2023 Repairability Wins Were Compromised By Parts Pairing

2023 Repairability Wins Were Compromised By Parts Pairing

iFixit Wrapped 2023: Teardown Highlights

This week on the blog, we’re rounding up the biggest highlights from various corners of the repair world in 2023. Check back each day for a different category—you can already read about advocacy and Right to Repair here.

There’s not much better than rolling up your sleeves, grabbing a spudger and a screwdriver, and getting surgical on a new gadget. This is where iFixit’s repair ethos begins. If you can’t open it up, you don’t really own it. And sadly, even in 2023, you’ll often need a lot more than just a Phillips-head screwdriver and a sturdy guitar pick to crack open your phone, gamepad, laptop, VR headset, or… commercial ice cream machine?

Ice Cream Fun Day

Speaking of ice cream makers, when we opened up a McDonald’s ice cream machine, it didn’t require heat guns or any other esoteric disassembly gear. However, that doesn’t mean that fixing it is actually feasible. That’s because the repair barrier comes in the form of opaque software error codes and legal shenanigans. That’s why we teamed up with Public Knowledge to ask the US copyright office to make a DMCA exemption for ice cream machines, so it won’t be illegal for McDonald’s franchise owners to repair their own machines.

Mac Pro 2023

And speaking of dairy, when our own Sam Goldheart tore down the Apple Silicon Mac Pro, she did what everyone secretly wants to do and tried grating cheese on it. That didn’t go so well, but as a computer, the Mac Pro has some pluses and minuses compared to its Intel-powered predecessor, including an upgraded heat sink, which is much easier to remove, and immediate access to the previously hidden SSD. On the downside, you can no longer upgrade your own RAM, and you have to rely on the integrated GPU. 

While Apple’s repairability has been getting better (although not better enough to avoid a retroactive downgrade of the iPhone’s repairability score thanks to the software repair barrier known as parts pairing), even the Mac Pro is still far from the dream-come-true of the Framework 13 laptop. The Framework is so modular and customizable that you can swap in this year’s updated processors and more efficient battery in just 20 minutes. 

Open and Shut Case

Perhaps our two most intriguing teardowns of 2023 had nothing to do with the electronic guts of the devices involved. The first of those was Apple’s brand-new FineWoven case for the iPhone 15 lineup, which replaces leather as its new high-end case material. Under the microscope, we discovered that it really is fine woven, with strands just 6 microns thick, or 1/12 the thickness of a human hair. 

Similar to leather, it’s highly resistant to abrasion and wear but easy to mark. Unlike leather, we don’t yet know whether those scratches will look better with age. 

The other casing we tore into was that of the new “fingerprint-resistant” Space Black MacBook Pro, anodized with some clever metallurgy techniques to reduce reflectivity and make it darker. It still only manages a black-ish dark gray color, but the microscopic bumpiness from the anodization process may be the key to why it really does seem to shrug off greasy handprints

Our other teardowns have been less esoteric but just as revealing. The PlayStation 5 “Slim,” for example, allows the user to swap in a new optical drive, although it still requires internet-enabled parts-pairing to get it running. Not only that, but it’s actually designed for DIY repair, with the familiar PlayStation symbols deployed inside to help you put the parts back in the right spot when you reassemble it.

A more disappointing update is the Galaxy Z Fold5, the latest iteration of Samsung’s foldable phone. Regular-shaped phones are pretty long-lasting, as long as you can easily repair the screen and replace the battery. But folding designs are trickier. For instance, they might protect the screen from scratches and tumbles when folded, but the folding mechanism itself is a weak point. The hinge will wear out, and if not properly protected, the screen itself will wear, and dust will creep in. 

And that’s exactly why it’s disappointing that the Galaxy Z Fold5 has still not added dust-proofing. Do manufacturers see folding phones as disposable items? We know Samsung can do better. The Galaxy S23, for example, added a pull-tab for battery removal, making it easier and safer to remove.

Apple launched a new, larger, 15-inch MacBook Air this year, and it too disappointed us with its battery placement, which is pretty much the last thing you get to when disassembling it. On the bright side, it has a clever array of six speakers, which are laid out to maximize volume while minimizing unwanted vibrations.

But that doesn’t counteract the lifespan-shortening battery arrangement. It’s hard to fathom why laptop designers can’t make batteries easier to access. In fact, it seems like they are doing the exact opposite, and trying to bury them as deep as possible. 

Virtually the Future

Finally, a look towards a possible future: VR repair. The Meta Quest 3 mixed reality headset, as you might expect from devices at the cutting edge of hardware design, is pretty unrepairable. Replacing the battery—perhaps the most important repair for any portable device—is a real pain, for example. And it doesn’t have to be this way. When she tore down the HTC Vive XR Elite in April, Sam found it was incredibly repairable, with easy access to a pair of replaceable batteries. 

This leads us to wonder how VR and AR devices will shape up repairability-wise. Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro might be its most ambitious computer yet, but it also needs to be light enough to wear on your face for hours at a time. In the past, Apple’s solution has been to glue everything together into an inaccessible blob. We have our fingers crossed that its recent trend towards better repairability might be baked into this new product line from the beginning.

Here’s to happier fixing in 2024!