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Computer Built-In Obsolescence

01-09-19



Built-in obsolescence, also known a planned obsolescence, is not a conspiracy theory. It's a fact. We know this, because companies have been caught intentionally designing built-in obsolescence into their products. In fact, not only do we know that companies do this, we know who first came up with the idea. It was an American economist, Bernard London, who wrote a paper in 1932 called Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence. As he saw it, the reason for the great depression was that, although there was plenty of everything to go around, many weren't buying, because, due to their fear of the economic conditions, they were making what they had last longer. He called this frugality on the part of consumers "planless, haphazard, fickle attitudes". He proposed built-in obsolescence as the solution. Many now go to great lengths to justify this practice of built-in obsolescence. But two facts exist: 1) built-in obsolescence is not good for the consumer, and 2) built-in obsolescence is part of the design of everything from cars to light bulbs. If you don't believe that built-in obsolescence is everywhere, just go shopping at any department store for a spatula or frying pan where the handle is not a separate piece. The only reason not to make spatulas and frying pans from one piece of metal is that then the handle would never break off. So, you wouldn't have to buy a new one every couple of years.

About a year and a half ago, the plastic on my mostly-leather, casual shoes was cracked so badly that I decided to replace them. The other parts of the shoes were in fine shape, but the shredded plastic made them look just awful. I went to three or four shoe stores looking for a new pair of casual shoes (not boots, tennis shoes, or dress shoes). Every single pair had some amount of plastic in the upper part of the shoe (the part that should have been only leather). I went to the manager of one shoe store to ask if she had any casual shoes without plastic in them. She looked puzzled by my question--like no one had ever asked her that before--and asked why I wanted a casual shoes without plastic. I said I didn't want the built-in obsolescence. She chuckled knowingly and suggested a nearby shoe store. That shoe store didn't have any casual shoes without plastic, either. I ended up replacing my casual shoes with a pair of all-leather upper dress shoes.

From this, I learned something that shouldn't have surprised me, but it did: virtually no consumers have enough sense to look for shoes without built-in obsolescence. Unfortunately, the only defense against built-in obsolescence is an informed consumer. When consumers refuse to buy shoddy products, manufacturers stop making shoddy products. Period.

As you've probably guessed, computers are also designed with built-in obsolescence. Arguably, the computer manufacturer that makes this most obvious is Apple. But nearly all manufacturers do this with cellphones, desktop computers, and laptops that are designed to be used by consumers. Your only defense is to know what to avoid.



Consumer Laptops

As I stated in a previous article, business quality laptops, while more expensive than consumer-grade laptops, are significantly higher in quality. That means, not only do they last longer, they also work better. This is because manufacturers know that businesses understand that quality laptops will be cheaper in the long run, whereas consumers don't. Consumers typically buy whatever they see on sale at a big box store. And frequently, what is on sale is what consumers are returning to the store, because they don't like it.



Non-Replaceable Batteries

I don't buy the argument that replaceable batteries allow cellphones and laptops to be thinner. If you compare the hardware associated with replaceable and non-replaceable batteries, I think you'll come to the same conclusion. As I see it, there are only two reasons for manufacturers to use non-replaceable batteries. The first is to make it such a hassle for you to continue to use the product that you would rather throw it away and buy a new one. The second is to be able to charge you more to replace the battery in your device.



Weak Cases

In my opinion, weak laptop cases are second only to glass cellphone screens in the manufacturers' arsenal of methods of forcing you to buy new devices. If you've ever dropped a cheaply made laptop and a well-made laptop, you most likely already know what I'm talking about. Cheaply made laptops shatter when they're dropped. Pieces go flying everywhere. Laptops with strong, durable cases can emerge from a drop with barely a scratch. The best cases are all metal. Look for laptop hinges that are made of solid, thick steel. Dell builds great metal cases on their business class laptops--especially the older Dell Latitude E6XXX series laptops. I have a Dell Latitude E6220, and I love it--both for it's beauty and for its durability. I also have an old Dell Latitude E6500, which has a mostly plastic case, but it is still fairly durable. For years, Apple has also been using metal cases as a way of distinguishing its laptops from the competition. In my opinion, metal cases is one of the only areas in which Apple laptops shine (no pun intended).



CPU Overheating and Thin Laptops

Nothing reduces the life of a laptop more than an overheating CPU. Unfortunately, as I've written about before, the vast majority of thin laptops have significant overheating issues. The best way to know before you buy whether a particular laptop model has an overheating problem is to look it up on notebookcheck.com. I can't emphasize strongly enough that you should never buy a laptop without knowing how hot the CPU gets and whether there are associated thermal throttling issues.



