The new PC will be modular and repairable, and that’s a major win for consumers
Finally, a computer that doesn’t lock you out.
On Wednesday, Microsoft unveiled its Surface Laptop 3, a new device with a detachable keyboard that should allow for easier repairs and adjustments to internal components. The design is a significant about-face for the company — previous Surface devices have been among the least repairable computers on the market — and it could influence the rest of the consumer technology industry.
“This is a radical shift for Microsoft,” says Kyle Wiens, a repair advocate and CEO of iFixit, which publishes repair guides and sells relevant tools through an online store. “The previous Surface Laptop was impossible to open without destroying it. We won’t know for sure without opening it ourselves, but the Surface design team appears to have solved this problem while keeping the same form factor.”
The form factor is a particularly relevant point because device manufacturers have recently prioritized slim, eye-catching designs over swappable parts and repairable components. Take the MacBook Air, for example. Its famously skinny and seamless profile uses parts that are soldered to the base of the device, and the keyboard is similarly integrated into the device’s casing. All of this makes the computer particularly difficult to repair.
Microsoft was not totally clear about which specific components of the Surface Laptop 3 will be repairable or replaceable, although it did say the device’s hard drive, at least, will be removable. The company touted the Surface Laptop 3’s modular design in a promotional video, which should mean that parts can be easily exchanged if they break. Panos Panay, chief product officer for Microsoft’s Devices group, also demonstrated how the keyboard will be removable — a happy improvement over previous devices and some rivals.
Still, the messaging alone is significant. For years, right-to-repair advocates have pushed for legislation that would make it easier for third parties to fix devices, thereby extending their lifespan and reducing the need for consumers to replace gadgets so frequently. Tech companies have lobbied against such laws, sometimes citing consumer safety or the need to protect trade secrets as justification.
Meanwhile, thin devices without modular parts are extremely difficult to responsibly recycle. This exacerbates the already significant environmental impact from the manufacturing of new gadgets.
If consumers respond well to the Surface Laptop 3, it’s possible modularity will become commonplace.
“It would be difficult to imagine these design changes [aren’t] a result of the growing public pressure around repair and repairability,” Nathan Proctor, who heads the Right to Repair campaign at the United States Public Interest Research Group, tweeted.
Microsoft represents a relatively small portion of the PC market. According to recent data from Gartner, a research firm, Microsoft holds about 3.6% of the U.S. PC market measured in terms of overall device shipments. It’s behind a few major competitors: HP has 29.8%, Dell 28.4%, Lenovo 17.3%, and Apple 10.9%. But the Surface computers have become increasingly popular. If consumers respond well to the Surface Laptop 3, it’s possible modularity will become commonplace.
There’s still reason to hold off on a standing ovation, though. It’s unclear if every component of the Surface Laptop 3 could be easily repaired. And we don’t yet know if Microsoft will sell replacement components itself, nor if it will provide repair guides to consumers. We also don’t know how the computer will respond to third-party parts. The iPhone, for example, uses software to detect third-party parts, and it bugs users if they replace their screen.
Panay said “tools” will be required to remove the keyboard. Manufacturers sometimes use proprietary screws to lock down their components and prevent consumers from accessing them, so hopefully, Microsoft leans toward something more accessible (a standard Phillips-head screw would work nicely).
A representative for Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and Panay clearly stated that repairability is intended for “commercial customers.”
“I have a disclaimer: Don’t try that,” Panay said after snapping the top off of the laptop.
Ideally, consumers would be able to open up and fix their own computers — they did buy them, after all. Regardless, the Surface Laptop 3 appears to represent a positive step toward device longevity without sacrificing design. Other companies should take note.