.

Felix Salmon for Reuters picked up on my post and responded, calling the MBPwRD "Apple's strategy of built-in obsolescence." He said:

[This] means that the Apple ecosystem has just closed in much further - while on every previous Pro machine consumers could fiddle around quite a lot, this one is a completely inaccessible box. It's about as far as you can get from the Apple 1, which came as a kit. The control-freakery which started in the operating system and then moved into software is now very much built into the hardware as well.

Matthew Yglesias for Slate dismissed Salmon's argument, however, and defended Apple's alleged price protectionism as part of its "relentless war against commoditization and the total collapse of profits." Meanwhile, Christina Warren, formerly of this parish, kept it really simple: "Screw Upgrades: The New MacBook Pro IS the Future." Garrett Murray shrugged and said "It's just progress, folks," and Andre Torrez waxed philosophical: "I give up... Being cynical about any new bit of technology that doesn't fit into my view of how stuff should work has been a dragging anchor in my life."

Counterbalance

Before we dive into the detailed arguments, I'd like to say some conciliatory things that should probably have been in my original post.

Yes, the MacBook Pro with Retina display has some rather unusual choices: soldered RAM integrated onto the logic board, a proprietary SSD, extensive use of near-permanent glue in the battery assembly and the screen housing. All of these impair repairs and prohibit upgrades, it's true. But each one of these is also totally defendable from an engineering standpoint, if we imagine that Apple's brief to its engineers as "make the thinnest, lightest desktop replacement laptop you can without compromising battery life" -- which is a noble goal, for sure.

The oddball, tiny, bare-board SSD saves considerable space over a standard 2.5" unit. Leaving the optical drive out entirely saves even more space. Even the soldered RAM and the glued battery saves space, because there's no need for housing and slots and reinforcing struts and other gubbins. It might not save that much -- but look at the iFixit teardown again; there's barely a cubic millimetre to spare in there. Apple made every scrap count.

I'm not sure the space saving alone is that significant a step forward. Sure, the MBPwRD looks great because it's a quarter-inch thinner than the standard one, but if we're all honest with ourselves isn't that more about aesthetics than practicalities? It's not like the standard-issue MBP, at less than an inch, was exactly unwieldy to start with. It's not like the Air, which is thin enough to put itself in an entire different product category. Put it this way: when have you ever said to yourself "if only this laptop was a quarter of an inch thinner, then I could fit everything I wanted into this bag"?

But the weight... Ah! Having now played with a MBPwRD, and felt the heft of it (under the watchful eye of the Apple Store staff), I must concede that the loss of a half-kilogram (one pound) of mass is a really useful upgrade. I imagine it'd be more comfortable used in your lap (although maybe the heat it can put out might be off-putting). I'm certain your shoulder would thank you for choosing an MBPwRD after a particularly fraught cross-terminal dash to make a connecting flight. I undersold this point in my first post. Mea culpa.

Plus the screen absolutely rocks my world. I'm not remotely tempted to buy one -- like Marco Arment, I'm going through a period in my computing life where I am uninterested in desktop replacement laptops. I have a 27" iMac, an iPad 3, and a very-much-secondary-computer 2009-era MacBook Pro and I'm perfectly happy with that combination for the time being. However, a brief spell in the Apple Store gawping at a Retina display did make me really, really want a HiDPI iMac.

Oh, finally, one last thing: the MBPwRD has a standard HDMI port right there on the side of it, no awkward dongle needed or anything. Can we all take a moment to say a silent prayer of thanks for this sudden outbreak of common sense?

OK, let's move on.

The Tinkerer's Curse

There is a school of thought that says you don't truly own a thing if you can't take it apart, change some of the bits, then put it back together again. This is particularly prevalent amongst computer nerds, because not so very long ago, these abilities were absolute prerequisites to owning any sort of computer at all.

I am exactly such a person, and this is how I feel about computers, as well as lots of other stuff. It makes me uneasy about the sealed-up buttoned-down MBPwRD, and somewhat less uneasy about the MacBook Air and the iPad -- the latter devices being considerably cheaper, I'm more accepting that they might have a shorter lifespan because I can't retrofit some upgrade that I didn't know I'd need. This mentality has driven me to try custom firmwares on ADSL routers and televisions; to experiment with jailbreaking my iOS devices; to do my own car maintenance; to cure my own corned beef; to shun jarred marinara sauce in favor of making my own.

