When Microsoft announced their new line of Surface laptops, Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Chief Product Officer, prowled through a packed room, weaving in and out of the audience, waxing poetic about the laptop’s smooth exterior and the touch of your fingers on the keys. His tone almost sensual in nature, he stressed the “feeling” you get when you use this otherwise standard-looking laptop. Pretty standard stuff, as far as modern tech demos go.
Then he did the unexpected: he opened it up on stage.
This isn’t the first time an executive has done this on stage (remember Steve Jobs and the Power Mac G3?) but it’s pretty rare, especially in this day and age of tiny, sealed-shut, disposable electronics. Repair came up again, later in the presentation, too, when Panay showed off the upgradeable SSD on the new Surface Pro X.
This would have been remarkable for any company to do, but it’s especially shocking given that the first Surface Laptop was literally welded together, requiring us to destructively tear it apart with a knife just to get inside. It received the lowest repairability score we’ve ever given a laptop—zero out of 10. The Surface Pro 6 from around the same time eked out a 1 out of 10, because unlike its sibling, you could theoretically put it back together after opening it.
For that same company to talk about repairability on stage, mere moments after showcasing their “beautiful” product design, is a rare moment of ethical consideration in product design.
But Microsoft still has a way to go before I’m ready to truly consider them “repairable.”
One Small Step, One Giant Leap
The new Surface Laptop 3 earned a 5 out of 10 on our repairability scale, with the Surface Pro X obtaining a slightly higher 6 out of 10. This was a huge leap for Microsoft, and we’ve never seen any company do an about-face this quickly. But I hope it’s a first step in a longer journey.
Going from a 0 to a 5 is amazing, but it’s still only a 5. Both Surface devices have batteries that are firmly glued down. Batteries are consumable—even Apple admits this—and they’ll eventually need to be replaced. Glue makes the battery hard to remove, not to mention dangerous, since batteries have a tendency to explode when you poke and prod at them—actions which are all but required when it’s stuck to the chassis like year-old gum on your shoe. And while both devices boast replaceable SSDs, the RAM is soldered to the motherboard, decreasing the device’s lifespan as software gets more and more RAM-hungry over time.
We’re still incredibly stoked about Microsoft’s flip on repairability. But they still need to show us that it’s a true change of heart and not just a one-time lip service.
Where Microsoft Can (and Should) Go From Here
While Panay did spend a few minutes talking about the importance of repairability, the vast majority of his words explained the toil that went into the product’s design. He repeatedly mentioned that it has no lines, seams, or “trap doors,” and described how perfect it feels when you effortlessly open the hinge with one finger. These design goals have, historically, led to reduced repairability, leading manufacturers to solder components onto the motherboard, glue batteries onto the chassis, and make the seams terrifyingly difficult to pry open in the name of thin and sleek silhouettes.
But it’s possible to make thin and light laptops that are also repairable. We’ve seen it firsthand when we tore down HP’s EliteBook 840 G6, EliteBook x360 830 G5, EliteBook x360 830 G6, and Elite x2 G4. If Microsoft wants to keep pushing in a beautiful-yet-repairable direction, they really should take a page from HP’s playbook.
The 840 G6, for example, is not much thicker than Apple’s latest MacBook Pro, but has a much more modular construction. We were able to remove the storage, RAM, battery, and a whole lot more using only a T8 Torx screwdriver. Being able to replace individual components like this when they break—or become outdated—means you can keep your laptop running for years on end, saving you money and putting fewer circuit boards into the waste stream. It’s why the 840 G6 earned a 10 out of 10 on our repairability scale.
Okay, sure, Microsoft has tighter tolerances and sets a higher industrial design bar than HP does, we’ll give them that. It will be a significant engineering feat to pull this off. But we think they can do it. A few simple approaches are including removable adhesives to secure the battery, as seen in the 2018 MacBook Air, and limiting the number of single-use metal shields.
We’ll also grant that other changes will be a bit tougher. Making RAM upgradeable in a super-thin form-factor is tricky. DDR SODIMMs are only about half a millimeter taller than the replaceable M2 flash that Microsoft is already integrating into the laptop. We may not understand all the challenges that go into RAM selection, but Microsoft just may have the power to drive changes in the SODIMM form factor. The soldered form-factor may run cooler, or have other reliability benefits, but they’re also less reworkable. Remember, repairability isn’t just for consumers. Manufacturers flunk devices during assembly QA all the time and need to swap out components. A win for the average user can be a win for their processes, too.
10-out-of-10 devices aren’t perfect, there’s room for improvement, but they do exist, and Microsoft can get there. Their new direction is laudable, and I’d be happy to own a Surface Laptop 3. But over the next year, as rumors start to trickle in about next year’s thin, light, elegant devices, let’s not forget to keep pushing them for longer lasting, upgradable, and accessible as well.