Making The Grade: Does repairability of Mac laptops matter?

Making The Grade is a weekly series from Bradley Chambers covering Apple in education. Bradley has been managing Apple devices in an education environment since 2009. Through his experience deploying and managing 100s of Macs and 100s of iPads, Bradley will highlight ways in which Apple’s products work at scale, stories from the trenches of IT management, and ways Apple could improve its products for students.

Repairability of Apple laptops is something that has evolved in recent years. Whenever a new product is released, there are a few websites that will do a teardown and discuss how it’s made. iFixit, a popular website for repair guides and parts, even publishes a repairability guide for laptops and smartphones. Is this something business/education customers still care about? How repairable are Apple’s laptops? That is what I want to look at this week.

When I first got into managing Apple products, I took the Apple Certified Macintosh Technician class. After passing the exam, I was granted access to Apple’s Global Service Exchange (GSX). This website keeps track of repairs of devices. If you’ve taken your laptop in for a screen replacement to an Apple Store or an authorized Apple repair center, it would be documented in this database. During that period, we were using the 13″ white MacBook . This model was released in 2006 with the transition to Intel, and it remained on the market until 2012. I purchased quite a few of them in 2009. We used them until 2012. During that time, I replaced a lot of hard drives. The hard drives in this computer were the old style (pre-SSD or flash storage). They were just bound to failure due to the way spinning drives worked. If you’ve never seen the inside of a hard drive while it’s running, watch this video:

After I saw this video for the first time, I was surprised hard drives even worked on laptops to begin with.

Outside of replacing at least 25% of the hard drives in our deployment, I didn’t have much else fail. The hard drive was an easy swap as well. I could buy a $40 replacement from Amazon, clone the failing drive to it, and swap it out in about ten minutes. Here’s a short video showing how it worked in the 2009 MacBook Pro. It was a similar process in the MacBook.

During that period, Apple laptops were much more modular regarding part repair. A lot of various parts were separated from the main logic board. From a repair standpoint, this meant that more things could be swapped out without replacing a $400-$500 part on a $999 laptop.

As we moved to deploying MacBook Airs in 2012 (and to this day), Apple laptops became much more integrated. There are now fewer things that can be repaired apart from replacing the logic board. Is this a negative thing? I know some would argue yes, but my counterpoint would be it’s been a good thing overall. I ordered 100 MacBook Airs in 2012. I deployed another 75 in 2015. In my entire time managing MacBook Airs, I’ve had to replace one flash memory module. I’ve had one display go bad. I would argue that as repairability has gotten more difficult, dependability (sans the keyboard of the current MacBook Pros), has gone way up.

One thing that has changed is how I manage repairs. Like I mentioned earlier, I have the ACMT certification where I can order parts directly from Apple. With the current laptops, I’ve found that I can send products off to Apple’s depot repair center and have any repairs (even accidental damage) done for less than I can order the parts myself. The downside to doing this is that I have to wait a few days to get the machines back, but I just keep a few spare laptops on the shelf to give to the users while their laptop is being repaired.

In summary, Apple’s laptop line has become a lot harder and more costly to repair in recent years. On the flip side, I’ve seen my need to repair machines go way down. In my experience, Apple’s laptop hardware (sans the current MacBook Pro keyboards) have become as reliable as iPad hardware. Unless you cause accidental damage, you are likely going to have a functioning laptop for many years.

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