Keyboards

As the recent Apple keyboard scandal has illustrated, not all laptop keyboards are created equal. I bought a used consumer laptop (I'll not mention the model or brand) a few years ago, with a couple of missing keys on the keyboard. I bought and installed a brand new keyboard, and one of the keys popped off on the same day I installed it. On looking closely at the key mechanism with a magnifying glass, I discovered that the problem had occurred, because it had been manufactured with one of the little "ears" of metal bent that was supposed to hold the key. Clearly, the manufacturing process that built this keyboard was inferior. The moral of this story is that you should pay attention to the keyboard quality of any laptop that you are considering buying. You really don't want to go through the expense and hassle of repeatedly replacing your laptop's keyboard. A great source of information about laptop keyboards from the people who actually buy and use them is amazon.com reviews. My recommendation is that you not buy any brand of laptop until you have read at least 20 to 30 reviews on Amazon. If Amazon doesn't have that many reviews for the laptop you are considering buying, don't buy it.



UBS Ports

You can't do much about UBS ports going bad, because no consumer-focused organization tests the USB ports of specific laptops, tablets, or cellphones. Despite that, I thought I'd mention that USB ports are one of the built-in obsolescence sources. USB ports were originally designed to last for only about 1500 plug/unplug cycles. Luckily, most mini and regular USB ports last more like 5000 to 10000 cycles. (See this and this.) Of all the laptops I've owned, only one or two USB ports have stopped working. However, I treat them well. Rougher use may cause more failures. So, be careful with these, if you want them to last.



CPU Non-Upgradeability

This has always been a problem for laptops, and there really isn't a good excuse. Manufacturers sometimes claim that putting motherboards in laptops that are socketed for CPU replacement or upgrade would add too much thickness to the laptop. I just don't buy this. I think the real reason that almost no laptops have socketed CPU's is that manufacturers don't want you to be able to upgrade your CPU after a couple of years of ownership. I think the same applies to unsocketed RAM and hard drives. There are people thinking about modular laptops and cellphones that would have replaceable CPU's, but so far, this has gone nowhere, most likely because consumers haven't realized how much it would benefit them.



Limited RAM

Laptops are designed for a certain range in the amount of RAM that can be installed. Not being a designer of motherboards, I can't come up with a possible legitimate reason for this, other than the fact that the growth in required RAM for application programs is slow. My guess is that the RAM required for applications has in the past somewhat followed Moore's law for CPU processing speed. It's doubled about every two or three years. While CPU's are no longer doubling in speed about every 18 months, it seems to me that RAM growth, is now faster than CPU speed growth. I have no data to back this up. This is just a feeling that I have. Regardless, with the current generation of CPU's capable of addressing 256 terabytes of RAM, why are current laptops only able to address 4, 8, 16, 32, or at most 64 gigabytes of RAM? Despite the fact that Microsoft Windows can only access a much smaller amount of RAM, the only real reason that I can see for computers not being able to access much larger amounts of RAM is built-in obsolescence. I'll discuss Microsoft's small RAM limits in the next section of this article.



Software

Software companies practice built-in obsolescence mostly by adding new features--whether the new features add any real value to the consumer or not--by making newer software look "glitzier", and by making newer software incompatible with older software. A good example of newer software being designed to be incompatible with older software is Microsoft Word. I've been forced by various employers since the early 1990's to use Microsoft Word, and I've watched as newer versions came out that were incompatible with older versions. When a new version of Word came out in the '90's, suddenly we couldn't open older company documents written with the previous version. This had quite a negative effect on my views of Microsoft. But the companies I worked for went right on using Microsoft products, as if they hadn't noticed a thing. More recently, one method that Microsoft devised to prevent people from using alternative free office software (like FreeOffice, OpenOffice, and LibeOffice) was to change their document format from .doc to .docx. But this didn't work for long, because the other office alternatives simply responded by also adding .docx.

Another practice that I suspect occurs is the intentional limiting of software features and capabilities, so that more can be added to later versions. As I alluded to above, an example of this would be Microsoft limiting the amount of RAM that various versions of Windows can address. I see no other reason for Windows 7 Starter Edition to have access to only 2GB, Windows 7 Home Basic to have access to only 8GB, and Windows 7 Home Premium to have access to only 16GB, while Windows 7 Pro has access to 192GB.

The way that I fight built-in obsolescence in software is by using free software like Linux. With free software, there is no incentive for programmers to create useless new features or make newer versions of software incompatible with older versions. The goal of a programmer of free software is to make software that people will want to use, not software they will have to use.



Related Articles:

What Happens to Recycled Computers?

How to make Your Computer Last Longer

Why are there so many Lousy Laptops?

Know a Quality Computer when You see It

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