Sometimes, this sort of thing saves me time or money. More often it doesn't, and that's fine because deep down I'm doing it for fun, not profit. I wrote my earlier post from the gut and off the cuff, and it was largely driven by this sentiment.

Many of you don't share these concerns. Nor should you! I accept that I'm unusual in this regard. I cannot reasonably expect my feelings on this matter to sway many folk. My imp of the perverse wants to ask one question though: if you guys are all so dead set against tinkering, why do our jailbreaking posts get so much traffic?

So, now that I've come clean about my biases, I'd like to address the specific counter-arguments that were repeatedly levelled at my last post.

"This is just progress."

Possibly the most common response. "It's newer and better, this is what the world looks like, get used to it. Apple made it this way because this was the best way to make it. Go away and stop bothering me with your conspiracy theories, you nutcase."

On the one hand, I can see this. As I noted above, this is absolutely an extraordinarily powerful laptop for its size and weight, and Apple couldn't have managed that without making it this way. On the other hand... As Macworld senior contributor Glenn Fleishman put it, 'Glue and pentalobe screws and unnecessary solder are not "tradeoffs that go into product development".'

Put it this way. Let's give Apple the benefit of the doubt and suppose the managers simply told the engineers: "go make the best damn laptop you can." The engineers came back and said "we did that, but there's one thing -- the users can't change the RAM or the drives any more. They'll have to pay us for our premium-rate BTO models instead." I think you'd be very naive indeed to imagine the managers did anything other than give a wide grin and say "that's quite alright, boys. Win/win!"

"I don't care about fiddling with upgrades."

"Pro doesn't mean upgradeable," many people said, "it means powerful. I'm a pro, and I don't want to think about upgrading my computer; I just want to get things done with it."

This is a perfectly valid line of reasoning, to my mind. I'm a software engineer by day, with 20 years experience of bending computer software to my will; when I think "pro" I think of my profession, and the demands we place on hardware -- that we can adapt it to new software, for example. But of course there's legions of professionals -- photographers, video editors, designers, artists, musicians, writers, and on and on -- for whom a Mac is merely a tool. A vital one, but still just a tool, to be used until it wears out and then discarded.

Still, though. My 2009 MacBook Pro has had two drive replacements (from the stock 320 GB to 500 GB when my Aperture library grew too large, and then to a 64 GB SSD), a RAM upgrade (to compensate for Lion's memory hunger), and a replacement battery (the old one simply wore out). Without those changes, I'd probably have given up on it; as it is, it's still rocking along.

None of this was in any way difficult to fit. It's a bit of a dirty secret in the PC industry that anyone with the ability to manage IKEA flatpack furniture or a middling compexity LEGO model can manage most computer modification. Plus, the upgrades bought several years into the computer's life were significantly cheaper years later than if I'd bought them up front, which is an important point that's been overlooked in much of this debate. Like most people, I'm always happy to not spend any more money than I have to.

There's also the cost of some of Apple's BTO upgrade options. When I bought my iMac in January 2012, it came with 4 GB of RAM. Upgrading to 8 GB cost £160 ($251) and to 16 GB cost £480 ($754). Instead, I kept the 4 GB it came with, and bought an additional 8 GB from Crucial for £35 ($55). In the last round of product launches, Apple halved those prices... so it's now charging a mere $250 premium to do a laughably easy task for you. If that doesn't strike you as egregious, you must earn a lot more money than I do.

"I don't know how to repair my laptop, so I don't care about repairability."

The main problem I see with this line of reasoning is that the MacBook Pro with Retina display isn't just harder for you to fix; it's harder for anyone to fix, including independent specialists you may be used to using. Sure, you can always pop into an Apple Store... unless you can't. Some people live hours and hours away from their nearest store; some people live in countries where there are no official stores at all, just a handful of authorized service centers.

With the older Unibody MacBooks (which offer above-average repairability), you could go to Apple, or you could save a good chunk of change going to an independent shop, or you could save even more buying the parts yourself and asking any expert you know to do the work for a case of beer. There was a big market, and markets create competition and keep everyone honest. The smaller that market shrinks, the more Apple can charge what it wants for aftermarket work. That's not in anyone's interests, except Apple's.

Think I'm being alarmist? My MacBook is powered by an aftermarket battery, purchased for less than a third of Apple's price. How many of you would snicker at someone who paid $19 for an official Apple cable, when far cheaper alternatives exist and work just as well? It's the same principle, just for parts on the inside of your computer.

