Why such a limit on laptop life?

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Date: 12 January 2011

Smashed laptop 

Our friend Ooh Matron (false name, genuine profession) dumped her two-year old laptop PC the other week. Its battery was dead, it took an age to boot up and its hard disk had slowed to a crawl. What's more, the operating system was bleating endlessly about updates, updates and yet more updates. Just as one alert was swatted away, another would start barking for attention.

Ooh's story mirrors exactly my experience with another brand of laptop (and we’re talking about two major multinational companies, by the way). Each was unusable after just 24 months. Is there some unwritten law of PC lifespans that we’ve all unwittingly bought into? It certainly doesn’t say much for manufacturers that they've yet to learn how to build longer lasting machines.

PCs should last longer

Anyway, why should we put up with an inbuilt expiry date? We’re told we should work to a 36-month lifespan because there’ll be better and more productive machinery available in three years — but is that still the case? I’d understand it if every year saw a qualitative leap in the capabilities of hardware and software, but isn't there now an argument that the functionality and feature set of general office software has peaked? If so, surely it shouldn't be exceeding the capability of the hardware it runs on?

Many of the latest business IT services are accessed over the internet (software as a service, smartphone apps, etc). Surely this browser-based revolution actually means less wear on PC components? Aren't businesses better served by putting their IT budget towards faster broadband services instead of unnecessary new hardware?

Decades, not years

Interestingly, Apple has boxed itself into a corner in this regard. Were their machines to start giving out after two years, word would soon spread around the Mac community which would protest accordingly. Perhaps that's less likely on the PC side, where there are myriad suppliers and manufacturers.

I've seen Mac computers last five, six and seven years respectively, but I certainly don’t want to enter that tired old debate (Apple is far from perfect itself). It is, however, evidence that manufacturers are perfectly capable of building longer lasting machines.

If we're being asked to accept PCs as limited life commodity items, then fine — just so long as that limited life mirrors other commodity electronics. Our washing machine, for instance, is into its second decade, while we got our portable telly back in 1983...

(Full disclosure: this is an extended remix of a reply I posted on this topic back in August.)

Image of a smashed laptop from Flickr user S Baker under a Creative Commons licence.

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