The 'sealed-box' Mac: Cutting-edge design or planned obsolescence?

Apple's 15-inch MacBook Pro with its ground-breaking Retina display is drool-worthy but comes with a cost: There are no user-replaceable parts whatsoever

The first Mac I ever bought for myself was a Power Mac 8500, circa 1995 -- ancient history now, but despite its uber-boring beige box, it was a truly great machine, able to do things that most PCs of the time could only dream of. In modern terms, it was the great-grandfather of a fully loaded Mac Pro.

More to the point, almost every feature about it was upgradable, including the CPU, which was on a swappable daughtercard. That workhorse Mac saw heavy-duty daily use, including code compiling, video digitizing and 3D rendering and animation, for more than 10 years, while computer hardware and architecture advanced rapidly. I fired it up for this article, and it's still humming along. This longevity is noteworthy enough, but even better is that with its upgrades it could have been considered nearly state-of-the-art for most of its life. With memory finally maxed out at 1GB (for a machine that first shipped with 16MB), high-speed SCSI-3 drives, FireWire and a G4 CPU upgrade, it could even be induced to run Mac OS X 10.5. (No, I didn't do that myself, but it can be done.)

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The non-upgradeable MacBook Pro

Enough nostalgia. Let's jump forward to June 2012, when Apple unveiled the new top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro, with its ground-breaking Retina display, a truly drool-worthy laptop if ever there was one. It's fast, powerful and stylish, setting the standard for what a full-featured yet highly portable laptop can be. But that gorgeous package comes with a cost. iFixit, in its teardown analysis, gave the Retina MacBook Pro the lowest possible score, 1 out of 10, for its almost complete lack of upgradeability. There are no user-replaceable parts whatsoever, including the battery or even RAM, which, in a trend begun with the MacBook Air in 2008, is directly soldered to the logic board. What's wrong with this picture?

Apple has long divided its offerings into "pro" and "consumer" lines, and this divide has only diverged lately, as an ever-growing proportion of Apple's revenues and profits have come from consumer-focused products such as iOS devices - the iPad and iPhone (and to a much lesser extent, Apple TV). While power users may need and want upgrades for Macs, consumers, usually replace their iPhones, iPods and iPads, with new devices rather than upgrading their current hardware. Updates happen at the operating system and application level. In short, these are all "sealed-unit" devices by design, with no hardware-level upgradeability.

The pro-level computers -- the Mac Pro, the MacBook Pro, and the now-defunct enterprise-focused Xserve -- have generally been more expensive than the consumer line, but also, in general, much more upgradable. They followed a very different design and replacement cycle philosophy. If you invested more than $10,000 in a loaded Mac Pro, you wanted to get as many years as possible out of it, and were more likely to add and upgrade the hardware over time instead of buying new, at least until there was no other option (as was eventually the case with my venerable 8500). As a result, the enterprise market and the Pro line of products has generally generated a smaller sales volume and profit, and therefore arguably has been of secondary priority for Apple. Case in point: note the lack of a major Mac Pro update in the recent product releases -- Apple says the Mac Pro is due for a more serious refresh in 2013 -- and the total disappearance of rack-mounted products (Xserve RAID and then Xserve itself) from the line-up.

As for the laptops, particularly the MacBook Pro. Apple has dropped the 17-inch model, typically a pro-sumer item. While some were fans of the big screen, it hasn't been a big seller in recent years. And the consumer-level Macbook is no more, potentially replaced by the combination of iPad and MacBook Air. So that leaves two types of currently-shipping MacBook Pros -- the 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and the updated "old school" 15-inch and 13-inch models. The older models still allow for relatively easily RAM and hard drive upgrades, but the new flagship is, like iOS devices, now a sealed-unit, utterly non-upgradable. Speculation is that the rest of the MacBook Pros will go in the same direction when they get Retina displays.

A troubling trend

This is a troubling trend for many professional Apple customers, who may feel that a deliberate shift away from upgradable hardware does not meet their needs. Some of the changes point to the fact that laptops are in many ways a special case: the desire for ever thinner, lighter portable machines coupled with the need for more power, drives the decision to fill every available space in the smaller cases. The result: non-upgradeable hardware.

