Microsoft's Surface - easier to repair than a MacBook Pro?

Microsoft's Surface - easier to repair than a MacBook Pro?

Summary: Microsoft's forthcoming Surface tablet could be easier to repair and upgrade than its buttoned up rivals like the MacBook Pro.

TOPICS: Tablets, Microsoft

Increasingly, iPads, Mac notebooks and high end smartphones are turning into sealed units with few or no user-serviceable parts (for example, iFixit called the MacBook Pro with retina display "the least repairable laptop we've ever taken apart").

It's nothing new; getting into the original Mac required a large gadget called the case-cracking tool to lever apart the seam of the case, as well as a set of Torx screwdrivers, although Apple's new MacBook Pro takes this to extremes. There are reasons for sealed units that have to be professionally serviced, as well as good arguments against them.

Sleek, seamless, integrated devices need careful construction; it's about fitting components together as much as it is about stopping you adding a different hardware component that might or might not perform well in the device.

But it's nice if hardware design makes it easy to replace the battery or upgrade the storage; even the sleekest PC notebooks have removable panels to simplify that.

Even if you don't want to tinker yourself, it means you can shop around if your device ever needs repairing. And if you don't care about the on-going costs of keeping your device working, can I suggest a charity donation, because you obviously have spare cash in your pockets?

The back of the Microsoft Surface looks as sleek and seamless as you can get, until you snap up the kickstand hinge. As well as giving you a stable surface it also reveals ten or so screws holding down a removable panel under the hinge mechanism. They're Torx screws (not even the Torx Plus or Torx Security screws) so you can get a screwdriver to open them easily. And that could mean the Surface will be cheaper to repair and easier to upgrade.

Screws neatly under the hinge

Close up of the Torx screws (top left)

Don't expect to be able to change most of the components, especially not on the Surface for Windows RT; both that and the Surface for Windows 8 Pro have a tightly integrated CPU and GPU, in a System on Chip design.

And it wouldn't be surprising if the memory was soldered in the same way it is in the iPad and the latest MacBook Pros - that would avoid errors from RAM chips working their way out of the socket and possibly save a small amount of space. But Microsoft doesn't have the scale to have a custom connector on the SSD the way Apple does in its latest models, so you might well be able to upgrade the storage.

Being able to open the Surface yourself should make it easier to replace the battery when it stops taking a full charge (which all batteries do eventually), or take it to a third-party repairer instead of having to trek to a Microsoft Store.

I've often argued that tablets are appliances rather than general purpose computers, but that doesn't mean they have to hard to upgrade or repair. I can order official spare parts for my oven and dishwasher and fit them myself for a fraction of the cost of an accredited repair (one oven handle, one oven door, one dishwasher handle and umpteen oven lightbulbs later, I've saved a fair amount).

If Microsoft can make an ultra-thin tablet that you can still open up to repair, that's another tribute to its design skills.

Topics: Tablets, Microsoft

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Good catch

    Well that's a good catch. Yes I think "PC" legacy is to make stuffs user-serviceable.
    Though I am not sure if your comparison with Macbook Pro is fair. Surface might cost atleast half if not 1/3rd when compared to Macbook Pro Retina.
    • COst vs. Repairability?

      Since when does the cost of a "pc" device correlate to the ability to repair it?
  • It's the GM/Toyota thing all over again...

    Sure, it's easier to fix a 1970s GM car than a Toyota. Then again, no one NEEDED to fix a Toyota anywhere near as often as a GM, so no one cared...
    Tony Burzio
    • Except...

      Apple products DO need repairing as often as most non-Apple products... so your comparison just fell apart. Don't believe everything Apple tells you.
      • If Apple does not tell you the repair numbers how do you know this?

        I"m guessing you don't.

        Pagan jim
        James Quinn
      • Desperate

        Need to claim Apple products have some deficiency, so people should not buy them, but instead wait for the Bright Future by Microsoft, no matter how distant that might happen to be?

        Life is short. Choice is of course yours to make. And own.
    • Not just repair

      I can buy a pc with a SSD, HDD and RAM that I need now knowing I can add or upgrade the part later. With the Retina Mac, you can't. This means I have to buy more than I need now, costing me more, and hope it I enough. This in effect takes additional funds from me and pads the pockets of the seller.
      • Upgradability

        There are of course modular computers that can be "upgraded" as you wish. There are even such computers, where you can replace disks, memory and CPUs on the fly (while the computer is up and running). Certainly, there are people who need such and use them. Nothing new.

        Thing is, none of these is particularly portable, or light, or low power consuming etc.
        There is price to pay for everything.

        If anyone can produce highly integrated, long battery life, light, thin etc notebook, at least as good as the Retina MacBook Pro that is serviceable, they will have my money.
        Until then, Apple has it.
        • Then Buy ASUS

          I have a 2+ year old ASUS UL with 10hour+ battery life.
          Thin, light, swappable graphics, and by the way, I upped the RAM to 8gb and swapped out the HDD for a 128 OCZ SSD. Now it is quick on, runs cold, and gets fantastic battery life.

