New modular devices blog post

We deserve modular devices

Last week, I wrote about how so many wasteful, expensive, and inconvenient aspects of our tech are completely avoidable, and about how we can and should imagine better futures. We shouldn’t have to be victims of planned obsolescence and incompatibility. But it’s profitable for companies to make shitty devices that break easily and do less than they should be able to, so that’s what happens.

But the tide seems to be turning there. It used to be normal for devices to be user-upgradeable and repairable. The practice of unnecessarily soldering or gluing components together to make it harder to fix things is relatively new.

Right to repair advocates have been working hard to press for legislation to protect users, and some manufacturers have begun to take notice. So let’s talk about that.

Framework laptops

The excuse that so many manufacturers make for why they glue and solder components down rather than making their devices modular is that they have to because it allows them to make the thinnest possible devices. That was Apple’s “reasoning” for a long time, though in recent years, consumer pressure (and probably the fear of right to repair legislation) has made Apple change course slightly, making some of their products slightly thinner and more repairable. (Though you could argue that their “repairability” leaves quite a lot to be desired, and they aren’t upgradeable.)

Contrast that with a company like Framework, which makes explicitly user repairable and upgradeable laptops. (Framework laptops literally ship with a screwdriver so users can easily open them up anytime.)

During my weekly Learning Things updates, I’ve talked a bit about some of the technical issues I’ve had with my 1st gen Framework laptop. I bought it secondhand earlier this year, and because it’s a used laptop from one of the early batches from a brand-new startup’s very first product, it has some issues that I’m still trying to work out.

But you know what? Because it’s a modular laptop created by a company that’s focused on making user repairable and upgradable products, that’s not really a big deal. I’ve been able to fiddle around with things to fix some of the issues, they have guides on different troubleshooting steps and repairs that might fix the issue, and I’m in touch with their (very responsive) customer service team.

It’s a modular laptop that’s made for repairs. It’s been built to last and for me to upgrade. It’s a great device, performance-wise (far superior to my old, unrepairable Surface Pro laptop), and Framework’s mission is awesome.

If the RTC battery problem that I’m having persists and I get sick of the troubleshooting steps I have to do whenever it crops up, I can just buy a new motherboard (they’re coming out with a new batch that fixes the issue) and put that in. (They even have guides for how to repurpose old motherboards to reduce e-waste.) So what would be a potentially fatal issue on a non-modular laptop is just an inconvenience. And that’s huge. I’m looking forward to a day when most, if not all, laptops, are built with similar levels of repairability and upgradability.

Repairable smartphones

When it comes to smartphones, the manufacturer Fairphone is known for their user-repairable phones. Sadly, they’re currently unavailable in North America. That being said, I believe that they’ve removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from their latest model, which means I wouldn’t buy it anyway–I’m never making that mistake again. (After my current phone dies, I’m done with flagship phones until they bring back the headphone jack.)

However, earlier this year, Nokia released the G22, a cheap, repairable phone that has a headphone jack and microSD card support for up to 2 TB. (I’m currently talking myself down from a desire to sell my loathed Galaxy S22+ and getting this instead—or even downgrading to my old Moto G Power. I just envy that sweet, sweet 3.5 mm headphone jack and expandable memory. But I know that it’s better, environmentally and financially, to keep using the phone I have for as long as humanly possible.)

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that users don’t want devices that are as thin as modern science can make them. We want repairable, good quality, long-lasting, and affordable devices. They’re better for our wallets, our convenience, and the environment. And some manufacturers are beginning to realize that, at least.

There are alternatives

I’ve been talking a lot about new devices. I believe that all new devices should be modular, user-repairable, and built to last, with support and security updates that last for a very, very long time. But new devices aren’t the only solution.

I mentioned that many old devices that were better and more repairable that modern ones. So why not just buy old ones?

I love this article in Low-Tech Magazine about ways to cheaply purchase and upgrade old laptops for use today, detailing the author’s strategy for doing so and workflow on old devices. (Hint: a lightweight Linux distro is key. The writer also has an ingenious backup workflow using SD cards.) It also talks about embodied energy—that is, the energy and materials that it takes to create a device—and why buying used tech saves not just money but resources.

As a sidenote, Low-Tech Magazine is an awesome website that you should check out. It’s solar powered, meaning that it’s hosted on a server powered by solar panels on someone’s balcony in Barcelona. It’s fascinating to read about what they’ve done to optimize that, such as dithering images to save bandwidth and energy use. But the site can have downtime in bad weather, and it has a battery indicator on every page indicating how much is left. (Check out this article about the sustainability of a solar-powered website and this article about the process of rebuilding the website.)

I also recommend the awesome solarpunk Substack Sunshine and Seedlings. It introduced me to the concept of permacomputing, which is about “maximizing of hardware lifespans, minimizing energy use and focussing on the use of already available computational resources.” It’s an awesome read if you’re interested in solarpunk ideas, DIY, and tech.

I really love the idea of permacomputing, and the only reason why I went with a used Framework laptop over a used older laptop with Linux installed is because some of the software I use for work is resource-intensive (so not ideal for older hardware) and not available for Linux.

But it’s a cheap and affordable solution that’ll work for many users, and I’m glad there are resources online that encourage people to think creatively, especially in the face of an industry and society that tries to convince us that everything is disposable.


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