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The Case for a Modular MacBook

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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 (s aapl): 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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8 Responses to “The Case for a Modular MacBook”

  1. R. W. Firstman


    Thank you for publishing this article, it needed to be stated in print. Especially the “deliberately difficult …”

    My associates and I purchase our “new” MacBooks on eBay. We avoid the built in battery machines and carry a couple charged spares. Maybe this will change when Apple’s 7 hour battery actually lasts 7 hours, but my ancient Pismo used to run twin batteries for 7 hours – 10 years ago.

    Apple further alienated us while we waited for Job’s netbook – which turned out to be an adult Speak “n” Spell. During this time we discovered Linux. Now our Macbooks use primarily open source software and communicate more fluidly with the 92% Windows corporate market. Maybe we will upgrade to Lion 10.7, but more likely Ubuntu.

    Proprietary thinking is why the Chicago Sun Times tech writer said that for the former Mac Evangelists “Linux is the new Mac”. Both he, and you, are very correct. Keep on writing this.


  2. I have a Pismo myself, no upgrades, but still working and runs system 9. I kinda like it. :-)

    Here’s something in Apple’s defense: The MacBook Pro isn’t deliberately made harder to upgrade. No, it’s the unibody aluminum construction that makes it difficult. And actually, it’s better than the sheet aluminum construction my PowerBook G4 has. Yes, Apple has actually gone back to easier-to-open-and-upgrade computers when they moved to unibody construction. And, if somebody is tech-savvy enough to want to upgrade their MacBook, they are tech-savvy enough to do this: . Here’s a hint: remove the battery, unscrew, done – you get to see the insides of your computer. Apple’s pride is hardware longevity, and they ain’t messing with it. There is no “expiration date” because of impossible to upgrade hardware. Apple even posted a bunch of tutorials on their site regarding MacBook upgrades (one of them can be found at! Seriously, one CAN do the most important upgrades on your computer. And how many users do want to upgrade the CPU? How many actually do it? How many are actually successful? Apple doesn’t really have a reason to make it all user-servicable, when most of the time, users won’t do it anyway. And, if a part dies, Apple can replace it, or the user can get a new laptop – it was probably time for it anyway, as parts don’t just die on newer laptops. (Unless it’s from ASUS, or whoever was the unlucky netbook maker.)


    If you’re machine is more than 3 years old you need to get a new machine. Modularity is not cost effective. Moores law is accelerating. The amount you spend in updating an older machine will out weight the cost going completely new. It’s not the fact that machines have become more disposable it’s that technology is moving faster. I have an old Powerbook myself there is absolutely nothing wrong with it other than the fact that all it is really good for now is web browsing. Components are dated in a year. Older memory costs more than twice as much as newer memory. Modularity is dead.

  4. Charles W. Moore

    Hi Jason;

    I actually am not an enthusiastic tinkerer, and prefer things to just work with minimum attention, which happily most of my Macs have done for the past 18 years.

    However, when attention is unavoidable, I much prefer internal access and component replacement to be a low-effort and straightforward as possible. The G3 Series PowerBooks were the high-water-mark for Apple laptops in that context, but the mid-90s desktops with slide out logic boards and hard drives were the best.


    • Jason Harris

      It seems the more time passes the more Apple (among other companies) wants to treat their computers the same as they do the iPod…they want you to buy it, use it, and buy a new one when it wears out.

      It’s a profitable business model so it makes sense, but sadly the tinkerer falls by the wayside.

  5. Jason Harris

    “Deliberately Difficult to Work on and Upgrade?”

    Yes. These are the computers for the “I just want it to work” crowd. You want to tinker, you buy the other guys.

    You can’t have “no step 3” and freedom to upgrade and manage your components.

  6. Kevin Chen

    It’s an easy trade off for apple. Do we build the smallest, sleekest machines possible for the price of a motherboard repair, or bring back the 4,500 machines that are twice the size with some modularity, only requiring about 1,000 a year in upgrades.