Dell’s Bold Idea: A Laptop You Can Actually Repair

It’s a lagging response to the “right to repair” movement

3 min read
An illustration of an exploded view of a laptop.
Dell Technologies

In December 2021, just before CES, the world’s leading tech event, Dell introduced Concept Luna, a reimagining of the laptop PC that focuses on repairability.

Modern laptops are notoriously difficult (and sometimes impossible) to repair, a problem Luna’s designers address by reducing the number of screws to four and avoiding permanent adhesives. Instead, many components lock into place. Dell has set itself the goal of reusing or recycling one equivalent product for every product it sells. Luna, a laptop that can be disassembled and repurposed, could help achieve that goal.

Repairability dovetails with the larger goal of sustainability. Luna looks like Dell’s latest XPS 13, but clever tweaks have slimmed its carbon footprint. It’s designed for on-demand production to reduce waste from unsold inventory. The motherboard, among the most resource-intensive components, is shaved to a quarter of its typical size. The stamped aluminum is designed to minimize scrap and may be recycled at the laptop’s end of life.

Dell isn’t alone in its focus on sustainability. LG announced at CES 2022 that its new OLED TVs will use more recyclable materials and shave down packaging waste, and Lenovo introduced a Yoga laptop partially constructed from recycled plastics. These steps follow a trend set by Apple, which uses recycled aluminum in several devices including the MacBook Air and iPad.

These efforts strike a chord with the public. Among people in advanced economies, 72 percent are concerned that global climate change will harm them, according to a Pew survey. Only 46 percent had confidence in efforts to reduce the effects of global climate change. And climate change isn’t the only problem worth worrying about. Consumer electronics can cause deadly pollution by degrading into hazardous materials (including lead, mercury, and arsenic) when left in landfills.

Modern electronics often remain relevant for at least five years; routers, displays, and high-end computers can be useful for a decade or more.

Sustainable, repairable devices may help consumers feel they’re contributing less to these long-term problems, but there’s also an immediate advantage: lifespan. Modern electronics often remain relevant for at least five years; routers, displays, and high-end computers can be useful for a decade or more.

Unfortunately, a device’s life is often cut short by a problem that should be (but isn’t) repairable, such as an aging battery or broken charging port. Luna would let users replace or upgrade components after purchasing, prolonging the life of the laptop. A stuck key or bulging battery would no longer be a death sentence.

Framework, a startup that released its first laptop in 2021, is already putting this idea into practice. The company’s namesake laptop is designed for easy access to its internal hardware. Owners can replace the hard drive, battery, or Wi-Fi adapter, and expansion cards let owners replace or swap ports. Framework’s laptop is not as compact or modular as Dell’s concept, but it has the key advantage that you can buy it right now.

Apple, too, is preparing a Self Service Repair program that will sell parts for iPhones, iPads, and Macs directly to consumers. Owners will be able to fix their devices with new, official repair manuals. In the case of iPhone and iPad, these will be the first official repair manuals ever released.

The cynic in me must point out that these steps, though welcome, are insignificant next to the deep, global change needed to stop the progress of climate change. Repairing the screen in an iPhone will not halt a heat dome.

Still, progress should not be overlooked. Consumer electronics won’t change overnight, but that doesn’t mean change is impossible. It’s important that Dell, and other companies in consumer electronics, know we want sustainable materials. We want modular design. We want devices we can fix and continue using for a decade or more.

These changes, small by themselves, are each just one step in the marathon effort to curb climate change, but they take us in the right direction, all the same.

This article appears in the March 2022 print issue as “Dell’s Proposed Laptop is Fit to be Fixed.”

The Conversation (3)
Robert Partridge07 Mar, 2022

I'm just curious how this is "Dell's Bold Idea" when they were inspired by someone else already doing it (Framework) ... it was announced 6 months after Linus Sebastian did a video about the Framework laptop praising the entire concept. Headlines matter. By the time you get to mentioning Framework 2/3 of the way into the piece you'll have lost many people who don't finish reading.I'm sure there's a way to write the headline in a way that gives Dell deserved credit for being the 1st major laptop maker to pursue the strategy without making it seem like they originated the idea in the first place.

Timothy Oakley18 Feb, 2022

If you are worried about climate change: Lead by example, not dictate others actions.

William Adams14 Mar, 2022

Matthew hypes global warming as a problem waay too much.

We have had hotter and colder times in the millions of years earth has been here.

Was not long ago when they were saying we were going to have a new ice age.

ALL climate is caused by earth orbit and inclination plus solar activity. Not SUVs or people.

And if they really thought people were the cause they would call for fewer people not for destroying our economy.

You could melt every ice berg, ice floe, ice cube, and ice cap, yet the oceans would not rise more than a few inches.

All the climate hype claiming it is a problem is based on bad statistics using dirty data, as well as faked data, and cherry picked data, to help cause a problem for politicians to 'solve' to benefit certain politicians.

And when they fail, as they can't change the climate any more than they can stop the tides, they will just say we did not throw enough money at the problem.

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.