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Steve Jobs’ decades of effort turning Apple into the technology world’s best-known boutique brand guaranteed that news always erupts when it releases a new product. So I wasn’t at all surprised when the company’s myriad fans (including a vocal cadre here at the office) went nuts this week following the announcement of five new laptops: two MacBook Airs (11- and 13-inch), two regular MacBook Pros (13- and 15-inch), and one 15-inch MacBook Pro with the vaunted high-resolution Retina display. It’s the last of these that’s captured the imagination of most people, packing as it does four times as many pixels as does its non-Retina sibling. I made a pilgrimage to the other side of the Lab to check one out and even I have to admit it’s pretty.
Regardless, you could not pay me to take one.
Why? For the answer, you need look no further than iFixit’s excellent “MacBook Pro with Retina Display Teardown.” In it, the fine folks there… well, you can probably figure it out. You should, as they say, read the whole thing: a sordid tale of solder, proprietary parts, and (gasp) glue. But it can be adequately summarized with this blurb from the final page:
MacBook Pro with Retina Display 15″ Mid 2012 Repairability Score: 1 out of 10 (10 is easiest to repair).
In other words, for all intents and purposes, you cannot service or upgrade this MacBook Pro yourself. That alone is enough to relegate it to the “festering dung heap” corner of my conscious interest.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to persuade people not to buy the thing. Apple is outstanding — one of the best companies ever, in fact — at igniting raw desire from people who otherwise may have no interest in the product being sold. (Heck, tablets violate every moral I hold dear, and I’ve previously slavered over the iPad.) There’s no way I could fight that mindset if I wanted to (which I don’t). I realize that a significant number of consumers, even so-called power users, could not possibly care less whether they can do anything inside their systems.
But I do. And for reasons not much more complicated than this: If I pay upwards of $2,200 for something, I want to actually own it. These days, that seems to be the one thing Apple doesn’t desire of its customers. This has become more and more evident over the years since the original Apple II systems were released in the early 1980s. Nowadays, when you buy an Apple product, you are at best its caretaker. You may adopt it by brandishing your credit card at an opportune moment, but when it comes right down to it, you are entirely at its mercy.

If you want to open the chassis you’ll need to find an incredibly specialized pentalobe screwdriver. Should you need more RAM at some point, forget about it: the modules max out at 16GB, and are soldered in place. Running out of internal storage? Good luck upgrading the SSD inside — because there isn’t an SSD inside, but rather uniquely designed flash memory modules you can’t just swap out for another model. And forget about upgrading the battery or the display: The former is trapped in place with a strong adhesive and positioned so you’re likely to render the trackpad inoperable if you even attempt disassembly, and the latter is fused together in such a way that you can’t take apart the pieces at all. These attributes make the lack of onboard Ethernet and FireWire 800 ports and the adapters needed to gain those features — which Apple will helpfully sell you at a cost of $29 each — seem almost tame in comparison.
We all know Apple does this so that it, and it alone, is responsible the whats, hows, and whys of its hardware. That’s not an inherently ignoble goal, but it stomps all over the consumer’s ability to fix the system should anything go wrong or, more shockingly, change his or her mind later. Depending on what you do with your MacBook Pro, it could be easy to run down the amount of storage you start with (a measly 512GB or — for $500 more! — a slightly less paltry 750GB). If you want to augment that, you’ll have to spring for a new external drive, and the speedy Thunderbolt models don’t currently come cheap. If you could pop in a new SSD or (is this heresy?) hard drive yourself, it would be neither a problem nor a budget buster. But Apple has decreed that you don’t deserve that option.
No other company could get away with this; no other company would even try. With just a few minutes of work, I was able to configure an Alienware M18x with specs very close to those of a fully decked-out MacBook Pro (including 768GB of SSD storage in a RAID Level 0 array, 16GB of RAM, and a faster processor) for $100 less than I would pay for the Apple. Sure, I could have gone further if I’d wanted, with up to 1.5TB of storage, a 4.1GHz processor, better discrete video, and so on, but I wanted to give Apple a fighting chance. And, even if I did purchase this and later learned it was not sufficient for my needs, I could pop open the case myself and make many crucial changes without fear I’d accidentally transform the thing into a big, black doorstop. And this is one model, from one company.
Of course, the Alienware or any PC-based system like it would lack the Retina display — however would one endure existence with a resolution of only 1920×1080?!? — and the cachet of the Apple name and attention to aesthetic detail. But I would argue that the former is among the laptop’s least-important features and the latter is the laptop’s least-important feature. All that should matter is whether it does what you need and whether you’ll be set adrift should a problem ever develop. Apple’s customer service is world class, no doubt, but having to engage it for the tiniest of reasons is an interruption the company forces upon you because it doesn’t want to let you solve your own problems and make your own choices. Why would anyone subject themselves to that? If you want to be part of the club that much, slap an Apple sticker on top of the alien head and call it a day.
Apple has created an iron-clad business model that ensures it stays planted at not only the center of the tech industry, but also at the center of your soul. It’s a terrific way to perpetuate itself, but it comes at a cost to you. Buying something like the MacBook Pro with Retina display might suffuse your being with an orgiastic glee, but it also shackles you to a company that doesn’t respect, care about, or for that matter acknowledge the wishes you have now or might develop in the future. Don’t fall for it. Set aside the name and the sex appeal and take control over your own computing life.
It’s a question of freedom. PCs give it to you. Macs don’t.
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