In a couple of months, I will replace my laptop with a new one. By then, my laptop will be twelve years old. Since being a teenager, this is my ninth computer (See appendix A), counting my home computers, laptops and desktops. Most of them did not last more than five years. Except this one. I was lucky with this one. Not only did I happen to buy it at a special time in the development of Apple computers, I am also about to replace it at a special moment. This is a story about how this laptop could last so long and what these special times are about.
I am talking about an Apple MacBook, the so-called late-2008 unibody model, made out of aluminum.
For those who don’t know: a unibody laptop is a laptop where the box is (seemingly) made out of one part. Apple really innovated with that concept and it has been copied by other brands. The none-unibody laptops are made out of many parts and often have tons of screws and little lids at the bottom and ugly stickers at the top to announce for example which chip is inside and which operating system. As if anybody cared. Unibody laptops look a whole lot better and I am guessing are a whole lot stronger.
I bought the laptop early 2009. It was the first MacBook unibody, and for a long time also the last, because subsequent models were made out of white plastic, just as the preceding ones. Apple reserved the metal unibody for the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models. Only years later, they started making all their laptops as metal unibodies.
Replacing important stuff
I used the word ‘seemingly’ in the previous paragraph because the box of the late-2008 model still consisted of more than one part. In particular, it has one easy-to-open lid at the bottom, and another lid that closes with eight screws.
These lids at the bottom are also one of the two reasons why my laptop could last so long. The easy-to-open lid allows home replacement of the hard disk and the battery. If one is handy with a screwdriver and one does not mind opening up the electronic belly of the beast, one could also replace the memory chips. In appendix B, I will go through the details, but you don’t really need to read it all – I just enjoyed writing it, as part of my farewells to my laptop.
The important bit is that this was possible, once. Nowadays, Apple’s unibody laptops are far less easy to open and replacing the harddisk and battery will require a very expense visit to the Apple store. In fact, I believe that the memory can not be extended at all anymore. Apple reasoned that the mechanisms to allow easy access and make the memory, harddisk and battery replaceable take a lot of space. According to Apple, that space can be better used for more battery and to make thinner and lighter laptops.
From an environmental point of view, it would be better to make laptops like the late-2008 unibody model, that do allow replacement of parts so that most of the machine lasts a lot longer. Yes, Apple has a recycling program. That is incredibly good and makes you feel better when you are handing in your laptop to replace it with a new one after three years. But wouldn’t it be far better to do so after 10 years, or 20? Or never?
The lids at the bottom are one of the two reasons why my laptop lasted twelve years. The other is the microprocessor. Microprocessors have become faster and faster ever since the first ones were invented. That had been true for about four decades until around 2008 when they topped at around 2,2 GHz. After that, the speed development stopped. I would have to look it up but I think it is (at least in part) because the engineers were no longer able to deal with the increasing amount of heat that even faster processors generate.
Microprocessors, at least the ones that Apple has been using for its Macbook laptops, actually became slower in the past ten years. Cristina’s MacBook runs at 1,4 Ghz.
So part of the reason why my laptop lasted so long, is that I bought it at a moment where the curve of processor speed increase tended to flatten out and computer companies had to develop alternative ways to make computers work faster.
The decay and the “ploof”
I started this story saying that I will soon replace my laptop. In spite of the lids at the bottom and the microprocessor, it is deteriorating beyond the point that I can live with. One thing is that the screen ‘fades’ over time. All the pixels are still working, but the colors are turning pale and blue. I adjusted the calibration of the screen and turn down the brightness as much as possible, but that will at some point not be good enough anymore. It still might take a couple of years though.
Another problem is that the DVD drive (yes, it has one on board) is showing problems. I used to watch DVDs on it during long trips in trains and busses. I am still using it regularly to archive old files, so it is quite essential for me. Perhaps it is simply getting dirty. The cleaning disk helped but I have to use it more and more often.
More importantly, some weeks ago the on/off button stopped working. I can still switch off the laptop with a menu command. However, the only way to switch it on, is to open the lid with the screws at the bottom and connect two tiny contacts with a paperclip. That trick has saved me for a while. The laptop is now taped together so that I don’t have to unscrew eight screws just to turn on the laptop. And, of course, I need to prevent switching it off and keep the battery full at all times. Annoying, but doable.
