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August 8, 2012

Filed under: tech»green


The Thinkpad Hardware Maintenance Manual is kind of amazing. It is specifically laid out to walk someone through the process of disassembling a laptop, all the way down to the pads on the motherboard, and including (so helpful!) the types of screws used at each step of the way. You can fix pretty much anything on a Thinkpad with the HMM and the right spare parts. I know this now because I have been through the entire thing forward and backward.

About two months ago, I fried my motherboard (literally) by replacing the cooling fan with one meant for a laptop with integrated graphics, instead of the Nvidia chip that was actually installed. At 105°C, it wasn't long before the chip melted itself down into a puddle of silicon and coltan. I was able to eke out a few more days of use by turning off anything that could possibly require acceleration--Flash, videos of any kind, Aero Glass--but soon enough it just gave up on me completely.

What's frustrating about this is that you can't simply replace the shiny patch of metal that used to be a GPU on a laptop. Even though Lenovo refers to the Nvidia option as "discrete" graphics, it's actually soldered to the motherboard (perhaps they mean it won't gossip about you, which is probably true, because in my experience Nvidia's mobile chips don't live long enough to learn anything embarrassing anyway). So your only repair option is to replace the entire system board: about $600 with parts and labor, assuming you take it to some place where they know what they're doing, which is not a guarantee. Not that I'm apparently any better, but at least I only destroy my own property.

Stil, given the comprehensive hardware maintenance manual, a used motherboard from eBay, and a spare pill case to hold the screws, fixing the laptop turned out to be no big deal--I even converted it to the Intel graphics chip, which is less likely to overheat since it's got all the horsepower of a Nintendo Super FX chip. The experience has left me impressed with Lenovo's engineering efforts. The construction is solid without "cheating"--it's honestly pretty easy to open it up, and there's no glue or clips that only the manufacturer can remove/replace. As an inveterate tinkerer, I believe everything should be built this way.

But in that, at least, Lenovo and I am in the minority. Increasingly (led by Apple), laptops and other computing devices are sealed boxes with few or no user-serviceable parts. Want to upgrade your RAM or hard drive? Too bad, it's soldered in place. Break the screen? Better send it to the factory (or not, I guess). If a video card burns out on its own (as the Nvidia 140M chips did, repeatedly, even before I started tinkering with the cooling system) or another hardware problem occurs, they don't want you to fix it. They want you to buy another, most likely throwing the old one away. Even the Thinkpad, when it's outpaced by more demanding software, can only be upgraded so far. That means it also has a limited lifespan as a donation to a school or needful friend.

So in addition to fixing my old laptop, I'm moving away from a dependence on tightly-coupled, all-in-one computing, and back to modular desktop units. I bought a Maingear F131 PC (the most basic model), which I can upgrade or repair piece by piece (I already started by adding a wireless PCI card--Maingear doesn't sell those directly). It's better for the environment, better for my wallet, and it represents a vote against wasteful manufacturing. My goal is to make it the last whole computer (but not the last hardware) I'll buy for a long, long time.

Should you do the same? I think so. Manufacturers are moving to the integrated device model because it's cheaper for them and consumers don't seem to care. Change the latter, and we can change the direction of the industry. And I think you should care: in addition to the problem of e-waste, user-replacable components help to support an entire cottage industry of small repair shops, consultants, and boutique builders--the mom-and-pop businesses of the tech world. Moving to one-piece technology will kill those, just as it killed television, vaccuum, and radio repair shops.

You can argue, I'm sure, that many people do not want to learn how to install or repair their own hardware. That's true, and they shouldn't have to. But I also deeply believe that user-servicable and ease-of-use are not mutually-exclusive qualities, nor do they require users to actually learn everything there is to know about a computer. We don't expect everyone to know how to rebuild a car engine, but I think most people would also agree that a thriving industry for aftermarket repair parts and service is a good thing--who hasn't at least had a new radio installed? Who wants to be forced into a dealership every time a filter needs to be changed?

It is tempting to see the trend toward disposable devices as one with the trend toward walled gardens in software--a way to convert users from one-time payers to a constant revenue stream. I don't actually think most companies set out to be that sinister. But it's obvious that they also won't do the right thing unless we hold their feet to the fire. The time has come to put our money where our mouths are, and insist that the environment is not a suitable sacrifice for a few extra millimeters shaved off a product spec sheet.

