Apple Putting the Screws on Users to Upgrade?

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Apple may be trying to make it harder for users to repair or upgrade their own hardware, according to iFixit’s Kyle Wiens. New iPhones and recent MacBook Pro and Air models are shipping with a new kind of non-standard screw securing the outside and battery cases of these products.

Since the screws aren’t readily compatible with any standard screwdriver that a user may have (unlike the Phillips screws they replace), users wanting to crack the case on their own devices and effect repairs at home will be out of luck. On the iPhone and MacBook Air, the new screws will make it harder to get any access to the internals of either device at all, and on the MacBook Pro, they protect the battery, making it even trickier to replace.

The new screw type, called “Pentalobe” because of its five-pointed design, is not proprietary (used and licensed by Apple alone), but it is something you’re unlikely to find just by rummaging through your toolbox or running down to your local hardware store. In fact, iFixit reports that there isn’t even a reputable consumer channel for the exact screwdriver Apple’s own technicians use to handle Pentalobe screws, so users will have to settle for best-fit solutions. You can see iFixit’s video explaining the screws at length below.

Note also that while early iPhone 4 models shipped with standard four-point Phillips screws, if you’ve had your phone serviced recently or are planning to, Apple’s service staff will replace those with the new Pentalobe versions while repairing the device. That swap makes this new screw look like a means to well, screw consumers.

There are two possible explanations for the new screws. First, there’s the line Apple will probably take, if the company comments at all (no response received as of press time): that the screws help prevent against potentially dangerous tampering that would do more harm than good. In other word, the “we’re protecting you against yourselves” argument.

The other explanation is the one that iFixit (which admittedly makes much of its money selling DIY repair kits for Apple devices) is convinced is the real reason: that Apple wants you to buy upgrades and replacements, so it’s making it as hard as possible to repair its products yourself at home. This is definitely in keeping with Apple’s current product design trajectory. The culmination of this new design philosophy seems to be the iPad, which offers no easy internal access, can’t have its storage or RAM upgraded. Apple is approaching the same model in its notebook line with the latest MacBook Air, which now also features the tamper-resistant Pentalobe screws in addition to non-upgradable RAM soldered to the logic board, and a non-standard implementation of flash storage that makes it very hard to replace.

Apple’s newest, more closed designs arguably allow them to make improvements in terms of battery life, system efficiency and physical device size, but they also sacrifice a lot in terms of a user’s ability to customize and repair the devices on their own. The use of these screws, however, doesn’t come with a functional benefit to offset its downsides. Is it a step too far?

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/18764019]

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