PC Upgrade & Repair: Increasing Difficulty of Upgrading & Repairing Personal Computers

Computers were once much easier to upgrade and repair. During the 1980s, with many computers it was possible to expand their memory capacity, replace their disk drives, or install a new modem without even opening them up. Many accessories and upgrades were either contained in plastic cartridges or plugged into the computer through an external wire. Parts like memory cartridges and modems often had permanent labels clearly listing their specifications and the computers they were compatible with. The plastic cartridge housings also protected them, causing the parts to be much less easily damaged than they are today.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, more parts began to be included inside the computer when it was purchased, especially disk drives and modems. Buyers could no longer comparison-shop for these parts after buying the computer, as they were already within it – thus justifying an increase in price. This brought an end to basic under-$300 computers, such as the Commodore VIC-20 and Timex/Sinclair 1000, which did not include disk drives but could use programs on cartridges and standard cassette tapes. Memory and modems were now sold on internal chips, often without clear markings. Manufacturers soldered permanent batteries in many computers during the early 1990s which eventually leaked acid, forcing them to become “obsolete.” However, parts were still fairly easy to replace or upgrade, though opening up the computer had become necessary. Some central processing units were contained in cartridge-style housings or on manufacturer-specific expansion cards, making them fairly easy to install. Compact, lightweight desktop-style computers were becoming more common, and most computer housings were easier to work inside than those of today, having more practical designs with less sharp areas.

Following the millenium, the trend of making computers more difficult to repair and upgrade continued with difficult-to-install socket-based processor units, inconveniently-designed housings, and purposefully incompatible parts. Some large brand names made extensive efforts to cause generic parts to be incompatible with their computers, enabling them to maintain a monopoly and charge much higher prices. Most lightweight desktop-style computer models were abandoned, being replaced with large, heavier tower-based systems. A number of brand name computer housings have been produced which require the removal of multiple panels merely to replace a CD-ROM or disk drive. As more expansion slot and external port types are introduced, finding the correct parts for each computer has become more difficult and expensive, while causing some older parts to be discarded. Many computer users have no memory of clearly-marked external expansion units which anyone could install.

This inevitably leads to the question of why such a trend has been followed. The simple answer is that most of these changes help to increase the profits of manufacturers. If the consumer cannot replace or upgrade part of their computer and/or is unable to use generic parts, they are more likely to purchase a new computer. If repair is time-consuming, it will cost the consumer more the have the computer repaired by someone else, which also encourages them to buy a new computer instead. The previously mentioned theory about no longer being able to comparison-shop for (formerly) external devices after buying the computer is likely a major factor as well. Despite this, computer manufacturers should remember that the Commodore 64 was the best-selling personal computer model ever released, and it was also one of the most easy to upgrade. It maintained a low initial price as well, despite featuring the latest technology of that time period, because disk drives, modems and other accessories were sold as separate add-ons rather than being built-in.

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