iphone coverWhen buying new laptops, cellphones, and other tech devices, it's all about the latest and greatest -- bigger screens, lighter and sleeker designs, more bells and whistles.

But recent reports suggest that these design innovations aren't necessarily an improvement -- in fact, they may even sacrifice product durability, serviceability, and overall life span. Here's how.

Reduced Durability

According to one study conducted by SquareTrade, Americans have spent about $5.9 billion on iPhone repairs since Apple (AAPL) first created the device in 2007. The repairs are mostly due to damages resulting from dropping the phones on the ground or liquid-related mishaps.

How does the iPhone's design contribute to these woes? SquareTrade's Chief Marketing Officer Ty Shay argues that the phone's stylish, easily crackable glass case undermines its durability when people drop it.

Reduced Serviceability

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, noted in a column in Wired that new generations of Apple computers are designed in ways that make them more and more difficult -- and expensive -- to repair. He called Apple's new Retina MacBook Pro the "least repairable" laptop he's ever examined due to features like these:

  • The Retina's glass and display are fused together, which means that if users want to replace the LCD, they also have to replace the expensive display assembly.
  • Its RAM is fused to the logic board, which means consumers have to replace the (expensive) logic board if they wish to upgrade their RAM. Why would users want to upgrade their RAM? Because newer computer applications require more memory and exact greater demands on RAM. Without RAM upgrades, older computers may not be able to perform well with newer applications.
  • Its battery and case are glued together, so customers can't replace the battery themselves. They instead have to send their computers to Apple for a battery replacement.

Such designs make Apple phones and computers stylishly attractive and lightweight. But when all is said and done, these manufacturing changes create a situation where simply buying a new laptop makes more sense than fixing or upgrading the computer they've got.

Bad Repairability = Good Business

When something breaks, the math is pretty straightforward: Weigh the cost of the repair against the existing value of the machine versus the cost of buying a new machine. Computer companies are making that decision even easier. By designing computers so repairs are expensive, they create incentives to skip the repairs and simply move on to their newer models.

In addition to manufacturing changes, computer companies are reducing the length of the warranties covering their products. As Consumer Reports observed last year, most warranties offer one-year coverage for parts, and a mere 90-day warranty for labor. Skimpy warranties encourage consumers to buy the next great product rather than repair their existing one.

In addition to weighing cost, we also consider convenience. If our batteries go bad, can we really afford to abandon access for several days as we mail our laptops in and wait for the company to replace the part? If our computers are already a couple of years old, many of us would simply opt to buy a new one.

The same principle applies to cellphones. Consider the cost of replacing a cracked iPhone screen, which can range between $100 and $150. When you can buy a new, subsidized iPhone for $200, there is little incentive to fix your old phone.

So What?

In an editorial responding to Wiens' concerns about the Retina's repairability, Garrett Murray, founder and creative director of tech consultancy Karbon, points out that the manufacturing changes that allow companies to create thin, lightweight computers with sleek designs is called "progress." He says, "People don't want huge, heavy 'robust and rugged' laptops. They want ultra-thin, ultra-light, insanely fast computers that are affordable."

Also, consumers who like to own cutting-edge gizmos aren't likely to be concerned about making their computers last, since they'll want to buy a new computer before their old one wears out anyway.

Even so, there are other consequences to choosing stylish designs and frequent upgrades over durable technological devices. Most electronics aren't recycled. Of those that are, some materials are still thrown away, forcing us to pile these up in already-overflowing landfills and dig more resources out of the ground in order to manufacture new devices.

Do you think the trade-off between stylish design and reduced durability is worth it? Let me know in the comments box below.




Motley Fool contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D. is the Principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a bull call spread position in Apple.


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8 Comments

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This is Geek

I am one definitely for upgradable repairable computers. Kept my daughters HP laptop running for 8 years. Try adding up the cost of a new laptop ever 2 years to take a guess at how much I have saved. If she ever decides to transfer data into her new computer I fix it up again. Currently using a Dell Inspiron laptop and am planning to keep it a long time.

September 28 2012 at 5:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ed

Garrett Murray's never met me, man! So he can leave me out of his "people want" generalization. I, for one, want stuff that lasts! My parents still have a milkshake maker from the 50s that makes amazing milkshakes. I think their blender is from the 60s. He can take his "ultra-thin, ultra-light", ULTRA-JUNKY stuff and shove it. It's a computer that people paid lots of money for! Glad he thinks it should be as disposable as a BiC lighter. ...There's just no respect in that attitude.

September 28 2012 at 3:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MIchigan Man

People treat the iPhone just like they treat politicians; regardless of how bad they are, they continue to trust them.

September 28 2012 at 11:38 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
dpg1dspd

Folks, the summary fact is "Designed Obsolescence to Support Profitablity !" Its been around for a long time
and used more often than we think.

September 28 2012 at 10:12 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
g-locker62_p

Today is a sellers paradise with trinkets that are throw-away and non-repairable. But that's a good thing since the vast majority of sheople still can't program a VCR. If they even know what a VCR is for that matter.

As a society, we throw away broken people, so why not cutesie little broken devices too?

September 28 2012 at 9:13 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rpokeytruck

Anyone with common sence wants something they can upgrade and fix themselves, If I cant then I wont own it. I refuse to be at the mercy of a company that designs products to manipulate me into buying stuff I dont need.

September 28 2012 at 7:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
rpokeytruck

Anyone with common sence wants something they can upgrade and fix themselves, If I cant then I wont own it. I refuse to be at the mercy of a company that designs products to manipulate me into buying stuff I dont need.

September 28 2012 at 7:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
rpokeytruck

Anyone with common sence wants something they can upgrade and fix themselves, If I cant then I wont own it. I refuse to be at the mercy of a company that designs products to manipulate me into buying stuff I dont need.

September 28 2012 at 7:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply