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Five ways manufacturers make devices hard to repair

Bill Detwiler shows you five ways manufactures are making our gadgets harder to fix and gives you tips on working around these self-repair roadblocks.

Computers, smartphones, and tablets are smaller, thinner, and lighter than ever before. But to build today's ultra-slim, ultra-portable devices, designers and engineers often make their creations more difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

On this special episode of Cracking Open, I show you five ways manufactures are making our gadgets harder to fix and give you a few tips on working around these self-repair roadblocks.

1. Tamper-resistant screws

Tamper-resistant pentalobe screw on the MacBook Air

Our first self-repair roadblock, tamper-resistant screws, aren't new or unique to computers, but manufacturers are using them on a lot of devices. Nintendo used tri-wing screws on the Wii and Gamecube. Sony used special security torx screws on the slimline PS3. And, Apple uses pentalobe screws on the iPhone, MacBook Air, and Retina MacBook Pro.

Luckily, this roadblock is also the easiest to overcome. With a little online research, you can buy a driver or bit to handle any of these screws.

2. Glued-on components

Unfortunately, some manufacturers are abandoning screws altogether--choosing to glue components in place. And, that's our second roadblock.

Whether is the iPad's front panel, Galaxy S III's ribbon cables, or Retina MacBook Pro's battery, removing glued-on components can be difficult and risky. And, it's best not to remove a working component that's glued in place. If you absolutely must do so, heat can sometimes help weaken the adhesive, but should be used very carefully.

3. Tiny, fragile connectors

If glued-on components weren't enough, today's gadgets are also filled with tiny, fragile connectors.

Whether it's a board-to-board connector or flexible-flat-cable connector, tablets and smartphones are filled with them. The keys to working around this roadblock are a little patience, a light touch, and a few really thin tools.

4. Battery soldered to the motherboard

Up to now, I've been able to help you overcome the repair roadblocks on our list. But, the last two aren't as easy to work around.

At number four is a roadblock that manufactures are using less frequently, but that still appears from time to time--batteries that are soldered to the motherboard.

Favored by some tablet and smartphone manufacturers, there's no way to replace a battery like this without using a soldering iron or wire cutters. Replacing a soldered battery is definitely an advanced do-it-yourself fix.

5. Fused front/panel display assembly

iPhone 4 fused front panel/display assembly

Lastly, there's one repair roadblock that's almost impossible to overcome. And unlike soldered batteries, device manufacturers are actually using it more frequently. It's a fused front panel and display assembly.

Whether it's on the Apple iPhone or Google Nexus 7, a fused front panel and display assembly makes repairs more expensive. Because, if one component breaks, you have to replace both. And while it's sometimes possible to separate the two components, you often risk damaging the working half in the process. It's just not worth the risk.

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

19 comments
JohnOfStony
JohnOfStony

It's about time the "greens" started exerting pressure on manufacturers who deliberately make products which are difficult or impossible to repair. In today's world where we're all encouraged to recycle, why are manufacturers allowed to do exactly the opposite? Whereas I do appreciate a portable device that's lightweight, this obsession with thinness (Macbook Air and Ultrabooks) is imho just crazy. Add another couple of millimetres and make it repairable - and advertise this as a selling pooint - and it could improve sales, but no, it's style and fashion (another eco-hostile industry) that are all-important. Is there any manufacturer willing to stand out from the crowd? One reason I don't like Apple products is because they're the classic eco-hostile company, even to the point of avoiding having memory card slots or removable batteries so that to upgrade, you have to dispose of your existing iPod, iPhone, iPad or whatever and buy a new one - totally wasteful of resources.

clary
clary

Thank You Bill... I was going to attempt this, there are a lot of kits offered accomplish this. They all have the disclaimer, "You may damage other components", but they don't disclose the risk or suggest not doing it. Clary Walker

guy
guy

While this doesn't fall into the consumer device catagory we have one industrial product that we try to work on, that has a soldered battery, Desoldering the old battry is easy but installing the new one often destroys the equipment. This product is designed to run continuously so there is no power switch. This means that the final battery connection must be made cleanly (like a switch) and then soldered without disturbing the connection. Any disconnect/connect made during soldering caused the onboard processor to hang/crash and the unit becomes a dead box.

Rémszarvas
Rémszarvas

The picture is bit more complicated than this. There is a so called Environmental Impact Assessment and Product Lifecycle Management. Manufacturers and designers use these fused with their ideologies to find the optimal size. As for the impact: A small product means smaller material throughput: less mining, transport of raw materials, energy used in processing, and again less energy used in transporting the final product...less energy need for the recycling process (if properly implemented) and finally there is less trash left. Bigger products mean more of all these. As for the lifecycle: First of all, bigger products end up being trash too even if you repair them once or twice. On the other hand there is no sense of making a device solid as Stonehenge when it is outdated in a couple of years at best. It is hard to estimate the pace of development, I know. I have an eight years old laptop. It is solid as a brick and almost as heavy. There was (i guess) possibility to repair it but no need. I'm sure It's no surprise that it is still just a big heavy piece of trash by now even though it is running as perfectly as it did before. There are competing interest in this for sure, not even just two of them...

krishna@LifeBoatFoods.com
krishna@LifeBoatFoods.com

This law has forced auto engineering (particularly) to simplify designs and make them far easier to disassemble. This also makes disassembly for repairs much simpler and less costly.

