Microsoft Surface Laptop SE Capture - hero RF

Teardown: Right to repair

Image credit: Microsoft

Microsoft and Apple have taken steps to address the fix-it-yourself movement.

The right-to-repair movement finally began to get some traction last year. The UK introduced its law last summer, although it does not yet include consumer electronics such as smartphones, tablets and computers.

France, however, did include handsets in its legislation, which came into law at the beginning of 2021. These need to carry a repairability score in stores and online, and manufacturers must commit to supplying replacement parts in a timely way.

Elsewhere, right-to-repair regulation is advancing at both state and federal level in the US and Germany. In spring last year, the EU introduced regulations that require manufacturers to support repairs for a minimum of 10 years, although the thorny issue of who carries them out has been effectively devolved to how member states interpret the rules.

Notwithstanding concerns about planned obsolescence – which have swarmed around technology since the 20th century – the question of ‘who fixes it?’ has come to the fore in the last decade.

With some manufacturers effectively obliging customers to take their products back only to them or an authorised dealer if they fail – with warranties and charges above and beyond statutory guarantees – there have been frequent accusations of price gouging. Similarly, there has been mounting anger around instances where, after a consumer has used an unauthorised but competent repairer, warranties have been voided or a product ‘bricked’.

At the same time, there is the controversy around WEEE – waste electric and electronic equipment. The most recent UN and ITU-backed Global E-waste Monitor observed that: “In 2019, the world generated 53.6 million metric tons [of waste electrical and electronic equipment], and only 17.4 per cent of this was officially documented as properly collected and recycled.”

Most consumers will still prefer not to undertake repairs themselves, even for what – to an E&T reader – might be a comparatively trivial job like replacing a heavily trafficked, malfunctioning 3.5mm headphone jack. Yet there are increasing numbers of repair guides and tools available for the more confident. Since enacting its law, France has begun to see the growth in independent ‘repair cafes’, where anyone can pop in to fix an item with expert help, tools and parts on hand.

Toward the end of last year, two of technology’s leading companies, Microsoft and Apple, announced right to repair initiatives that go beyond the recycling plans they already have.

As this issue of E&T went to press, the full details of these schemes had yet to be released or they had been implemented on only a small scale. But there is evidence that the two companies grasped the need to move towards greater modularity in design a while ago, both to make newer products easier to fix and go beyond often just replacing a product rather than fixing it internally – thus adding to that WEEE mountain.

Apple’s announcement came first. In November, the company said that it will launch Self Service Repair “in early 2022”. The scheme will start with the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 and be followed by computers based on the M1 system-on-chip. Scheduled to begin very soon in the US and then roll out internationally, it will initially assist repairs of displays, cameras and batteries, with 200 parts and tools available.

This initiative may well have been captured in an earlier iPhone 13 teardown by iFixit (a leader in the right to repair campaign, as its name explicitly highlights): “Inside, we immediately spot some surprises – and some handsome labelling. It’s almost like they were expecting us. But we thought this phone wasn’t supposed to be opened?”

Moreover, Apple has since resolved complaints around Face ID on the iPhone 13 where display replacement outside the company’s authorised network would stop the recognition feature working. “Something on the display is serial-locked to the Face ID hardware,” iFixit noted. December’s release of iOS 15.2 resolved the issue. Well, mostly.

“Now anyone can replace an iPhone 13 screen without losing Face ID,” said an iFixit update. “Though you’ll still get a not-so-friendly ‘Important Display Message’ and the new display will show up as an unknown part in the Parts and Service History.”

With Apple saying displays will be part of Self Service Repair for that model, it will be interesting to see if iFixit’s remaining concerns are also about to go away.

Microsoft has arguably gone further, at least when it comes to declaring its intent. First, it has struck a deal with its former opponent, iFixit. The repair specialist has manufactured a toolkit to a Microsoft design that can be used for the “precision debonding and rebonding of adhesive” on some models in the Surface range. This is already available to iFixit’s network of ‘Pro’ repair shops.

“Microsoft has taken a big step toward making repair accessible to their customers, and their timing is perfect as right to repair gains momentum across the US,” said iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens. “Having OEM tools available will give repair technicians the ability to help their customers keep their devices alive for longer.”

Second, to accompany Microsoft’s current global roll-out of its education-focused Surface Laptop SE, the company has released a video showing how the product leverages a modular design to make self-repair easier.

Available on Surface’s YouTube channel, the video is not a repair guide. That is expected imminently. It does show senior engineer Branden Cole easily removing the display and cover, keyboard and trackpad, Wi-Fi module, speaker assembly and battery. These elements snap out or can be removed with standard tools, while standard screws and simple clip connectors hold the design together.

“The good thing about this design is everything is modular. You can take out everything all at once or individually,” Cole explains. “There’s a lot of work that went into making this device repairable.”

It needs saying that the Laptop SE is designed specifically for the education market. It is priced at $249 (£184), about $200 less than the cheapest of Microsoft’s previous school computers. That and its easier repairability reflect the cost pressures the sector faces and the related benefit self-repair offers towards reducing the stock that needs to be kept immediately on-hand.

At the same time, Cole’s full job title – Senior DFX engineer, Design for Repair – can be seen as indicating that Microsoft intends to spread modularity and repairability more widely across its hardware.

Microsoft and Apple are hardly pioneers in the design-for-repair world. Companies such as Fairphone, Framework and Nothing (all of which have been covered in previous Teardowns) have tried to take such an approach from Day One. But the acknowledgement from two of technology’s big players that repairability can no longer be lobbied against and ignored is significant.

Nevertheless, this can only be the first of an occasional right to repair series on this broader topic. We still need to see what the full repair guides offer, how repairs such as port and individual component replacement will be addressed, and what users think of the features Microsoft and Apple offer.

It’s a fix, but just how big a fix we can’t yet say for sure.

Surface Laptop SE

Right to repair exploded view

1. Battery
2. Motherboard
3. Keyboard/trackpad
4. Wi-Fi module
5. Chassis
6. Speakers
7. Cover/display module

Teardown Right to Repair

Image credit: iFixit

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