Or how about this: this week, Macworld's Lex Friedman suffered a MacBook/glass of water intersection incident that destroyed the hard drive. Apple quoted him $180 to replace the 500 GB hard disk, generously saying there would be "no labor fee." That's a $100 premium over a $70-80 off-the-shelf part that can be safely fitted in minutes by a total amateur armed with nothing more exotic than a screwdriver. In the end, Lex spent slightly more than Apple wanted and bought an OEM SSD instead, which he successfully fitted himself. In the process, he's significantly upgraded his system. If Apple can charge that sort of fee today, what would it charge if no-one had the choice to go elsewhere?

However, I must concede an important point: it seems likely the MBPwRD won't break very often. It's true that RAM and SSD can fail, yes; but neither thing happens particularly often, and certainly a well-designed SSD should be far more reliable than the spinning mechanics of a HDD. About half the RAM problems I've seen have been due to thermal creep loosening the memory in its slot, requiring it to be removed and replaced ("re-seated", in tech jargon); clearly Apple's soldered-on RAM is immune to this. The new MacBook also represents Apple's final solution to the lousy reliability track record of the SuperDrive.

There's that glued-in battery, of course. It's one of Apple's fancy new ones, but it's still not going to last forever. "1000 full charge and discharge cycles before it reaches 80 percent of its original capacity" and "a lifespan of up to 5 years" (emphasis mine) is what Apple promises you. This battery tech is too new to know if Apple's marketing claims are accurate or not, so it must remain something of an unknown quantity for now.

"I only keep my computers for two years, so it doesn't matter to me."

A valid answer, but perhaps a little short-sighted I think, unless you literally throw the machine away when you're done with it. In my experience, Macs have always enjoyed a rather longer lifespan than PCs; whether through reselling or hand-me-downs or simply clinging to life, I think you'll find far, far more five year old Macs in use today than you would PCs of a similar vintage. Indeed, I know more than one person who has rationalized the higher purchase price of a Mac by saying "it's OK, it'll still fetch a good price on eBay in three years." I think compromised repairability risks eroding this part of the Mac value proposition, by making it more likely that a middle-aged Mac would suffer a failure that rendered it beyond economic repair.

"Apple has always been this way."

I don't agree with this one at all. Apple shipped the first tool-less tower chassis I'd ever seen, in the form of the PowerMac G3 Blue & White; to this day, the Mac Pro has an elegant, flexible design that invites modifications and add-ons. The latest Mac mini design is the most internally-friendly Apple has ever shipped, with simple user access to the hard drives and RAM. All the Unibody MacBooks have been easy to work on too, supporting users who wanted to change drives and memory. The more consumer-ish Macs -- the iMac, the MBA -- have tended to be rather more sealed-up, but the "Pro" models have definitely not.

"I have AppleCare, so repairability doesn't matter to me."

It's certainly true that if you don't mind the expense ($349 for a MBPwRD, as much as 16% of the purchase price) AppleCare provides a fantastic service. I've always been very, very well taken care of when I've had to avail myself of the facility. Still, I (predictably) have two objections to this argument.

Firstly, AppleCare doesn't last forever. It's two years on a Mac, on top of the year you get for free. As I mentioned earlier, my 2009 MacBook Pro is still marching along. Had I bought AppleCare for it, it would have expired by now, but I'll get a year or so more use out of it as a secondary machine before recycling it as a test box for beta OS X versions, or a OS X Server box, or something of that ilk. If I'm spending $3,000+ on a top-of-the-line MacBook Pro today, I'd like to hope it'll still be of some use in three or four years, even if it's no longer my main computer.

Secondly, did I miss a memo somewhere that we all decided that extended warranties were a good deal now? We all scoff when Best Buy tries to sell us warranties on TVs, right? Why is AppleCare any different? Whenever I bring this up, I am rebuffed by dozens of anecdotes of great experiences with AppleCare -- and in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I have some myself. AppleCare has replaced my iPad once, my iPhone twice, and paid for two repairs on my wife's MacBook.

But ponder for a moment what AppleCare covers. It's not accidental damage (except for the newfangled AppleCare+, which isn't available in the UK anyway). It only pays for instances where a device stops working in the second or third year of ownership. Shouldn't we be taking it for granted that Apple devices that haven't been accidentally damaged be capable of lasting three years without suffering random failures? Should we really be boasting that Apple sells us insurance for this? If Apple Care is such a great deal, doesn't that mean Apple products break too often?

Oh, and finally, AppleCare doesn't cover accidental damage, and accidents happen.