The final drop was that I found out that the button was broken when the laptop suddenly went dead. I was typing a blogpost or so when it did ‘ploof’. The screen went dark and nothing responded anymore. It did not even do the normal shutdown procedure. It just went dead. I managed to switch it on with the paperclip trick, but it is the end of my late-2008 unibody because I can not work with a laptop that ploofs out on me whenever it feels like it.
The next, next generation
I like buying new electronic stuff, let alone new computers. But I am trying really hard not to do it in order to save the environment. Now, after twelve years, I feel I can justify replacing my laptop. And boy, am I going to enjoy that!!
It feels like the timing could not have been better. Apple has started introducing a whole new line of computers with a different brand and type of chips. Since their very first models, Apple has tried to limit the amount of heat generated by the chips. Heat is a waste of energy and requires fans that take even more energy to cool the chips. Fans also make noise and take up precious space in laptops.
The Intel chips that they used until now are not good enough anymore for Apple, so they are changing to their own design of so-called ARM chips. I have no clue what ARM is, but I am sure they know what they are doing. Because changing the brand of chips is a very big deal, even for a huge company like Apple. The operating system and all the software has to be rebuilt to talk the machine language of the different chips. In turn, this means that everyone that buys a new computer has to eventually change software as well. And the software producers of course have to make those new versions.
To soften the blow – or better, to prevent all customers from running away – Apple wrote a translator program, called Rosetta 2, so that you don’t need to actually buy the new software. (The 2 is because this is the second time that Apple changes the brand of chips) Rosetta 2 will slow the running of the software a down but most of us won’t notice that. After a couple of years Apple will stop supporting Rosetta 2 and you will have no choice but to get the updated software. By then, you will have updated or upgraded your software anyways and by then you will be inconvenienced (to put it mildly) if you stick to your Intel Mac.
This is not just a next generation of chips for Apple. It’s their next, next generation because they will now also design their own chips. In Windows and Linux computers, one company makes the chips, another the computers, another the operating system, and another the applications. Apple has always been developing the computer, the operating system and the applications, which allowed them to integrate everything into the smoothest running computers ever. Now they are further integrating things by also designing the chips themselves.
I am super curious about what will come out of that. It probably won’t happen, but I do hope that it will give them some space in their laptops to again make parts exchangeable. The planet would benefit from that.
Now, a minute to commemorate the decommissioning of my late-2008 unibody MacBook. I will miss it.
PS After writing this, I found out that computers are very expensive in Costa Rica. On top of that, Apple computers do not come cheap anyways. So, I will only buy one after we return to Europe next March.
Appendix A. MY 9 COMPUTERS
1981 Commodore VIC 20 (second hand)
1986 Commodore C-128 (new)
1993 A PC (I believe it was an Atari – also second hand)
1995 Apple Mac Classic (second hand)
1998 Apple PowerPC (second hand)
2001 Apple G4 tower (new)
2002 Toshiba Satelite pro laptop (new)
2004 Apple G4 laptop (new)
2009 Apple MacBook (new)
Appendix B. REPLACEMENTS
I have replaced the battery twice. One was a gift from a friend who did some maintenance work on the laptops of a research group. A couple of laptops were abandoned and he knew I could use a battery. I alternated between the two batteries so that they both stayed in good shape and they lasted a long time. Perhaps 9 years, but by then I could work less than an hour on a charge. It was not such a big problem because by that time, most of the time, a power plug is nearby even in the train or the bus. Two years ago, I decided to renew them. There were still third-party batteries for sale even though they were out of production. The one I bought had been produced some years before I bought it and was not as good as advertised. Still, it was and is a lot better than the ones it replaced.
When the laptop was five years old, the amount of memory was not good enough anymore to keep up with the most recent operating system and other software. By then the necessary memory chips had become dirt cheap, so I extended it as much as possible. That is from 2 GB to 8 GB, which for my purposes is still more than enough.
In 2016, so-called solid state chips had become so cheap that for a couple of hundred Euros, one could buy 250 GB solid-state-chip harddisks, or SSD’s. Contrary to the RAM chips that are used for the working memory of computers, solid state chips do not need to be connected to a power source to hold their contents. They have a couple of advantages to regular harddisks.
Regular harddisks are marvels of engineering and micro mechanics, once you know what goes on inside them. Still, they contain moving parts that, compared to chips, are more prone to breaking down. Another relative downside is that there are indeed disks in regular harddisks. They turn at incredible speeds, which costs a lot of power, compared to SSD’s.
SSD’s still are relatively expensive, especially for bigger sizes, but if you ask me, they will just get cheaper and cheaper and the days of hard disks will soon be over.