Repairability of laptops

I’ve talked about this in passing a few times, and I’m certainly not the first to point any of this out! But a discussion with a family friend, and their surprise at what the industry had become, lead us to hash this out. My hope is the current state of most laptops aren’t a sign of things to come, and that people are making responsible devices.

It was inevitable that most people would stop buying desktops and switch to laptops when the price was there, and that most people would treat them as an appliance. By which I mean a device you use for an expected period of time and throw away. Appliances didn’t used to be like that either, but that’s a broader discussion on disposable culture.

Then the trend towards soldered and integrated components picked up steam. Laptops made this way can be smaller, which is what the public wants in their bags. They also have the potential to be more reliable, owing to the fewer number of physical connections that can rattle or shake loose over time. You and I treat our machines well, but have you seen how the general public manhandle them?! In the case of systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) like the MacBook M1, huge improvements in performance and battery life can also be gained (albeit one that may have started to reach a ceiling based on the iPhone 13).

But such integration comes at a steep cost. The most obvious is serviceability, as pointed out by the right-to-repair movement. People without the financial resources to have backup machines can’t send their primary work device off to repair, and will likely be forced to live with a machine with a fault. It almost sounds silly and obvious spelling it out, but serviceable machines can be fixed. It puts control of the device into the hands of the user, should they require it.

A single fried or malfunctioning component on a motherboard can be enough to relegate the entire machine to scrap. Manufactures with specialised tooling to handle BGA packaging or de-soldering tiny parts still routinely see such repairs as a financial sink, and are more likely to scrap the device as well. Large companies love advertising their recycling chops, forgetting that the first two Rs are reduce and reuse.

I’ve (begrudgingly) come to accept a future of soldered CPUs and RAM in my laptops, but I agree with Michael Dexter of Call for Testing and the BSDFund that storage is a bridge too far. Unlike the former two, storage has the potential to contain things that are irreplaceable to their owner. Robust tooling like OpenZFS also exposes just how flaky and unreliable storage can be relative to other system components. It’s also something you can run out of.

(Detractors of removable storage—a phrase I never thought I’d write—claim this is negated by cloud storage and backups. I don’t begrudge people not trusting the former, and how many laypeople do you know have robust backups they test? The burden of proof is on people to make the case that its removal is a good idea, and I’ve yet to be convinced the pros outweigh the cons for consumers).

The good news is people are starting to take this seriously. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how many HP laptops rated a 9 or a 10 on the iFixIt laptop repairability score… that deserves being called out. The Framework Laptop’s modular, labelled components are a work of engineering art, and with a screen not saddled with PC Screen Syndrome for once!

I have to use Macs for work, but the repairability of a machine will be a deciding factor in my next personal device. Storage is not something I want to gamble with.


Nora Tindall on the modern web

Via her Mastodon account:

Imagine if we had put 20 years of effort into making the internet a safe and productive place for people to live their lives instead of optimizing dopamine output from each individual interaction

Let’s take this as a challenge, and not a sign of defeat :).


Feedback from my week 38 links post

Jim Kloss, Hugh Lawrie, Adam Spencer, and Rebecca Hales sent, tweeted, and smoke signalled that they liked the recommendations in my week 38 link post from the weekend. One of those people, and one of their communication methods, were a lie.

(What was that line from the Highlander TV series? “He called me a cheap person and a thief! I… was never cheap!")

I’ve done a few link posts in the past, though this time it was to cull dozens of accumulated draft posts. It’s a silly irony that for each post I write, at least three draft posts spawn than never see the light of day… or moonlight, if you’re as adverse to stakes through the heart as I am.

The feedback says to me that these posts are more useful to you as well than I thought too. I’m thinking I’ll post separate lists for news and tool recommendations, and not only so I can categorise them properly.

Recommendations is such a long word. Rebeccamentations?


Simon Whistler’s cat

From one of his recent design critique videos:

I had two cats. One was Sweep, one was called Tabby. She was called Tabby, because she was a tabby cat.
*points at head*
Big Brain.


Driving to West Berlin during the DDR days

Today’s Music Monday is tenuous at best, but you can’t spell tenuous without US. Those of you who know your World War II Allied powers got the joke, but I’ll bet it still wasn’t funny.

I’ve been getting back into modern German history again, specifically around the 1980s and the fall of the DDR. It’s a fascinating moment in time, one that even with thirty years of hindsight seemed so implausible and unlikely. My dad is German, and my grandmother’s side had specific family history tied up with that infernal wall and its surrounding politics, some of which explains my interest in digital privacy and overreach today. One day I hope to learn know more, and to have permission to share it.

But I digress! Yesterday’s DW documentary I shared about the Stasi and the Berlin Wall lead me down a video rabbit-hole and to a documentary video I never thought I’d see. Malcolm Brooke uploaded the official British Royal Military Police documentary screened to people before allowing them to drive through East Germany to West Berlin.

