Are tablets now disposable computing devices?

Are tablets now disposable computing devices?

Summary: With the price of 7" tablets now reaching the sub-$200 level, should they be considered disposable computing devices?


perlowdeadnexusSo, it happened like this. It always basically happens like this. Rewind about a month ago.

Me: "Honey, I just got in the new <insert product name here> tablet I ordered to review on ZDNet. Do you want the <insert product name here> that I was using before? I'm going to travel with the new one instead."

Wife: "Um, yeah, okay."

Me: "I'm going to hand this over to you now. It's your tablet. Please take care of it, and be careful not to drop it. We now live in Florida and the entire house is floored with tile. Tablets don't like to be dropped on tile. You know what happens when we drop tablets on very hard surfaces, right?"

Wife: "I'll be careful but I'm not going to give you any guarantees."

Me: "Yeah, I don't like the sound of that."

A couple of weeks go by. My wife enjoys using her new toy without incident. In this case, it was the Nexus 7 I bought and reviewed over the summer. 

I had my fun with it, and I enjoyed it for a few months, but I recently picked up the Samsung Nexus 10 to use as my new travel device. My romances with mobile devices are fleeting. There's always a new one to play with.

However, this is not the case with spouses. Replacing a spouse is a lot more expensive.

The problem with my wife is that she falls asleep in bed with her stuff. Cellphones, tablets, eyeglasses, TV remotes, doesn't matter. Before I go to bed, I put my stuff away in the cubby space in our headboard or in my nightstand dresser drawer, and if I have a chance, I also put her stuff away.  

Well, this time I forgot to put her stuff away. I was watching TV in the bedroom while she had dozed off. I don't recall what it was, maybe the new dog barked at something, or the TV was too loud and it woke her up.

Whatever the catalyst for this incident was, all I know was I heard the sound of my wife waking up, ruffling her blanket, murmuring something incomprehensible, a Nexus 7 falling off the bed and hitting an Italian ceramic tiled floor, and my wife then realizing the consequences and her shouting "Oh $@#%!"

Now, the Nexus 7 was in a case. The problem is, it wasn't a terribly protective case. It was a simple, thin screen cover case that is designed to keep the device from being damaged in a piece of carryon luggage or a pocketbook or a briefcase. 

And at a $200 replacement cost, I didn't think the Nexus 7 merited an OtterBox like my 64GB iPad 4, which is more than three times the price. Or my iPhone 5 for that matter.

Anyhoo, the Nexus 7 fell out of the case, the screen impacted directly on the tile, the device split open like a Gulf oyster at a New Orleans seafood restaurant, and there were shards of glass all over the floor. I picked the poor thing up.

The screen powered on, but the glass, the LCD and digitizer were toast.


So I looked into replacement screens. Turns out, ASUS itself charges about $170 to replace the digitizer/screen/glass assembly. If I were to source the parts myself and do my own repair, the parts would cost about $140. That's not taking into account my own labor time, which I consider to be pretty valuable.

It would be easier just to buy a new Nexus 7. I originally bought the 16GB model for $249 back in July. It now sells for $199, although Google is now completely out of inventory. The 32GB model is now selling for $249 at various retail outlets and is easier to get.

The thing is, I'm not gonna buy a new Nexus 7 to give to my wife. I'm going to buy whatever new 7" tablet comes out with better technology, because these things get outdated so quickly and just around the corner, another $200-$250 tablet is going to appear that is faster, better, more powerful, more storage, whatever. 

And this of course got me thinking. Have tablets now gone down in price so much, that they should be considered a disposable computing platform?

In the case of the 10" devices I'm going to say no, because most of those are in the $400 to $500 entry-level price range, and I think the lifespan of these things are expected to be around 2 or 3 years, this despite my own personal tendency to buy any new gadget that ends up on the market. 

But 7" devices? With the exception of the iPad mini, which starts at $329, I'm going to have to say yes.

At $199-$250 a pop, does it even make sense to accessorize a tablet with cases and other knicknacks? I think your average person will be lucky to get 1 to 2 years out of such a device before killing the thing.

The glass on a Nexus 7 is simply a regular scratch resistant glass manufactured by Corning and it was chosen by Google to keep overall costs down. Additionally, to reduce thickness, the touch digitizer, the LCD and the glass is all one fused part, so you can't just replace the glass if only that part breaks.

