The Case for a Modular MacBook


My main computer for the past 19 months has been a Core 2 Duo unibody MacBook. It’s fast, has an excellent LED backlit display, is quiet, attractive and reliable. Nevertheless, I still log some three to four hours per day on average with my 10-year-old Pismo PowerBooks.

My Pismos are both substantially tricked out, with G4 processor upgrades, 8X SuperDrive DVD burner optical drive modules, maxed-out RAM, larger capacity hard drives, and more, which is a big part of why at more than a decade old they’re still going strong as useful work computers. It’s the degree of component modularity incorporated in the Pismo’s design that’s kept it in the game as a decent-performing tool much longer than will be the case with any subsequent Mac laptop design, including my MacBook.

Long Service Life

The superb reliability and amazingly long service life I’ve experienced with my Pismos have convinced me beyond doubt that if I could design my ideal computer it would be easy to take apart, upgrade, and repair, and composed of modular components as much as possible. The Pismo is not 100 percent perfect, but it comes closer than any other Mac laptop has before or since. From hard drive to RAM to expansion, it’s truly a hardware geek’s dream.

But the long life comes with a price for Apple: less frequent notebook replacement, which means fewer sales. Hence a deliberate move away from modularity.

Deliberately Difficult to Work on and Upgrade?

In my ideal laptop, not only the hard drive, but all of the major circuit board components would be modular and easy to replace. Apple has at times seemed to at least partially embrace the idea of modular components, but has evidently lost interest in this sensible and value-enhancing way of doing things. Recently, Apple seems bent on making Macs and its other hardware difficult to work on or upgrade beyond adding memory and storage capacity: CPUs hard-soldered to the logic board, lack of expansion bays (other than ExpressCard and/or SD Card slots), and the switch to built-in batteries are all cases in point.

The G3 Series PowerBooks have their CPUs and RAM mounted on an easy-to-remove daughterboard that facilitates easy upgrades. My ideal laptop would definitely have a processor daughterboard, as well as a slide-in/out motherboard, easily removable and replaceable video cards, sound cards, and power manager units — all user serviceable. Video RAM would be upgradable too, a feature no Apple laptop has ever supported to date.

Removable Device Expansion Bays

My dream MacBook would also have a removable device expansion bay, even two, like The Wall Street G3 PowerBooks did (the Wall Street supported batteries as well as 3.5″ removable devices like optical drives or hard drives in its left bay, and both 3.5″ and 5.25″ devices in its right bay).

Expansion bays on all of the G3 Series PowerBooks also support loading up two batteries for long computing sessions (I can get 10 hours plus on two extended life batteries with my Pismos) away from plug-in power, and you can carry spares. Unfortunately, battery flexibility is the polar opposite of Apple’s apparent notebook power trajectory.

More Commodified — Almost Disposable

Now, to be fair, my originally 500 MHz G3 Pismos sold new for $3,499, or $1,200 more than even the most expensive current Mac notebook model, the 17″ MacBook Pro, so that has to be considered when making overall value comparisons. The $999 MacBook far outclasses even my hot-rodded-to-the-limit Pismos in performance. Notebook computers have become a lot more commodified over the past decade, and at the lower-to-medium end of the price spectrum are now almost “disposable” products — cheaper to replace than repair.

Personally, I still find the concept of things that are built to last tremendously appealing. How about you? Would more modularity, expandability, and upgradability justify higher laptop purchase prices?

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