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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.

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