Based on the reports I have read on various Internet fora, cracking the screen on Nexus 7 is not an uncommon occurance. But I suspect this is also the case with other brands of tablets that use similar construction methods and components.

That being said, I've heard conflicting reports that the new Amazon  Kindle Fire HD, which costs about the same as the Nexus 7 uses the much higher tensile strength Gorilla Glass (I know for a fact that the original model did) and that would mean the screen is more durable and impact resistant than Google's product if it did.

Barnes & Noble's NOOK HD also apparently uses Gorilla Glass as well.

[Disclaimer: My employer, Microsoft, is an investor in NOOK Media LLC.]

Apple's iPad mini, which has been lambasted by the mainstream media for its much higher cost than either the Kindle Fire HD or the Nexus 7 uses Gorilla Glass 2, the very same used on their iPad 4 and iPhone 5. 

Knowing what I know now, I'd have to lean toward Amazon's, Barnes & Noble's and Apple's 7" products for the more klutzy-inclined. 

Have 7" tablets become disposable computing platforms? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Tablets, Amazon, Apple, Google, iPad


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Tablets and other things...

    As a computer consultant since 1988, I would have to say that not only tablets, but many other things are becoming disposable.

    How many people will pay a reasonable amount to have the DC jack in their laptop repaired? Many of them require a pretty complete teardown of the laptop which takes time. If you charge 150.00 to repair it, many people will choose to replace it with a new laptop instead since the prices are dropping so low.

    Even desktops after a couple of years start creating issues for people if they get a bad virus infestation or something that will require a reload of Windows. Even if you charge a couple hundred bucks to do everything - recover their data, wipe the drive, reinstall Windows, load all the drivers, load the basic software such as antivirus, Reader, Flash, etc., and reload their data, they still think about buying a new desktop rather than pay that when they see the ads for a new Dell for 399.00.

    As devices get more and more miniaturized and sophisticated, and the vendors make them more and more difficult to open up and repair **cough, Apple, cough ** it drives up the cost of repairs ever more quickly as prices drop just as fast, making it difficult for someone to pay a reasonable amount for a repair vs. replacement and getting better technology as well as a warranty.
    • Even TVs

      I wonder what TV repair shops do these days? That new $400 50" TV you got on Black Friday? Assuming you have a 1 year warranty, if it dies after that, hey the new model has Netflix on it, why spend 2-300 for a repair?
  • $200 is disposable?

    $200 is a pretty fair amount to me. Not disposable. Not even close.
    • I thought that too...

      That's what I was thinking, but you also have to consider the price of repair. If its $150 to get a repair for your 1 year old tablet, but there's a brand new one with better specs for $199, most would just shell out the $49 extra and get the new generation device. This is the exact reason I went from an iPad 2 to an iPad 3. Apple wanted to charge $250 to repair my iPad 2 (which I got for free, so I felt less obligated to repair it), so I didn't and went instead for the $499 iPad 3.
      • Not disposable, just not worth repairing

        If you break a component that costs 75-85% of the new cost to repair, it's not repairable.

        These devices are hardly disposable, as that would imply that they are easily biodegradable (or at least neatly disposed of) when in fact they are the exact opposite - nasty techno-trash.

        I wonder if there is any way that somebody could profitably un-manufacture electronics like tablet (or anything else). It would seem very unlikely.
        Schoolboy Bob
        • Seems a bit extreme

          There are plenty of other "disposable" items -- like diapers, for example -- that don't fit the criteria of "easily biodegradeable" either.

          I think the definition of "disposable" in this case should be:
          -- designed to have a fairly short useful life, compared to other products using similar components; and/or
          -- consumers tend to buy a replacement instead of paying to repair the item, either because a) the new version has upgraded performance, or b) the cost of repair is so close to the cost to replace the item that it makes little fiscal sense to do so.

          For definition #1, we need look no further than the so-called "disposable camera": the often-invited guest to weddings over the past 10-20 years, uses the same 35mm film as most pre-digital cameras did during the same lifetime, and is only used for as long as the existing roll of film has exposures remaining. The flash and fixed-focal-length lens are about comparable to the cheap 35mm cameras that were also available, but were essentially thrown away *despite those parts still being usable*, because you couldn't load new film into them.

