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Originally published Friday, July 6, 2012 at 3:44 PM

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Days of fixing Apple products yourself are over

The days of fixing your Apple product or using a third-party repairer are over.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Apple's changes in product manufacture mean you can't upgrade anything but memory or repair most current models with any degree of confidence that you won't break the computer in the process. Do you need to reconsider whether to purchase Apple's three-year extended warranty, or factor in a potential maximum life span of three years, beyond which point the cost won't be worth paying to fix it?

Apple never encouraged unaffiliated third parties to perform upgrades and repairs on your Macs, and even less so with iPhones and iPads. Apple Authorized Service Providers or Apple itself were the only sanctioned paths. I recall the days in which Apple issued imprecations against so much as opening a case to add memory.

Over time, Apple relaxed a bit and said memory upgrades were (in most cases) within the warranty, and didn't cavil at other components having been swapped if you took it in for an unrelated repair. The Mac mini started as a something that required surgery to upgrade. (I have the sore fingers to prove it.) But the current model requires just a twist of a plastic disk to expose memory slots.

As a fairly technical fellow, and also cheap, I've kept many Macs alive for years past their expiration date. I swapped a dead keyboard on a titanium PowerBook, and managed the dozens of steps to put in a new optical drive when the old one died in a several-year-old Mac mini. The parts in both cases cost about $80, while an Apple repair would have been a few hundred, or more than the residual cost of each device.

Those days are essentially over, and the reason for it is a matter of some discussion.

iFixIt, a site that sells tools and replacement parts for repair and upgrade of Macs and other hardware, also disassembles and posts extensive photography of new products as they appear — so-called "teardowns."

The firm took apart a 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display, recently released by Apple. The model was given a 1 out of 10 on a scale of repairability. While one might suggest a firm that sells repair kits and parts is biased, I accept the larger argument that hardware you buy is yours to do with what you will.

And for those who want to repair a product, or turn to local fix-it outfits, repairability should be a measure of a product's long-term value and part of thinking about what you are willing to pay.

It is impossible to know without either leaked documents or public statements by Apple whether Macs are now being designed to be less easy to fix, such as the change to using a special kind of screw that needs an odd Pentalobe tool (hard to find when the screws first appeared), or gluing batteries into the case. It would seem that such an approach makes it harder for Apple technicians to repair items under warranty, too, and thus would be cutting off the nose to spite the face.

In discussions with colleagues, the widespread impression is that for Apple to produce the combination of fast, thin and light computers while retaining the high profit margins it continues to wring, the sacrifice is of easy repair. Modern automated computer manufacture allows essentially one-way production: Parts can be assembled, but not removed. The battery glue and special screws would be part of more automated and reliable machine assembly, as one example.

But what does this mean for long-term ownership? My fear is that more Macs will go into the trash heap or computer recycling stream, both of which are less ideal than fixing and continuing to use them in schools or developing countries.

Apple includes a relatively marvelous one-year warranty called AppleCare that comes with every new Mac. It includes 90 days of unlimited telephone support, and unlimited in-store support. A three-year extended warranty, AppleCare Protection Plan, costs from $149 for a Mac mini up to $349 for a MacBook Pro.

I have purchased APP for nearly every Mac laptop I've owned over 20 years. And nearly every unit has required multiple trips to Apple to replace some major component, often in the uncovered second and third years.

(My 2011 MacBook Air was back in the first year due to defective Wi-Fi, and I have to return again for a faulty trackpad; my wife's 2012 machine had its hard drive die within weeks of purchase.)

An informal poll on Twitter, among the veteran Mac users who follow my account, shows that my experience is unusual. Most who had owned several Mac laptops over many years had rarely needed them repaired. Many were still in use several years after purchase. Desktops tend to be more resilient for me and for those I polled.

(The out-of-date Mac Pro is easy to repair; the new Mac mini and last several years of iMac, quite difficult.)

I'd argue, though, that you can no longer amortize the cost of a Mac over the four to seven years that I would previously have suggested, because of the now-gone ability for self-repair and third-party repair. You have to factor in the possibility of it failing at three years and being faced with a repair ticket of greater than the residual value (even if less than its replacement cost).

This doesn't mean that all Macs are suddenly disposable, nor that a larger percentage are likely to fail after the third year. And Apple has dropped the performance relative to price, and the absolute price, of Macs substantially in the last few years. It's one thing to face an $800 repair out of warranty for a $3,500 laptop that you could do yourself for $100; another to have a $500 repair for a $1,200 computer.

I suppose my disappointment is old fogeyness. I've liked opening up a computer (and once upon a time, adding resistors and capacitors and ports with a soldering iron) since the late 1970s. Apple conceivably can't create the captivating computers I carry around today without something giving way.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/practicalmac

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