Earlier this year I replaced an aging MacBook Air with a Mac Mini desktop as my primary working device. This was cost effective – at around 2/3rds of the price of the cheapest MacBook – and felt more sustainable – but is that really the case? This article sets out to explore that question ahead of our Sustainability Summit on December 14th 2023.
With work-from-home being permanent for many and the hardware we purchased pre-pandemic reaching end-of-life, does replacing a laptop with a desktop make environmental, financial, and practical sense? Key things to consider in making this decision include whether your existing machine is end-of-life, how repairable it is, and the environmental cost of its potential replacement.
The answer to this question is dependent on how repairable and upgradeable it is, and to a lesser extent whether it is still supported with Operating System security updates.
A desktop is more modular and therefore more upgradeable than a laptop. Increasingly, high-end laptops have no upgradeable parts (memory, storage, etc.) and even battery replacements are tricky due to tight integration. This isn’t the case for desktops. Whilst they’re not as modular as they used to be – gone are the days of swapping CPUs – they’re inherently more upgradeable than a laptop with memory, storage, and graphics cards all easily replaceable.
An upgradeable device is also a repairable device. Right to Repair is a battle being fought worldwide – and one that’s being won. However, it’s different to repairability with many devices still sealed, glued, and otherwise disposable in the event of a fault.
I recently fixed my Sony earbuds which went for a swim in the washing machine – had they been Airpods they would have gone straight in the bin. By no means easy to fix but I was surprised that it was even possible given how small and densely packaged they are. £15 for a new battery and an hour of my time made sense on all levels compared to a £250 replacement cost – not least because the latest model is sadly much less repairable.
Regardless of whether you use a desktop or a laptop it’s useless without operating system support. That’s particularly the case in corporate environments where regulations and good practice demand that devices are running software which is currently supported with security patches.
I’ve written about software-enforced obsolescence previously and it’s still a factor, particularly for mobile devices, but it’s perhaps becoming less of a problem due to the efforts of the Linux community. Versions of Linux now exist which will run on pretty much any device from the last 20 years, and still protect them from current and new vulnerabilities. Even Apple’s proprietary M1 & M2 chipsets now have Linux support for when Apple decides to end support.
What’s more sustainable, a desktop or a laptop? This is a complex question and the answer will depend on how long you use that desktop for.
Up front environmental costs (so called embedded costs) are undoubtedly higher for desktops. They’re bigger, heavier, require more raw materials, and have higher environmental transport costs. It can also be argued that their required peripherals are similarly more resource-intensive than choosing a laptop. However, that’s not the case if your laptop spends its life on a desk connected to an external display and you use an external keyboard and mouse – a use mode which has become increasingly common following the transition to hybrid working.
Whilst the embedded environmental costs of a desktop are undoubtedly higher, they become less of a factor when you consider its longevity versus a laptop.
The primary reason is the use of batteries in laptops. Remember that MacBook Air I replaced? Despite rarely using it away from my desk, the battery was still exhausted and indicating service required within 3 years. With tightly integrated non-user-replaceable batteries that can be enough to encourage a user to upgrade an otherwise perfectly functional laptop. That’s bad for the environment and also an unnecessary cost. Furthermore, battery recycling is a complex and expensive business and not always locally available.
Repairability also tips the balance in favour of desktops. Most corporate-grade desktops are designed to be easily repaired and upgraded, featuring tool-less case access, limited integration, extensive and cost-effective spare parts availability, few proprietary parts, and certainly no glue.
Overall, a quality desktop PC could be usable in a corporate environment without repair or replacement for up to twice as long as a similar laptop. That’s more than enough time to offset the higher embedded environmental costs sustained in its production and distribution.
The challenge is to ensure that all stakeholders, including the end user, aren’t swayed by the “smaller, better, faster” marketing onslaught from hardware manufacturers. The reality is that any PC from the last decade or so is going to be up to the job of running most business software, so there really is little reason for the average user to upgrade for functionality or performance purposes. My new Mac Mini has more storage, memory, and computing power at a lower price than the cheapest MacBook Air.
Returning to my MacBook Air, a change of circumstances meant that I needed an occasional portable device. Fortunately, the model I had (2017) was one of the final models with modular storage and a glueless battery.
Thanks to iFixit and widespread availability of used spare parts I was able to double its storage and install a new battery for £100 and less than an hour of my time. The result? A laptop which can still run the latest applications and will benefit from security patches until at least 2025. Furthermore, that “second life” means that a new laptop wasn’t purchased. That avoided environmental cost of purchasing a net new device more than offsets the financial cost of the spare parts and is something ITAM teams should be tracking as part of their KPIs, Metrics, and deliverables.
I’d love to hear if your organization has changed its hardware replacement strategy to account for the shift to hybrid working. Are you deploying desktops? Or does every remote worker get a laptop, even if they’re primarily desk-based? Do you actively monitor repairability of your devices? Are you leasing rather than buying your end user computing devices? Let me know by completing a short survey and I’ll present the findings at the upcoming ITAM Review Sustainability Summit on December 14th 2023 at 2pm UK time.