          Point is there are a lot of choices. I bought what I needed (light and usable for travel) and as my needs increased I was able to upgrade / update it with new hardware. If the Retina Mac had that ability, I would look at replacing my aging MBP with one. I prefer to buy and upgrade when I need, not buy IF I might need. For me that is a waste of resources.

          You're right on choice. It doesn't meet my requirements, I don't buy it.
    • batteries need replacing on any OS

      Apple products don't have magically better battery lifetimes than other devices and the $175 I've seen quoted for getting a battery replacement on a Mac seems exceptionally pricey - but you can charge what you like when your design locks out third-party repair options instead of selling authorised parts.
      Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
      • Depends... I think there batteries in these Apple devices are made to last

        around 4 to 5 years without requiring replacement. By that time I figure I'll be ready to upgrade myself so no big. On average I upgrade one every three years or so... So counting on the usually good resale value I get for my Apple stuff I'll likely sell my iPad with it's original battery still working fine and likely to work for another couple years before needing replacement to another person and get me a new one with the money I get from the sale of my original unit. Just saying....That whole replaceable battery argument ship has so sailed they are making both Android and Windows phones with none replaceable batteries now.

        Pagan jim

        Pagan jim
        James Quinn
        • 4 - 5 years?

          My iPhone 3G died (battery) after 2.5-ish years
          My iPhone 3GS can't hold a charge more than 4 hours (2-ish years)
          My MBP - had to replace the battery at the 3 year mark
          Maybe the new ones are better.

          PC, Android, Apple or other, lasting significantly beyond the 3 year mark I have yet to find.....
          • We're talking laptops...

            ... not iPhones. iPhones are meant to last two years, so you will go out and buy another.

            Also, iPhone batteries are just as replaceable as the batteries in many of the newer, fully integrated Android devices released in this past year.
          • Battery life is so dependant on use

            My iPhone 3G is still running strong as is my iPad 1. My MacBook Core Duo (Gen 1?) has had one new battery as has my Gen3 click wheel iPod.
            Battery life depends so much on use that it's really hard to make such blanket statements. If you keep the device charged you will get long battery life, if you wait till it shuts down you will get very short battery life. Besides it's not that hard to replace, just a little fiddle and some glue and as Robert below points out its more about packaging options than trying to force you to upgrade.
        • Doesn't change the fact

          that such accessibility options should exist, especially for something as simple as a battery. There's really no excuse for their non-inclusion except lock-in considerations, which buttresses the author's point about the smarter Surface design in this regard.
          • Get this, give that up

            It's not really true that "lock in" is the only reason. With various firms competing to see who can deliver the thinnest device, putting solid sides around a battery so that it becomes a replaceable unit adds millimeters that a lot of people don't want. All design decisions are tradeoffs.

            Before too much longer, the whole idea of 'repairing' mobile devices will seem as quaint as watch repair. How many years before the CPU, the GPU, the RAM, and the Flash RAM SSD-replacement are all on one die?
            Robert Hahn
          • Fair point

            After all, we're increasingly living in a throw-away world. Which is what more-complicated-than-necessary repairs and upgrades generally lead to.

            Notice the built-in, accompanying ouch factor. But what you added carries merit in its own way likewise.
  • Wishful thinking

    I am amazed! We already "know" that the Surface will be user serviceable, when nobody has ever had one, nor has anyone ever opened it.

    Those prototype units might have had screws. They might have had even tape and glue holding them together -- but they are prototypes and the final product is promised to ship not sooner than October.

    There are certain designs tradeoffs one needs to make in order to achieve certain desirable quality, like thin, light and reliable. The 'make it non-serviceable for the average user' is the easiest "compromise" to make. After all, no sane average user wants to open their stuff.

    Besides, what is the point to service the tablet yourself? This stuff is for using, not for thinking inside with your screwdriver and soldering iron.
    • engineering samples at worst

      @danbi - the units we've seen aren't prototypes; the worst you could call them is engineering samples. It's extremely unlikely that the design will change significantly at this late stage, and it's extremely unlikely that the design would change substantially enough for a case designed to be held together with multiple Torx screws to become a sealed unit. We can't say what you can and can't do when you open a Surface until we crack one open, but we can say that it looks as if Microsoft has designed it to make that easier. And even if you don't want to tinker with a product, even if you don't believe that 'if you can't open it, you don't own it', making it easy to repair or replace the battery is a good thing if you can do it without compromising the design.
      Simon Bisson and Mary Branscombe
      • We have no idea what they are

        They were just trotted out for a press event.

        Serviceability for a vaporware product, what's next SLAs?
        Richard Flude