Charles Moore 2008: My Ideal Laptop Would Be Easy To Fix

Originally published in 2008 by Charles Moore. As much as I love the Mac operating system, and admire the coolness and elegance of Mac hardware, Apple’s often difficult-to-service designs and user-unfriendly service policies do not enchant me. If I could design my ideal computer it would be a portable for sure, but it would also be easy to take apart and repair, and composed of modular components as much as possible.

Speculation about the imminent release of new MacBook;s and MacBook Pros is at a near fever pitch. Yesterday several Mac Web sites posted purported spy photos of the new MacBook that had been put up on a Taiwanese site that a couple or three weeks ago also displayed what were claimed to be leaked shots of the new MacBook Pro. The pictures were of mediocre quality in either case, but what they apparently depict is aluminum (with possibly some stainless steel) housings with more tapered styling a la the MacBook Air, although not as extreme, which is about what has been rumored for some time.

It also appears that the new Pro ‘Books will also get the easy access to the hard drive that MacBook users have enjoyed for more than two years now, plus a big, BIG battery spanning almost the entire case width and that will occupy about 25 percent of the case underside, and providing access to the HD bay when removed, which will be an extremely welcome feature if it turns out to be fact.

As much as I love the Mac operating system, and admire the coolness and elegance of Mac hardware, Apple’s often difficult-to-service designs and user-unfriendly service policies do not enchant me. Philosophically and temperamentally, I’m a do-it-yourselfer, and in some respects more sympatico with the freebooting, mix and match motif of the generic PC world and the Open Source software movement. I’ve always tinkered with my cars and done most of my own auto repairs, but with a few exceptions, Apple has never sold spare parts for Macs to individuals — only to dealers for installation, and in some instances they’ve been picky about even that.

Being the only source of genuine new Mac parts, Apple has much more of a monopoly than any of the manufacturers in the Windows PC orbit. The saving grace with my Macs has been that they have for the most part been very reliable, have required very little attention and essentially no replacement or upgrade parts beyond standard However, I would still be a lot happier if I knew I could get repair and replacement parts if I need them.

Thinking about this spare parts issue got me pondering a concept that has intrigued me for a long time — the idea of a modular laptop computer. If I could design my ideal computer it would be a portable for sure, but it would also be easy to take apart and repair, and composed of modular components as much as possible.

For example, the 2.5” hard drives used in laptop computers are essentially modular items — they plug into a circuit board or ribbon cable connector, and are held in place usually by only a few screws. They are very easy to replace if you can get at them. In this regard, the G3 PowerBooks were pretty good and the MacBook excellent, but the MacBook Pro and aluminum PowerBooks not so hot, and hard drive replacement in all iBooks is a nightmare.

With the G3 ‘Books, you just pop open the keyboard, remove the processor heat sink, a few screws, and the hard drive is out. You can change one in five or 10 minutes without hurrying on the WallStreet and Lombard, and not much longer on a Pismo.

With the MacBook, it’s even easier. Remove the battery and the RAM door (a coin latch and three captive screws respectively), Unroll the hard drive pull tab and pull the tab straight out to slide the drive out from the recessed rubber rails in the battery bay. Slide in the replacement hard drive, and tuck the pull tab underneath the drive, replace the RAM door and battery and you’re done.

This is how it should be, but rarely has been, and in my ideal laptop, not only the hard drive, all of the major circuit board components would be modular and easy to replace. Apple has at times in the past seemed to embrace the idea of modular componentry. In the early-mid 90’s, several Mac desktop models, including the Color Classic and the 500 series all-in-ones, had a very slick and intelligent design in this regard. To remove the motherboard from my LC 520, for instance, all it takes is to push down a couple of clips that hold the back panel in place, and then slide the motherboard out. The whole operation takes about 15 seconds. The hard drive is nearly as easy, and is, like the motherboard, a slide-in component. Unfortunately Apple soon lost interest in this sensible way of doing things and seemed to purposely and perversely design later Macs to be difficult to work on. The G3 and G4 iMacs and eMacs, for example, are a relative nightmare to work on.

In the portable orbit, save for the MacBook hard drive, the G3 Series PowerBooks remain the high water mark in intelligent design so far, although they are far from as good as those old desktop units. The G3 Series ‘Books do have their CPU mounted on an easy-to-remove daughtercard that among other things facilitates processor upgrades. My ideal laptop would definitely have a processor daughtercard, as well as a slide-in/out motherboard, and easily removable and replaceable video cards, sound cards, and power manager units – all user serviceable. The video RAM would be upgradable too, a feature that no Apple laptop has ever supported to date, but some versions of Intel’s new Centrino 2 architecture reportedly will.

My ideal laptop would also have a removable device expansion day, or even two, like The Wall Street PowerBooks G3 did (the Wall Street supported 3.5” removable devices like floppy drives, hard drives, and Zip drives in its left bay, and both 3.5” and 5.25” devices in its right bay). To my mind, one of the biggest shortcomings of all post-Pismo Apple notebooks is their lack of an expansion bay. The desirability of expansion bays has been underscored for me recently by the coolness of my being able to easily upgrade both of my Pismos to 8X dual-layer SuperDrive DVD burners.

An expansion Bay also facilitates loading up with two batteries for long computing sessions away from plug-in power. Of course, with the MacBook Air Apple has swung radically in the opposite direction, making the battery non-replaceable (without disassembly).

My ideal laptop would *probably* have a polycarbonate plastic case, although I’m hedging bit on this point, as aluminum offers some advantages and is a sensible material for this purpose. THe next generation MacBooks are widely expected to have aluminum cases. However, it’s hard to beat the strength, toughness, and versatility of polycarbonates, and then there is the wireless range issue with metal skinned laptops.

Another qualified candidate for inclusion would be a detachable display screen. I’m equivocating a bit on this one as well, because it has been argued that it would be very difficult to engineer that feature and make it strong and durable without adding prohibitive amounts of weight and bulk. I’m not enough of an engineer to argue otherwise, but it would surely be cool to be able to remove the display and situated at a more ideal viewing angle for desktop work.

I would also like to see laptop display screens engineered to be more easily (user) replaceable and interchangeable at least within their physical size range. For example, Apple used 14.1” screens in the WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo, 12.1” screens in the PowerBook 3400, 3500, the low-end WallStreet, and the clamshell iBook. The 12.1” 1,024 x 768 display is used in both the dual USB iBook and the 12” AlBook. 13’1” glossy displays in all MacBooks and MacBook Airs, but a variety of 15.4” and 17” displays in MacBook Pros.

However perhaps a more practical solution to the ergonomics issue would be to make the keyboard detachable so it could be separated from the computer, with the latter then elevated on some sort of stand while the keyboard is placed at a comfortable and ergonomically sound lower plane.

Something else I would like to see in my ideal laptop is full size ExpressCard support. Especially in machines with the ample footprint of the 17 inch MacBook Pro it should be feasible to engineer an ExpressCard 54 slot, although perhaps not without giving the machine a thicker section, which would also help facilitate the inclusion of expansion bays. Why does the big ‘Book have to be just 1 in. thick anyway? It looks cool, but it handicaps functionality. The Lombard and Pismo machines were amply thin by my reckoning.

While we’re at it, at least three RAM expansion slots would be nice as well, which would allow a second RAM upgrade without having to remove and discard perfectly good modules.

Unfortunately, aside for evidently better hard drive access in the new MacBook Pros I don’t expect to see any of the items on my wish list incorporated into Apple notebooks in the foreseeable future. It would be great if Apple surprised me, though!

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