          For definition #2, consumer electronics have pretty much become the epitome of this category. Think of the last time you took a fritzy DVD player, let alone a VHS player, to a local repair shop to fix it. At $50-$100 each, the cost of replacing the bad device with an equal or superior product (especially with the bargain Blu-Ray players now under $100 apiece) is easily much lower than the cost of actually repairing the device... and leaving those repair jobs to the dedicated hobbyists that still want to fiddle with reels of magnetic tape. The same applies for TV sets: unless the part is extremely small & cheap, or unless you're talking about a multi-thousand-dollar big-screen version, it's mostly cheaper to buy a replacement TV than to repair it.

          Tablets, by my book, are definitely starting to follow definition #2. And, based on this year's marketing, Apple seems inclined to go with definition #1 as well -- otherwise they wouldn't have introduced *two* upgrades to their iPad, plus the "mini" version.
        • Agreed

          "Not disposable, just not worth repairing"


          I don't think it's an indication of disposable (I'd say that's more like the $20 range) as much as it is an indication that it's not worth repairing.
        • I would generally agree.

          As soon as you use the actual term "disposable" it instantly conjures up an idea about a product that is not truly imbedded in something like a tablet. The mere fact a tablet, like so many modern devices, is often not worth repairing hardly makes it into an actual disposable device.

          I think its also just a little wrongheaded on our part to start declaring certain devices as simply being disposable just because they cost too much to repair on the average. A device thats truly disposable is traditionally made that way entirely on purpose with the thought in mind, and typically advertised as such, that when you purchase the item its good for a very limited period of use, and once that point in time has passed, usually due to using up some part of the object which otherwise would be replaceable or refillable, you throw it out and purchase a new replacement product in its entirety.

          The simple fact something cost so much to repair that it becomes economically questionable to do so if it suffers a breakdown or damage dosnt really make it a disposable product. Simply saying it is disposable, does the consumer a disservice because it starts the entire process of implying to consumers of the product that “its okay” that such products are too expensive to repair. Its not okay and its only to our detriment generally that we give manufacturers the green light to continue the process of making products in such a way, and providing for such inadequate servicing in such a way that the manufacturers will simply slide toward making the situation much worse instead of much better.

          While its easy to get the point that Jason Perlow is making, simply that when something becomes broken and unusable and it cost too much to fix, its then disposed of, and where this happens on a regular basis it conjures up thoughts of a disposable product, the fact is a little more outrage about the situation is in order. A better title might have been “Do tablet manufacturers want us to believe tablets are disposable!?”

          Of course, the largest worry for most consumers will end up being that if manufacturers make tablets easier and more cost effective to repair it could lead to designs that are both heavier and more costly to produce; all in the name of making them more cost effective to fix if they break. And as always, that outcome can lead to a situation in the market where such tablets sell poorly due to a heavier and more costly design.

          Sometimes its impossible to win. Or at least to win well enough that it actually feels like you won.
    • It all depends on your situation

      $200 is relatively cheap for me and is the reason I bought a Nexus 7 over iFad devices.

      For $200, you get a lot for your money and if I get a couple years out of it, I will be happy.

      I wouldnt be happy if I dropped it, but I wouldnt lose sleep over it either.
    • Wifesposable

      It was sort of amusing hearing the difference between how he and his wife treat electronics. Pretty much mirrors my experience. She falls asleep with stuff and drops it, rolls over on it, sits on it, steps on it, tosses it, etc. I lost count of how many Kindles she has decimated now. I tend to wave Otterboxes at her which she declines because they are ugly.

      I don't consider $200 to be disposable, but is is "wifesposable". I would never get a $500 iPad for her, but I can hand her a $200 tablet without cringing.

      I don't get the "needing a new tablet" urge all the time though. My original iPad still does just fine for any purpose that I put it to.
  • Hate the Concept of It

    OK, hate is a strong word. But really, considering the resources used -- some of it even toxic to our environment when disposed -- I really wish that we consumers could keep their toys longer -- and not chase after every fad and iteration!

    But of course, some of the burden must fall on the brands themselves. Please, for the sake of our environment and all -- design your products with flexibility and paths to upgrades. Yes, Apple, that means you too.

    I'd rather buy a product that's well designed and well made. Let the batteries be changeable. Charge me for software upgrades. You can still make money that way, right?
    • But not ALL of your money!

      Which is what Apple wants, and which is why your iToys MUST BE REPLACED every 6 months or you become fashionably lame.

