When it comes to portable electronics, bigger is not better. From the new line of UltraBooks announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show to the highly anticipated MacBook Pro with Retina Display, laptops are getting ever smaller and lighter to compete with the growing popularity of tablet PCs.
Yet a smaller footprint comes with limitations. When computers are impossible to upgrade and more costly to repair, is smaller truly superior?
If you are going to carry a device in your bag almost everywhere you go, weight and durability matter. To accommodate the increased demand for smaller, thinner and lighter portable electronics, manufacturers are changing the way they construct laptops.
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display, released to market this month by Apple, has taken the trend to an extreme. To make the machine super thin and lightweight, most of its components are built in, making them either impossible or expensive to replace. The RAM is soldered to the logic board. The battery is glued to the case. The display is fused to the glass.
Integrated hardware isn't a concept new to laptops -- the majority have "on-board" video cards and PCI ports, making it impossible to upgrade the graphics capability or add ports without modifying the motherboard. These manufacturing choices reduce size and weight; gluing and welding parts together eliminates the need for space for screws and removable access covers.
Yet it's important for consumers to understand the limitations these design changes impose on the ability to repair or upgrade their device. RAM is the hardware item most often upgraded after purchase to extend computer use. Attaching the RAM to the logic board makes it impossible to upgrade. If a RAM module fails, as is common, you'll likely be shipping your laptop back to Apple to be rebuilt with a new chip. You'll have to max out the RAM upon purchase (and therefore pay top dollar for the upgrade on the front end), because you can't increase your system memory when it starts to feel sluggish.
Batteries in rechargeable electronics inevitably fail; luckily, most laptop batteries are easily replaced. Most major-manufacturer laptops have inexpensive, third-party batteries that the average consumer can replace with a few turns of a screwdriver. Not so when the battery is glued to the case. The new MacBook Pro's battery is reported to last through 1,000 cycles of fully discharging and recharging. What happens when it inevitably dies? Replace your system, or mail it back to Apple for a new battery (estimated $200).
Cracked screens are another common laptop problem. By fusing the display to the glass, Apple forces replacement of the entire (expensive) display assembly instead of simply the LCD.
Before you shake your fist at Apple for selling a system that requires either regular replacement or costly manufacturer repairs when components fail, note that Apple is not alone in moving in this direction. It's up to you, the consumer, to decide if it's worth the trade-off. Do reduced size and weight warrant costly repairs and upgrades?
The MacBook Pro with Retina Display starts at $2,199, so I am loath to treat it as expendable. If you're in the market for this unquestionably beautiful, lightweight machine, think about its true cost. Consider maxing out RAM and storage and an extended warranty to avoid cost-prohibitive repairs.