Watch BFG to Berlin

Everything about this is spectacular, from the 1980s-era graphics and music to the ominous British voices and advice. My favourite line has to be:

We acknowledge East German traffic regulations, though only accept Soviet authority.

Given how recently it was produced, it further shows just how unexpected the fall of the DDR was to the Allies at the time.

The World War II partition of the German state and its capital are far too complicated to discuss here, but the outcome was an Allied-administered West Berlin enclave within the Soviet-aligned East Germany. One could drive between the two on a pre-approved series of autobahns provided you were willing to submit to Allied and Soviet checkpoints on each side.

My dad told me it was rote and routine by the 1980s, but the idea of saluting a Soviet officer in East German territory before heading back to my car seems terrifying, despite the video’s assurances that there was nothing to worry about!

Anyway, this is a Music Monday post because I’ve had the low-budget electonica music from this video in my head all day. It sounds so upbeat for the topic it accompanies.


Links for week 36, 2021

A random list of stuff I found and read last week:

  • Am I Unique uses dozens of metrics to attempt to fingerprint your browser. One side effect using an unusual set of tools (FreeBSD, Mac, etc) was that I was pinged as unique every time.

  • This Deutsche Welle documentary on the Stasi and the Berlin Wall was chilling, though I couldn’t also help see the information vaults at the start as a cautionary tale.

  • OneTab is a brilliant Firefox extension that converts all your open tabs into an HTML file with a list. I’d got into the habit of using the built-in “Bookmark All Tabs” feature, but this makes it even easier to archive.

  • This blog has made it onto The Big List of Personal Websites! There’s some interesting stuff there, not all of which is about tech.

  • bit is an alternative interface to git. I fully agree with Ben Tsai, git is inscrutable and a poor replacement for hg and even Subversion. We in the industry sure make some daft decisions.

And some intersting articles (paywalled):


Rubenerd Show 418: The tiled pattern episode

Rubenerd Show 418

Podcast: Play in new window | Download

24:12 – Join Ruben as he pours one out for airline pilots, Australia being European in Asia, travelling with Clara, nostalgia for Singapore and working remote from there, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Bishan, introverts and Third Places, saying goodbye to a friend, Robin Williams, and mismatched tiles. Warning, I might even get half-serious at certain points this time!

Recorded in Sydney, Australia. Licence for this track: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0. Attribution: Ruben Schade.

Released September 2021 on The Overnightscape Underground, an Internet talk radio channel focusing on a freeform monologue style, with diverse and fascinating hosts; this one notwithstanding. Hosted graciously by the Internet Archive.

Subscribe with iTunes, Pocket Casts, Overcast or add this feed to your podcast client.


A 1 TB DIMM, with a clock speed of 2!

Sometimes I look for reviews and details on Amazon, even if I avoid buying from there if I can. The technical details for this DIMM were great:

Computer Memory Size: 1 TB
Memory Clock Speed: 2
Memory Speed: 2666 MHz
Memory Storage Capacity: 16 GB

Sometimes I feel like my memory clock speed operates at 2, and it ain’t ECC!


The @ceresfauna built a Minecraft kitchen

Clara and I were a headachey, mentally exhausted mess by Friday night, and Fauna’s stream was one of the nicest ways we’ve ever ended the week. Mumei even joined in to say hello.

MINECRAFT building my kirin house 🌿 #holoCouncil


Considering the context of IT systems

Last month Bruce Schneier summarised Apple’s ill-conceived iCloud image scanning technology thusly, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head:

This was a bad idea from the start, and Apple never seemed to consider the adversarial context of the system as a whole, and not just the cryptography.

Whether you agree with Bruce’s assertion, the outcome is the same. And I see the same train of thought (or lack thereof) that he’s describing everywhere in IT. There’s this insular, prevailing attitude that you can address the tech, and people will come. Or worse, that you don’t need to consider externalities at all, because the tech can justify itself and stand on its own.

So much of the Internet, from tech journals, news sites, social media, and aggregators like Hacker News, Lobste.rs, and Reddit, spend their time talking about the technical merits of a system, to the point where ethical, moral, or business discussions devolve into technical nit picking and yak shaving. I liken it to not seeing the forest for the trees, and it’s beyond tedious.

(It was the other reason aside from spam that I turned off blog comments a decade ago. We’ll have a cure for cancer one day, and a kiasu will complain the peer-reviewed paper didn’t have its LaTeX fonts exported properly).

Those of us in this industry don’t have the luxury of theoretical physicists or Scott Morrison’s speech writers. We have to live in the real world, where our technical decisions have an impact on people’s lives. Burying one’s head in the sand and falling back on a technical detail is no longer tenable.

What concerned me about Apple’s decision, even if suspended, was that even a layperson could see the incoming ethical trainwreck and threat to people’s safety it represented. For one of the only large companies talking seriously about privacy, it represented a breach of trust. Few things are as easy to lose, and hard to earn back.