Robynsveil
Robynsveil

...if it were possible. What happened to eco-consciousness? It's all about being cool. "I've got the coolest device." Nice if someone could reply: "yeah, well, it's at the cost of my children's health. Good on ya, mate. A bit entitled, ya reckon?"

plandok
plandok

Of course I don't know what your piece of equipment is but...perhaps a setup like the alarm bypass trick in the movies might work. Could you connect up a stabilized power supply connection to the battery holder to keep power "on" and then a power switch inside the case so you can then disconnect the battery you have to replace without power related worries and then put in the new battery? If it won't fit inside, then perhaps an addon box or dongle with the stuff in it. If it is that important to you, there must be some way to overcome the (purposeful?) fragility of the design. I've done this sort of thing since I was a teenager and couldn't afford to buy a new device each time something happened. Just a suggestion.

dave
dave

I only had to do this once and luckily had enough room to add in a holder which meant I didn't have to risk it like this. Worth remembering that when you make a change like this you can add 'improvements'

Nitramd
Nitramd

The sealed for life policy of the smaller more efficient units may incur greater frequency of replacements. This may outweigh their smaller per unit eco impact against one longer lived large old unit. However I do not believe eco is the force 4 change as much as the bottom line. Many Business users have not changed their XP pc's because they are considered still fit for purpose, so will stick more RAM in it, replace Hdd's to increase return on investment. Sealed for life takes that option away placing the risk of premuture replacement costs through failure or under specing on them. So the onus should be upon the manufacturers to prove to the users that the inherent reliability from these production methods are capable yielding the required return on capital.

plandok
plandok

But, the funds are consumed by the bureaucracies which impose them. So when you buy a can of paint, you pay $0.85 even if you return the can empty. If you buy a CD/DVD you pay $0.21 in case you might pirate a song or movie. When you buy a monitor (any kind), you pay by the size. It can be high but no one seems to know how to recycle an LED screen. Actually, the "recycling" fee is not for recycling. Recyclers make their money from the "scrap" value or gov't subsidies. Guess that makes sense since you pay a Goods & Services tax anyway when you buy new or used stuff. But still, the imposition of digital TV has contributed tons of working TV sets with lead and other heavy metals in them just so someone/gov't can make money selling bandwidth or new sets. As Alexei Sayle used to say, "It's a Strange, Strange World, Innit?".

AAC Tech
AAC Tech

Interesting that the German economy is still one of the strongest in the world. What was it? Unemployment 5.4% with the "Euro crisis". Even in the best of times Canada's unemployment is around 6.x% Perhaps there is some thing interesting here! And hey, it is fun to fix things!

kturner1
kturner1

1. What does someone's health care costs have to do with someone else's obsession with the latest gadgets? 2. Entitlement - I bet you have some new & trendy products lurking around you home. How eco-friendly are your home, car, clothes, electronics? I bet you could find some room for eco-improvement. I know I can.

The Great Gazoo
The Great Gazoo

What we waste to satisfy our obsession over style and fashion - it's really sad. Every time they dangle the lastest "cool" gadget in front of us, the drooling masses practically trip over each other to be the first in line.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

You ask how do Pollies get Elected. That's easy some people vote for them but most defiantly not a majority of People in the US just a Majority of people in the US who Vote. I live in Australia and here we have to vote but there is a benefit. If 25% of the electorate do not think that a Proposed Polly is worth their vote and say so on their Ballot Paper that Polly is not allowed to run again and another Election has to be held in that Electorate with different Candidates. I'm unaware of anything similar that is even possible in the US let alone voting for the President which simply is not in the hands of the people. If it was possible for the people to demand different candidates Pollies would be far more likely to be part way honest. Of course here they hide the fact that they can be thrown out and wear Brown Pants when they see a Informal vote approaching 12%. :^0 Col

kturner1
kturner1

You have a good point. "The unemployment rate can be defined as the number of people actively looking for a job divided by the labour force." according to http://www.tradingeconomics.com/canada/unemployment-rate. IMHO, the true unemployment rate should be the number of unemployed adults of working age divided by the labor force.

kturner1
kturner1

"Destroying" politicians for what they do (which is mostly charm people for their votes) is like beating the dog for pooping in the house when you forgot to let it out. Politicians don't vote themselves into office, the people do. Get active and politically involved if you want things to get better. Otherwise you;re just like millions of other of the masses, just complaining.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But not many accept that Politician's are a Drain on the system and should be destroyed to improve Life, Liberty and The American Way. ;) Col

Slayer_
Slayer_

Canada's is like 40% (made up figure), nearly half our population doesn't work, they just aren't counted cause they aren't actually looking for jobs. Canadian's know which group of people I am talking about.

kturner1
kturner1

...Germany & Canada's low unemployment rates are due to people repairing instead of buying electronics. Connect the dots for me here. Also, Germany's unemployment rate is more like 6.8% & Canada's is 8%