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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Your Tech Stuff Is Getting Slightly More Repairable

Last year, the US Public Interest Research Group—a nonprofit that actively campaigns for right-to-repair laws in the US—released its first repairability scorecard. In it, the group graded the makers of popular consumer tech devices based on how easy those gadgets were to repair, the availability of replacement parts, and the accessibility of repair manuals. Perhaps not surprisingly, US PIRG assigned some of the world’s most prominent tech makers a giant “F” or near-failing grade. It was still too hard to fix your damn phone

Now, US PIRG has released its second annual repairability scorecard, grading “which manufacturers are designing devices to last and which are ‘Failing the Fix,’” the group says. Most of the manufacturers earned higher grades than last year, signaling that there’s some movement on the repairability front. Lucas Gutterman, the director for US PIRG’s “Designed to Last” campaign, attributes that mostly to the increasing availability of repair manuals—the documentation that average consumers or independent repair technicians would need in order to fix their gadgets. 

But US PIRG still dinged some companies, including Apple and Microsoft, for what the group believes is aggressive lobbying against right-to-repair legislation. Others, like Motorola and Samsung, lost points in the report because US PIRG deemed it too difficult to access repair parts or disassemble the companies’ phones. And overall, most grade improvements were slight. 

“I think the biggest takeaway is that manufacturers have improved slightly, but it’s still not good enough,” says Gutterman. “So we’re still spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on phones and laptops which are essentially disposable, and that is completely ridiculous when we have the capacity to build things that can last.”  

An Apple spokesperson declined to comment but did share a white paper and further information about Apple’s recent repair initiatives. A Microsoft spokesperson said the company is committed to expanding “safe, reliable, and sustainable options for device repair” and said that it has made large strides in this area. At the time of publication, Samsung had not responded to a request for comment. Neither did Motorola, which is owned by Lenovo. 

The US PIRG’s grading system is based largely on the repairability index introduced in France two years ago as part of an anti-waste campaign. The French government requires tech manufacturers to share scores for their products based on how easy they are to fix. The thinking goes that if consumers looking to buy a new phone or laptop or home appliance can see these scores while shopping, they might gravitate more toward longer-lasting products. 

The grades handed out by US PIRG take the French scores into consideration, but they also include categories and data specific to the US device market. For the latest report, US PIRG pulled data for 330 different devices manufactured by eight tech companies: HP, Dell, Apple, Acer, Lenovo, Asus, Microsoft, and Samsung. The report focuses on laptops and smartphones, and it doesn’t include categories like home appliances, cars, or medical devices. 

US PIRG also reviewed lobbying records from the 2021-2022 legislative session in California to determine which tech companies had lobbied against SB 983, a right-to-repair law that ultimately did not pass in the California Senate Appropriations Committee. And PIRG gave extra weight to the “physical ease of disassembly” of the tech products it reviewed.

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As such, this year’s repairability grades reflect some incremental improvements in the repair process itself, but some scores were downgraded because of the companies’ aggressive politicking behind the scenes. Apple’s iPhones made a leap from last year’s “F” grade up to a “D.” Google’s Pixel phones kept their “D” grade but got a slight boost in score. Samsung remained steadily in the “C” grade range for its phones. Microsoft’s laptops still get a “D” overall, but the edge much closer to a “C” grade this year. Almost all laptop makers, with the exception of Lenovo, received a higher grade: HP, Dell, Asus, and Acer all got a “B.” 

Despite Apple’s upgrade in overall iPhone repairability, though, US PIRG alleges that its parts are still priced too high. And Apple’s Mac laptops still get an “F,” because they are “are twice as difficult to open up and repair as Dell laptops.” Samsung phones are still too hard to disassemble, compared to Motorola phones. Motorola phones were determined to be the most physically repairable of the four rated manufacturers, but they lost points because of the poor availability of parts.

US PIRG said Apple lost the greatest number of overall points due to the company’s active lobbying against the right to repair. And while Microsoft isn’t a part of TechNet, one of the big trade groups that participate in such lobbying, Microsoft is a member of the Consumer Technology Association and did lobby against California SB 983. 

Those in opposition to right-to-repair legislation often point to concerns that making products easier to repair would compromise the devices’ safety and security, though repair advocates have scoffed at those arguments and accused the tech industry of fearmongering. TechNet, the trade organization that represents a large swath of the industry, including Apple, Google, Amazon, Meta, HP, AirBnB, Uber, and Lyft, reiterated its stance in a statement to WIRED that right-to-repair legislation as currently proposed would threaten the privacy and security of personal tech devices. 

“Current repair bills in states across the country would mandate that manufacturers of digital electronic equipment provide unvetted third parties with sensitive diagnostic information and trade secrets—without requiring any of the critical consumer protections afforded by authorized repair networks,” David Edmonson, TechNet’s vice president for state policy and government relations, said in an email. “Instead of government mandates and a patchwork of one-size-fits-all repair rules that create more issues than answers, let the market continue to respond.” 

The market has indeed responded—to a point. A few years ago, Apple began aggressively expanding the footprint of its Independent Repair Provider Program, which lets independent repair shops get certified to fix Apple products using genuine Apple parts. Then in November 2021, under more pressure to improve its repairability, Apple announced a Self-Service Repair program, which started making parts, tools, and manuals for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 directly available to customers. Samsung followed suit: In August 2022, it started giving customers the tools to perform their own repairs on Galaxy S20 and S21 smartphones, as well as the Galaxy Tab S7+.

In April 2022, Google said it was partnering with fix-it-yourself firm iFixit to make Google Pixel phones more repairable. And Microsoft said late last year that it would make Surface laptop parts available to consumers in 2023.

Repair advocates still see these moves as an effort to preempt legislation, as is the case with the recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) that John Deere signed with a national farm group. John Deere agreed in theory to make tractor repairs more accessible to farmers, though the MOU is unenforceable. Part of the agreement asked that the American Farm Bureau Federation “refrain from introducing, promoting, or supporting federal or state Right to Repair legislation.”

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