      As far as tablets being disposable, I've yet to discover a driving need for one in the first place. I suppose I would replace my Kindle with one if that ever broke. But yeah, I'd say they are disposable, just like my printers have become. In the last two years, I've filled up a landfill with 3 Epson multi-function printers. Sometimes the software goes bad. Sometimes the waste ink tank is full. It is very nearly the point of being cost-effective to replace when the ink runs out! A full load of ink is about $75 and a new device costs $99 (and comes with a full load of ink). There is no point at all to have it serviced when something goes bad.

      I once replaced a screen on a PDA...$280 on a $400 device. While some savings are realized over the cost of total replacement, there is the fact you are throwing new money at old hardware. If you depreciate that hardware over a normal useful life -- say, 3 years for most devices, or 6 months for an iToy (don't be a lame bastard now!); it's pretty easy to determine whether you are better off repairing or replacing the device.
      • I understand what you are saying but it should be that way.

        Screens and batteries should be replaceable. Printer overflow tanks should be empty-able. Ink tanks should not cost as much as a new printer. "Let the free market work it out?" Yeah, right! As you said, they want ALL of our money. Some or most will not do.
        • Shouldn't be, darn it! Where is the stupid "Edit" button?

          Edit button!!??
    • Its all about leaving zero oppertunity for competition.

      In the end, its not just about getting EVERYONE to constantly upgrade their purchases. While thats a really profitable effect that interestingly has been happening, and no doubt hoped for, the bottom line is that rapid upgrade cycles have a far more important intention than just to keep people who already own a product to buy the new version.

      The far more important intention is to try and leave as little opportunity open for a competing product to be able to step in and claim their model is newer and better. This is by far most apparent with the iPad. The iPad pretty much created the market place for the current tablet form factor and as such they quickly cornered it due to complete initial lack of competition. From that point on competitive products would have to push hard to even make the public aware they exist and were competitive with the iPad.

      If there were not rapid product development upgrade cycles for the iPad then there is no doubt that someone would soon have a tablet out with better specs and if given enough time without a new improved iPad to compete with it directly, a new competing product could, with enough time, get the reputation as a competing product with better stats for the same money and then "BINGO", we have a horse race.

      If Apple can keep that lead time for a new competing product to try and get a foothold as the clearly more advanced product to as minimal a time as possible, it becomes very tough for the competition to make a name for themselves because there is so little time to get the story out that they have a better product out before Apple has a new and improved iPad out to say that the competition isnt really any better again.

      Of course, the knock off effect is that you have had piles of people who have probably more money than brains who use the rapid upgrade cycle to always go out and purchase the latest and greatest and thats very profitable for a company like Apple as we have seen.

      But the bottom line is, how can you ever convince a company like Apple, or many of the other gadget producers to lengthen the upgrade cycle when it would allow the newest product from a competitor to really shine and possibly cost Apple some long term market share if people are given a good opportunity to consider a newer better product before Apple comes out with an even better new and improved version.

      It would be like telling an Olympic runner whos way ahead in the race that they should take a few breaks and not push themselves so hard in the race. Its a nice thought but if that Olympic runner had a shred of brains in his head he knows exactly what taking a break could lead to and if they really want to win, they will have none of it.
  • $199

    For me, $199 is still a "real" investment and something at that price wouldn't be considered disposable. Accidents happen, that's why we have insurance.

    But I wouldn't consider a 7" tablet disposable.
  • Cheap devices are disposable...

    ... when something bad happens.
    Many of these devices were not made to be repaired.
    I don't know about the gorilla glass 2, but gorilla or normal glass breaks and shatters easily.
    Never really understood why the love for glass on phones and tablets, a few scratches on a fingerprint covered screen are irrelevant. Acrylic would probably be a better option... I guess people like to look at their immaculated toys.
    • Acrylic gets clouded over time

      Which is why I will never own an acrylic aquarium or camera with acrylic lens, either... and why you have to buy that goo to slop over headlights (but not the paint job!) when the plastic gets clouded...
      • Use white toothpaste, a dab of water, and an old t-shirt on the headlights.

        It will buff the cloudy layer right off and leave the headlight lens mostly clear without the expense or hazard of the goo you are talking about.
  • Protecting the environment

    Does this ring a bell ? Unfortunately for many US citizens everything is disposable if its value is low enough. Electronic devices contain a lot of valuable materials and it takes quite some amount of energy to produce them. We should care more.