April 23, 2009

Filed under: tech»green


After almost two years, my laptop's 7-cell battery has gone from a total capacity of ~65Wh (watt-hours) to around 35Wh. That's a drop of about 50%, and translates to a run-time of just under two hours (down from four or five when I bought it). It sounds drastic, but it's not unexpected: lithium-ion batteries that are kept at room temperature should be expected to lose that much. And everyone should know at this point that batteries are wear-intensive items (hence my preference for user-removable/replaceable batteries when possible). But it's still a little shocking to see it happen right before your eyes.

So I really, on a very primitive level, wanted a new laptop battery.

I don't need one, mind you. Two hours is not uncommon for many new laptops. And this is part of why I bought the bigger battery anyway: there's more buffer against capacity loss. Moreover, I rarely use the machine unplugged. It's almost always either docked, or at work with the adapter plugged in. I simply suffer from the fear, similar to my chronic overpacking habit, that I might at a moment's notice need to work for more than two hours in the middle of a frozen, powerless wasteland. This despite the fact that I'm an urban creature who rarely travels more than 15 miles from a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

My actual behavior completely contradicts my consumer impulse. So why was my first thought to look at new batteries, instead of being glad that I bought the smaller power adapter? Consider the information I was given. When I open up Lenovo's power manager, I'm not presented with statistics on the percentage of on-battery use, or the average length of those sessions. I'm only told about the loss of functionality, not whether I need it, or if I really use it.

It goes without saying that this is very bad for greening efforts. And it raises the question of whether efforts like Lenovo's greening/recycling initiatives are really as sincere as they should be. Lenovo even includes a link for buying more batteries in its power manager software. Sure, they recycle the old ones for you. But did you need a fresh set in the first place? If they are really serious about reducing their environmental footprint, the information presented needs to be more reflective, even if it means they sell slightly fewer.

In any case, it's got me thinking about laptops and sustainability in general. This is not an idle question: laptop sales were up 21% in 2007, while desktops dropped 4%, and the gap probably increased in 2008. That's a lot of portable computers being sold--many with replaceable batteries and modular drives, but the majority a sustainability time bomb of non-upgradeable innards and custom-built parts. And then there's netbooks, one of the fastest-growing portable segments. Oh, sweet heavens, there'll be a price to pay for netbooks in the future. Their value as affordable technology is undeniable for helping to bridge to digital divide and reach new market segments. But ecologically, they're all the negatives of a laptop, compounded: cheap construction, proprietary parts, and marketed (within the nerd community, at least) as a convenience purchase.

The obvious solution is that laptops need to become more serviceable. This was one of the original goals of the OLPC project hardware (which was always pretty clever, even if the educational mission was less so), and it was an admirable one. But even this won't really be enough. After all, desktop computers have been generally user-serviceable for years, and yet most people never open then up, due to a combination of unfriendly design and (more importantly) a consumer culture that encourages a perception of computers as disposable appliances.

This has to change. It means that the design of upgrading--connectors, casing, and drivers--will need to be rethought, particularly with an eye toward the portable segment. I shouldn't have to recycle an entire laptop just because the CPU and GPU have fallen behind, for example. And I shouldn't want to. It's time to start building a culture of re-use in the developed world--Last Year's Model is a good start, but I don't think it goes far enough. Our values should demand at least a year of use (and more like five or ten) from our electronics, and require us to spend less money on shiny junk (ironically, it helps to stop reading the very tech/gadget blogs who have plugged LYM. Trust me, you're not missing much).

Finally, this cultural change applies to software as well--just from familiarity, I'm looking at you, PC gaming industry. Although there are other factors, a heavy driver of both upgrades and new purchases is the ever-increasing demand of game engines. Companies like Valve and Stardock that target older machines should be applauded for both the business savvy and the ecological impact of that choice. And those like Crytech, who seem to see it as their mission to justify expensive, cutting-edge rigs, should be ashamed. Have we learned nothing from the Wii and the continuing sales of the PS2? The bleeding edge may not be a sustainable path for game developmers after all, and it's certainly not sustainable for the rest of us, economically or ecologically.

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