Apple Archive

Apple, Please Bring Back Flexible, Easy to Upgrade 'Books

- 2006.10.12

My 12" PowerBook G4 has provided a generally good life of service. I bought the computer shortly after it was released in January 2003, seeing its small size and light weight as a "must have" for carrying around all day in high school.

For about US$1,900, I got an 867 MHz G4 with 256 MB of RAM, a 40 GB hard drive, a Combo drive, and an AirPort Extreme card (which was optional when I bought it). I then upgraded the RAM to 640 MB.

Shortly after I purchased the machine, the price was reduced from $1,799 to $1,599, and later on both the SuperDrive and the AirPort Extreme card became standard. For three-and-a-half years, this computer has provided me with essentially trouble-free daily service, and the purchase has not been regretted.

Discontinued with No Replacement

The 12" PowerBook was discontinued this past May with no direct replacement. The MacBook is similar in size and weight, but it features a 13" widescreen, which takes up more space in your bag than a standard 13" screen. The MacBook Pro starts with a 15" widescreen, which I find to be too large for carrying around in a backpack, although I see many students at my university have them.

Recently, though, I've found that the screen on my 12" PowerBook has developed 5 or 6 white spots. For most users, this would be a minor annoyance, but it's been seriously bothering me for several months. A replacement screen is about $250 on eBay, and it would be difficult for me to install myself due to so many small screws in a small computer like this.

Ultimately, it's not worth spending more money on the machine as it is, and I figure that by next summer I'll be using something different.

Is this planned obsolescence? Sure it is. By keeping the price of the screen fairly high, while at the same time introducing new products that drive down the value of a used 12" PowerBook, it forces users to ask whether they should purchase a new machine instead of repair what they've got - even if it's adequate for their use.

Don't get me wrong - the 12" PowerBook, even at "only" 867 MHz, isn't terribly slow. It's a bit low on RAM for Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4), the hard drive is a bit small (I've been kicking myself for the past two years for not getting the 60 GB drive when I bought it), and I find the screen hard to read at times (so I tend to keep the resolution at 800 x 600 instead of its native 1024 x 768), but generally it's not a bad machine and has no trouble with most of the tasks that I use it for.

IBM Got It Right

In the meantime, I've started using an old IBM ThinkPad 600E from 1999. I felt I needed something with a larger screen than my PowerBook had, and this computer was sitting around my dad's place not being used.

It's not much thicker than my 12" PowerBook, but it has a 13.3" 1024 x 768 screen. The keyboard, typical of ThinkPads, feels very close to a desktop computer's keyboard, which is usually one thing computer manufacturers end up getting totally wrong. (Apple had a decent keyboard in the 12" PowerBook and developed an even better one for the new MacBooks.)

Every single part in the 600E is something I can access and replace myself - it recently had a new motherboard and a larger hard drive installed, and a new battery and keyboard are on their way as I type this.

The hard drive simply slides out the front of the machine, and a new one can be installed in the cage that IBM provides. In about five minutes you can go from having 4 GB drive to 40 GB - try that with a recent PowerBook! And in about five seconds you can go from having a CD-ROM drive to a CD-RW or DVD.

Thanks to its upgradeability, this computer, which is already seven years old, still has more life in it.

Upgrade Options

What can Apple learn from this? The 12" PowerBook was not user-serviceable, and getting the bottom off a titanium PowerBook was an extremely scary procedure. Recent PowerBooks and MacBook Pro's technically have to be sent to Apple for a hard drive installation (and I did ask the question when helping make the purchase of a 17" MacBook Pro for the people I work for).

That said, Apple has made the consumer MacBook more user-friendly by allowing users to upgrade their own hard drive. The keyboard, though, still isn't user-serviceable like it was in the G3 PowerBooks.

Virtually every computer made since 1997 has ethernet, and most notebooks made since then have provision for adding a wireless card. Even the 1996 PowerBook 1400 can be connected to a wireless network.

Running a word processor or spreadsheet - even current versions - doesn't require a 2 GHz dual-core processor. One might argue that Web 2.0 has made a generation of computers obsolete - but you don't need an especially fast computer to share photos on Flickr or post a bulletin on MySpace.

While the ThinkPad isn't exactly a speed demon, it has no problem with the majority of common tasks. I can watch full-screen MPEG video, and it plays MP3s in iTunes just fine. Browsing the Web is relatively painless, though it does sometimes struggle with YouTube videos (I found the solution is to click the size box to make it smaller), and Firefox tends to take 20-30 seconds to open, whereas it takes about 8 on my 12" PowerBook.

Past PowerBook Flexibility

Six or seven years ago, computers were made to be more upgradeable - even Macs. The PowerBook G3 computers (WallStreet, Lombard, and Pismo) were clearly meant to be upgraded. New hard drives are relatively easy to install, RAM installation is a snap, exchanging the CD-ROM for a CD-RW or DVD-ROM is easy, and putting them on a wireless network is simple with their PC Card slots.

Too bad they weren't a bit faster than the 500 MHz that the Pismo topped off at.

Regardless, Apple would benefit from designing laptops that were easier to upgrade, and the MacBook is a good step in that direction. Not only would Apple have another feature to could use as a selling point, but I also believe it would make their customers feel as if Apple cared about them by allowing them to customize the machine more to their liking.

Would it have a negative effect on future sales if people could upgrade instead of replace? Probably not much of one - often the "cool factor" that comes from having a new 'Book is just too great.

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