Case in point: batteries. The one essential accessory with every Mac laptop I've bought used to be a spare battery or two, so I could swap them out on long flights and extend my time away from an outlet. When Apple switched to internal, non-swappable batteries, it boosted battery life by cramming more capacity into the chassis, but took away the ability to switch out batteries. This is a calculated trade-off, and for many users, having a bit more battery life built-in may be more important than swapping. The other, less obvious consequence is that when the battery starts losing capacity and finally fails (as all batteries eventually do), replacing it with a new one isn't a simple matter of buying one and dropping it inch

If you want to replace it yourself, you have to crack the case (potentially voiding any warranty you may have), and do what can amount to major surgery. Apple does offer an out-of-warranty battery replacement service at a reasonable charge ($129 for the MacBook Air and most MacBook Pros, $199 for the new Retina Pro), but if a user decides to replace a Retina MacBook Pro's battery, and does it according to Apple specs, iFixit estimates a $500 cost -- ouch!

The first Mac laptop to adopt the new "sealed unit" design was the original MacBook Air, and here clearly the groundbreaking, super-slim design drove almost all of the engineering choices. Upgradeability was simply not a priority. I have a first-generation Air (now defunct), and I did end up replacing the original tiny, slow 1.8" drive with a SSD, and I replaced the battery when it failed. While I am fairly well-versed in hardware repairs, I can say that surgery on that laptop was well beyond the capability of most users -- as is now the case for the new Retina MacBook Pro. Many will either replace the entire computer, or make use of comparatively expensive upgrade solutions through third-party vendors.

In the latest iterations of the Mac OS X operating system, there has been a conscious effort to bridge the OS X and iOS worlds, and it is quite possible that this philosophy will be further extended to the hardware lines. Pro users should keep a careful eye on the rest of the product lines as they evolve during the coming year - the 2013 Mac Pro, and to a lesser extent, the iMac and Mac Mini. It seems unlikely that Apple will risk driving away pro users, but it is these models, which do not have the tight design constraints of the laptop line, that will best indicate whether the recent move to "sealed-unit" devices is strictly about design priorities and constraints, or part of a larger shift in philosophy and focus.

The current MacBook Air, like its predecessors dating back to 2008, isn't designed for user upgrades. (Image: Apple)

Design evolution

Ultimately, the question of why the designs have evolved matters less than the bottom line, which is how the changes affect buyers of new Macs, both individually and institutionally. Among other things, it changes the calculus for deciding how to configure a new Mac, especially if you plan to keep it for a while. It used to be that you could get a computer that generally met your needs at the time of purchase, and then upgrade RAM and storage when performance started to drop or OS upgrades required it. With a non-upgradable Mac, that's no longer possible.

My advice: With any sealed-unit Mac, the best bet unless your replacement cycle is short (two to three years) may be to completely max it out with the fully-loaded, most capable build-to-order configuration -- CPU, RAM and storage. Apple has provided a useful upgrade path for adding external storage and other devices via USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt ports, but that does not help when what you really need is a RAM upgrade, nor will you want to lug an external drive around once you max out your internal SSD (though the SD card slot does provide a certain amount of future-proofing). Max it out, or be prepared to replace the whole thing sooner rather than later.

Compared to the old strategy of buying only what you need and upgrading later, this will increase both the short-term cost of the computer and the overall cost. That's because RAM and storage upgrades purchased later when components have generally dropped in price, will need to be bought now, when they are more expensive (and must be bought directly from a single vendor, Apple, instead of whomever has the best component prices).

Even in cases where testing shows a borderline short-term "bang for the buck," there is an argument to be made for getting the upgrades now, if the cost from Apple is reasonable. For one recent example, the incremental performance gain between the base 1.8GHz Core i5 CPU and the upgraded 2.0GHz Core i7 processor in the new MacBook Air is relatively small. However, that $100 cost increase is also cheap insurance, just in case a future OS X upgrade requires the faster processor. Note that the recent OS X Mountain Lion release will not run on some Macs shipped less than four years ago, and while there are factors that may make this a special case, it is also entirely possible that this trend of shortened lifespan in terms of OS compatibility will continue. (If so, Apple will no doubt get an earful from unhappy customers).

Richard Hoffman is a technology analyst, IT strategist, systems architect and a former editor at several technology publications. He can be reached at Richard_Hoffman@me.com.

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This story, "The 'sealed-box' Mac: Cutting-edge design or planned obsolescence?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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