On modern laptops and being upgrade unfriendly

I found myself reflecting on the laptops I’ve owned. Despite all the progress in these machines over the years, I feel sad that the world took a turn towards non upgradable machines. It's a blow to the environment, and it’s a blow to people from less privileged backgrounds. And given all the progress we've made since I got my first laptop, it's completely unnecessary that this is the default mode of building laptops now.

The laptops that were

To be clear, I’m not from a less privileged background. But even so, I certainly didn’t have money to blow on an expensive laptop early in my career. No sir. It was a bog standard HP laptop with an underpowered CPU that had onboard graphics capable of displaying a 3D potato with half the polygons.

But despite that, for the longest time, I was happy with the machine. I loved that I had the peace of mind knowing that I could replace the memory, the disk, and the cpu bit by bit. I bought the machine with that in mind. Because when I had to buy it, I couldn’t afford one with the highest performance. So I bought one with just enough performance to do what I needed. And when the day came where I absolutely needed more memory, I didn’t break the bank over a new laptop. I bought new memory sticks and sold the old ones. Same with the processor. And same with the disk.

Those were the laptops of the past. By default, before the race to thin form factors and the modern processing units with everything integrated, those were the laptops we knew.


Today I’m looking at my wife’s laptop that I bought for her years ago. I’m looking at my MacBook I bought years ago. I couldn’t afford machines with 16gb of ram at the time. And now both machines are practically unusable now since the browser and a few apps eat up 8gb. 16gb is the minimum (and of course people promise that it’s more than enough for the years to come). But the thing is, outside of the ram, everything else works fine! There's absolutely no need to replace the entire machine. They may look weather beaten. But they are in good condition otherwise.

But, I have to buy a new laptop now. I’m lucky that I’ve climbed up enough in life that I can afford this purchase. What a waste though. Sure I can pass the laptop on to someone else who can’t afford a new one (or even a secondhand one). But what I’m doing is passing on something that’s not really usable and the person will use it out of no choice. And even if they get enough money, it cannot be upgraded.

Now is the right time

I understand the push for this form factor since it yielded powerful gains in performance. It also made machines truly portable. But we’ve made so much progress in SSD tech and other places. A lot of it is stable now. 4k displays are good enough for a long time. Heck. Even 1080p is good enough. 2k is fiiiine. SSD storage will get faster but the core tech is not evolving quickly like it did in the time where it went from spinning disk to solid state. Even graphic card changes are being satisfied with external GPUs for hardcore needs (although I’m not sure if that target fits into my goals here). So, with all the advancements and the stability we have now, I feel like it’s time for a resurgence of buy once, upgrade many times kind of laptop.

Looking at the market, I think things are improving. The laptop I’m looking forward to most is the framework . At the same time, I look forward to the day where such laptops are endorsed, and made by the OS developers themselves.

Ultimately though, just like the USB C being forced into standard through legislation, I think a future of upgradable laptops will also need the same. I don't want to hold my breath on that, but I can dream.

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Posted on November 10 2022 by Adnan Issadeen