It’s never been harder to repair your electronics. When the keyboard in your shiny new MacBook dies, you’ll have to send it to a Genius. When the battery in your iPhone dies, you’ll have to break out the pentalobe screwdrivers. Your technology does not respect your freedom, and this is true all the way down to the source code: the Library of Congress is thankfully chipping away at the DMCA in an effort that serves the Right to Repair movement, but still problems remain.
The ability — or rather, right — to repair will inevitably mean using electronics longer, and keeping them out of the garbage. That’s less e-waste, but it’s also older, potentially slower and less powerful portable workstations. This is the question: how long should you keep your electronics running? When do you start getting into the false economy of repairing something just because you can? What is the minimally viable laptop?
The Slowing Pace of Upgrades
Moore’s law died a decade ago, and we’re long past the Megahertz wars of the 90s and 2000s. RAM is plentiful, even if Chrome gobbles it up, and network connectivity is ubiquitous. We are in the age of stagnation of personal computers. The exponential growth of computing power died sometime around 2004, and we haven’t looked back since. Sure, there are advances like newer, faster, more capable graphics cards and RGB RAM, but most applications for most people don’t require high-spec devices.
You simply don’t need to upgrade your computer as often now, and this sentiment is shared with experts and amateurs alike. It was only a few months ago that Apple discontinued the mid-2015 15″ MacBook, widely cited as the best laptop ever made. It’s not unusual to see actual hackers sporting a Thinkpad X220 or T420, machines released nine years ago. The latest version of Windows has lower minimum requirements than previous versions, and except for the upper echelons of computation (primarily running Fortnite at over 1000 fps), everyone is okay with the fact that you don’t need to have the latest and greatest personal computer; we’ve shifted conspicuous consumption onto phones. If a decade-old laptop is sufficient for basic web browsing and playing videos on YouTube, how much more do you need?
We’ve seen bottom of the barrel laptops before. We’ve lusted over them. The eeePC, launched in 2007, was underpowered for its time, but it was just enough for some light browsing. There were mods, and since there wasn’t a spinning disc drive, it was surprisingly responsive. Throw on a decent Linux distro, and you have something. Not much, but something.
What is the minimally viable laptop? How cheap is a machine that will allow you to do your work? Right now, you can pick up some very nice business-class laptops from eBay for a hundred bucks. You can get new batteries and power adapters for them. If you manage to pick up a ThinkPad, all the part numbers for each of the components are available, and you can find replacements anywhere.
Where is the Goldilocks Laptop? Screen Resolution as a Limiting Factor
How low can you go on the price performance curve of modern computing devices? No one would claim a butterfly keyboard Thinkpad 701 would be useful for modern work, unless you’re one of the really weird vintage computer nerds on Instagram. These days, very few people can claim they need a top-of-the-line workstation that’s also portable. Video editors and engineers notwithstanding, just about everything runs in a browser these days anyway. There must be a middle ground somewhere between the four inch thick laptops of old and the modern day luggable. What is it?
In my Thinkpad buyer’s guide from two years ago, a guide that’s still oddly accurate, the sweet spot for a laptop that will still see daily use is a dual-core Sandy Bridge CPU, 8 or 16 GB of RAM, and negligible storage because you’re going to put an SSD in there anyway. The only problem with these old business-class laptops picked up on auction sites is the display resolution. Seven hundred and sixty eight vertical pixels just isn’t enough, but there are plenty of places where you can pick up a 1080p panel. Compare this with its modern equivalent. Today, businesses are equipping their employees with a dual-core Kaby Lake CPU running at the same clock as what was available nearly a decade ago. You might get 32 GB of RAM, and this time the storage is an SSD. Display resolution hasn’t improved much, although there are rare and expensive variants equipped with OLED displays.
The age of the minimally viable laptop is here, and it feeds right into our right to repair. If your machine lasts longer, you’ll eventually need to repair it. If you’re still running a mid-2015 MacBook, you’ll be looking up some iFixit guides eventually. What, then, is the best laptop if you don’t care about having the best and most expensive. That’s a question we’re opening up to you: are you still using the computer you used to first sign up on Facebook? What is the minimally viable laptop, and what computer can you buy today that will still be useful in ten years?