"It doesn't matter because it's going to sell in huge numbers."

Cannot argue with this one. If I was an Apple shareholder (I'm not), I'd be extremely pleased with the MBPwRD, which appears certain to be a runaway success and pile even more money onto the mountain of bills Apple has tucked away in Cupertino. People vote with their wallets; they voted for the MacBook Air and they're voting for the MBPwRD.

But don't forget -- McDonalds, Justin Bieber, and Windows all sell in huge numbers too. It doesn't make them laudable, tasteful, or, fundamentally, any sort of good idea.

Popularity suggests the retina MacBook Pro is good, for sure -- but it doesn't mean it's flawless. People don't buy the perfect thing, because the perfect thing doesn't exist; they buy the best thing they can, but there's always room for improvement. It doesn't mean we shouldn't stop to examine the pros and cons of the new MacBook from all angles.

"It's just like with cars."

"Cars changed just like this. They stopped being user serviceable and everyone got used to it. Get with the program, Grandpa."

This was an extremely common reply. I also feel it was one of the weaker responses, on numerous levels.

One: practically everyone I know has a story about a dealer franchise ripping someone off in some dubious manner, having used the trust people have in the brand to convince people they need to pay over the odds for basic maintenance or repairs. I don't see anything to celebrate about Apple moving closer to this model.

Two: actually, what happened to cars was that most of the oily bits stopped requiring user maintenance. That's not the same thing. I've set points gaps (rotor gap, to you Americans) and greased nipples and tuned carburetors, and that stuff went away because it stopped being necessary, not because the car manufacturers hid it away behind proprietary screws and glued-on panels. The process for maintaining stuff that still has to be changed regularly -- tyres, brakes, oil, filters, batteries -- hasn't changed much in decades. In contrast, there's nothing about the MBPwRD's innards that makes it any less likely to break or be accidentally damaged than other laptops. It's not magically proof against spilled liquids or electromigration.

Three: the government doesn't keep releasing new roads that make different demands of your car, but that's exactly what happens with computers. As I've already mentioned, I found after upgrading to Lion that my MacBook was struggling with 4 GB of RAM. Unless you think the MBPwRD is literally the fastest computer that will ever exist, the metaphor is fatally flawed.

"I can't upgrade my 50" TV to an 80" model either."

This one is just silly. No-one's complaining about being unable to upgrade their television's size because that's not physically possible. Making computers with upgradable RAM or replaceable drives is physically possible. Citation: almost every computer ever made.

"Apple does say the RAM isn't replaceable!"

In my original post I whined that Apple doesn't tell people that the RAM is soldered. Several commenters pointed out I was wrong, but it took me a while to work out why.

It doesn't say it on the landing page or the tech specs page or the store page. Where it does say it is on the BTO specification page, but only if you click the "Learn more" link next to the Memory section. That's... not exactly obvious, in my opinion.

Similarly, when I was in the Apple Store looking at the MBPwRDs, I overheard two customers ask two different sales representatives about the soldered RAM issue -- "so, I can't upgrade the memory later, right?" Neither rep understood the question, and neither of them could answer it.

I'm still not convinced Apple is doing enough to come clean with people here, or to train its frontline staff. I can forgive this on the Air, but this is a "MacBook Pro", and every MacBook Pro since the line launched in 2006 has had replaceable RAM. It would be perfectly understandable for users to simply assume this one is the same, and feel let down when they discover their mistake too late.

The twist is that being more upfront with shoppers could only encourage upsell to the 16 GB option, making more money for Apple in the process. So I'm sure this is an oversight, rather than due to any sinister motives.

TL;DR

On the Internet, it often seems that everything must be compressed to a one-bit image: black or white, triumph or catastrophe, the very best or the absolute worst. It is my position that the MacBook Pro with Retina Display, like almost everything once you think about it hard enough, is neither. It's an extremely nice laptop with a first-of-its-kind screen and a reparability downside that ranks somewhere between "utterly irrelevant" and "a bit worrying", depending on your prejudices and desires.

Almost 4,200 words later, do I expect any of you to have changed your mind about this? Well, probably not. Confirmation bias is a funny old thing. But if I have made you think twice about the complexities here -- even if I've just convinced you there are complexities where before you saw none -- then please let me know in the comments. If I'm really lucky, someone buying a MBPwRD will be able to make a more informed decision after reading this -- about the laptop itself, or about the BTO options they should be selecting. That's really all I want to happen.

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