I just read last week’s answer about upgrading or replacing a six-year-old ThinkPad laptop. I want a laptop where I can easily replace components such as memory and hard drives. How does one go about finding out which modern laptops are modifiable by users? Colin
The one-sentence answer is that consumer laptops often can’t be modified by users, while business laptops can. There are lots of exceptions, but it’s a reasonable rule-of-thumb.
It’s not a complete answer, because you also have to know which laptops are aimed at consumers, and which at business users. This is also a somewhat fuzzy area because businesses can use laptops that are really designed for consumers – Dell’s XPS 13 and Apple’s MacBook are examples – while consumers can and do buy business machines.
The corollary is something I hear a lot, though it’s more of a complaint than a question: why do the major PC suppliers sell so many different ranges of laptops? They may offer half a dozen or more laptops with similar or even identical specifications under different brand names at different prices, so it’s easy to be confused.
Business or pleasure?
Consumers and business buyers have different uses in mind, which means they have different buying criteria. The big PC manufacturers – mainly Dell, HP and Lenovo – therefore create different ranges to meet these different needs.
Most consumers want laptops that are uncomplicated and as cheap as possible. Their desires are met by manufacturing laptops with “standard” specifications in very large volumes, sometimes millions of units per year. Most consumers don’t modify their laptops anyway, so it makes sense to solder and glue everything down. This increases reliability, and avoids some of the support calls that destroy the razor-thin profits made on these machines.
It also makes them hard to repair, of course, but laptops have become almost as disposable as smartphones and tablets. Some are so cheap it’s simpler to responsibly recycle a broken laptop and buy a new one. Businesses want laptops that are sturdy, reliable and repairable, and they are willing to pay a bit more for them. As a result, business laptops are tested to provide much higher levels of use in much more variable conditions. Some are tested to meet US military specification standards because they will be used by the police and armed forces, and so on. (There are even more rugged machines designed for field service technicians, oil rigs and battlefield use.)
Businesses typically need a wider range of configurations, and many of their users need more than the “standard” specification of the day. Often, they also want to be able to buy and support the same laptops for a very long time. Consumer laptops can change every few months, and the specs can vary if someone gets a bargain deal on a particular component. By contrast, businesses buying fleets of perhaps 10,000 or more machines want to be able to buy identical machines over a long period, perhaps 12-18 months, and parts for up to five years. Sometimes their IT departments repair machines by swapping in parts from broken ones, so it helps if the components are effectively the same. Standardisation reduces the cost of ownership.
Business laptops sometimes have extra features such as connections for docking stations, they come with Windows 10 Pro instead of Home, and they get better support. Global businesses also want laptops that can be repaired or replaced anywhere in the world.
You can, of course, buy a business laptop even if you don’t have a business. In fact, if your pattern of use is similar, it’s the best option. If it’s just for casual use, it’s overkill.
Companies that sell a lot of PCs – both HP and Lenovo shift about 40m a year – can afford to support product ranges that target different sets of buyers. It’s really no different from, say, car manufacturers, where the product line can stretch from a Ford Ka+ to a Transit Minibus, with sportier options such as the Mustang and the Ford GT. PC’s can stretch from mini versions to giant server farms (blade computers), with sportier options such as games PCs.
Even the laptop market runs from novel-sized versions with 6in screens to game-playing monsters with 17.3in or even larger screens. It must be admitted that mid-range laptops tend to look much the same, but there are differences, even if consumers are not aware of them.
Dell, for example, has a wide range of brands. The Inspiron range provides cheap machines for home users, while XPS started as its luxury consumer range. For business buyers, Latitude is Dell’s laptop range and OptiPlex its upmarket desktop range. Other Dell brands include Alienware for gamers, Vostro for small office/home office (SoHo) users, Prestige for business workstations, and PowerEdge for rack-mounted servers. Dell EMC does supercomputers.
So, if you want a laptop that can be repaired and upgraded, you’re more likely to find it in the business ranges. Examples include Dell’s Latitude and Prestige ranges, HP ZBooks, ProBooks and EliteBooks, and Lenovo ThinkPads, which originated with IBM in 1992. However, even business laptops are going with the trend towards thinner and lighter machines that are less flexible and harder to upgrade or repair.
If you don’t need much portability, gaming laptops can usually be expanded and upgraded. However, “thin and light” models are somewhat rare, the 13in Razer Blade Stealth (fixed memory) and the 15.6in Gigabyte Aero 15 being the most obvious examples.
If you really want a laptop that is relatively easy to upgrade or repair, buy the most configurable one you can find. That will usually be a ThinkPad or similar business laptop, or a machine from one of the suppliers that builds to order in the UK, such as Chillblast and PC Specialist.
Lenovo typically offers some ThinkPads pre-configured to meet popular demand, which can be shipped the next day, and some that let you select exactly the configuration you want. This usually includes four or more choices of processor and storage, and in some cases, the choice of four different screens. It won’t ship the next day, but you will get the spec you want.
Otherwise, you will have to do a bit of research. The quickest approach is to check Crucial’s local website. The company is owned by a chip manufacturer, Micron, and sells memory sticks and both M.2 and hard drive-replacement SSDs. If you have a PC, Crucial’s software can examine it and show you compatible upgrades. If you don’t, you can search for it (eg crucial uk thinkpad T490s) or go through the menu system to find possible upgrades for whatever you are thinking of buying. Once you know what will fit, you can buy from other sources, though Crucial does guarantee that its upgrades are compatible.
When it comes to other parts, download the laptop’s repair manual, which is usually available as a pdf file. This will tell you which parts are FRUs (field replaceable units). If an FRU goes wrong, the manufacturer (or a third-party supplier) will ship you the part so that you can change it yourself. Other parts need expert repairers.
Installing an FRU can be fiddly, and sometimes needs special tools or new cables or whatever. The next step is therefore to search for a YouTube video where someone shows how they did the upgrade in question. Many of these videos are badly made, but that doesn’t matter. You only need to see which bits need to be unscrewed and how easily they fit back together.
The iFixit website is well known for disassembling devices and giving them a score for repairability, which is great if they’ve covered your potential purchase. They mainly teardown high-profile machines, so they probably haven’t. However, iFixit also has thousands of repair guides written by external contributors, and an answers forum where you can ask for advice. The company also sell tools and repair kits, with iFixit Europe shipping to EU countries from its offices in Stuttgart. It’s a business, but it promotes the Right to Repair as good business.
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