The 'sealed-box' Mac: Cutting-edge design or planned obsolescence?

The new MacBook Pro with 'Retina' display appears to be a harbinger

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A troubling trend

This is a troubling trend for many professional Apple customers, who may feel that a deliberate shift away from upgradable hardware does not meet their needs. Some of the changes point to the fact that laptops are in many ways a special case: the desire for ever thinner, lighter portable machines coupled with the need for more power, drives the decision to fill every available space in the smaller cases. The result: non-upgradeable hardware.

Case in point: batteries. The one essential accessory with every Mac laptop I've bought used to be a spare battery or two, so I could swap them out on long flights and extend my time away from an outlet. When Apple switched to internal, non-swappable batteries, it boosted battery life by cramming more capacity into the chassis, but took away the ability to switch out batteries. This is a calculated trade-off, and for many users, having a bit more battery life built-in may be more important than swapping. The other, less obvious consequence is that when the battery starts losing capacity and finally fails (as all batteries eventually do), replacing it with a new one isn't a simple matter of buying one and dropping it in.

If you want to replace it yourself, you have to crack the case (potentially voiding any warranty you may have), and do what can amount to major surgery. Apple does offer an out-of-warranty battery replacement service at a reasonable charge ($129 for the MacBook Air and most MacBook Pros, $199 for the new Retina Pro), but if a user decides to replace a Retina MacBook Pro's battery, and does it according to Apple specs, iFixit estimates a $500 cost -- ouch!

The first Mac laptop to adopt the new "sealed unit" design was the original MacBook Air, and here clearly the groundbreaking, super-slim design drove almost all of the engineering choices. Upgradeability was simply not a priority. I have a first-generation Air (now defunct), and I did end up replacing the original tiny, slow 1.8" drive with a SSD, and I replaced the battery when it failed. While I am fairly well-versed in hardware repairs, I can say that surgery on that laptop was well beyond the capability of most users -- as is now the case for the new Retina MacBook Pro. Many will either replace the entire computer, or make use of comparatively expensive upgrade solutions through third-party vendors.

In the latest iterations of the Mac OS X operating system, there has been a conscious effort to bridge the OS X and iOS worlds, and it is quite possible that this philosophy will be further extended to the hardware lines. Pro users should keep a careful eye on the rest of the product lines as they evolve during the coming year - the 2013 Mac Pro, and to a lesser extent, the iMac and Mac Mini. It seems unlikely that Apple will risk driving away pro users, but it is these models, which do not have the tight design constraints of the laptop line, that will best indicate whether the recent move to "sealed-unit" devices is strictly about design priorities and constraints, or part of a larger shift in philosophy and focus.

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