How Apple Decides Which Products Are ‘Vintage’ and ‘Obsolete’
The surprising definitions present serious challenges for repairability
For the past eight years, I’ve been working mainly on a late 2012 iMac. I’m no Luddite, but the computer has held up well over the years, and I’ve never felt the need to replace it. Recently, though, my iMac developed its first serious tic: The fan has started to power on loudly every time the computer goes to sleep. While the computer is long past warranty, I decided to call up Apple to see if the company could offer any help. When I did, I learned my iMac is considered “vintage” and was told Apple won’t touch it.
Instead, an Apple Support representative referred me to an Apple Authorized Service Provider (AASP) in my area. When I called the shop, the owner told me he could take a look at the device but would make no guarantees. What’s more, because of the coronavirus pandemic, his shop was experiencing a three-week backlog. I had two choices: Hunt around for a way to fix my iMac faster, or hand off the computer to an Apple-approved repair business and wait several weeks for a diagnosis.
The Apple Support representative I spoke with was quick to offer his opinion: “You only want to go to the guys we recommend,” he told me. I chose to keep shopping around.
As our devices age, they lose manufacturer support. With coronavirus lockdowns placing restrictions on repair businesses, that support is now more limited than ever. But while my iMac’s hyperactive fan is a nuisance I can live with, there are many people whose broken tech needs immediate attention so that they can work and learn remotely or stay in touch with loved ones. The pandemic has, inadvertently, laid bare a truth about our devices: Manufacturers can’t be our only option for fixing them. Especially when they take such a myopic view of what’s worth fixing.
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According to Apple, “vintage” devices are those that the company discontinued selling more than five and less than seven years ago. Once Apple hasn’t sold a product for seven years, it’s considered “obsolete,” meaning the company won’t offer any repair services. But vintage products exist in a liminal space: Despite what I learned when I called Apple Support, Apple Stores as well as AASPs can, in theory, repair them for you “subject to availability of inventory, or as required by law,” according to Apple.
In practice, people in the repair community told me Apple isn’t particularly interested in fixing vintage tech. “The AASPs I’ve spoken to in the past have told me they don’t bother with customers looking to repair older devices,” said Rob Link, a right-to-repair advocate who owns a company that sells repair parts for older devices including iPhones, iPods, and iPads. In the past, Link said, he would call up AASPs to see if they had older parts to sell “but I would stop when no one did.”
“If you’re taking in a vintage piece of equipment [to an AASP], outside of them still having something sitting on the shelf from years before, you’re not going to be able to get service,” said Adrian Avery-Johnson, the owner of Bridgetown Electronics Repair, an independent repair shop located in Portland, Oregon.
AASPs are businesses that Apple has authorized to conduct repairs with access to original Apple parts and diagnostic tools. While AASPs are permitted to repair out-of-warranty devices, including vintage devices, Avery-Johnson believes the incentive structure of the program discourages businesses from doing so by financially rewarding them based on how quickly they conduct repairs on in-warranty devices or those covered by AppleCare. It would be “burdensome,” Avery-Johnson said, for AASPs to manage a parallel supply chain of parts for older models, especially when time spent working on those models is “time that they could be doing a supported repair” to remain in good standing with Apple.
“I don’t believe I ever ran into an Apple device I couldn’t find a part for somewhere in the world.”
Vintage is “another word for dropping support,” Gay Gordon-Byrne, executive director of the Repair Association, told me in an email. Gordon-Byrne said that most manufacturers designate an “end of service life” date, and that five years is “not particularly nefarious while clearly forcing consumers into new purchases.” Apple says that it loses money on device repair, so it makes sense that the company wouldn’t be incentivized to offer repair service for products that are long past warranty.
Sara Behdad, an associate professor at the University of Florida whose studies the life cycle of electronics and e-waste management, said that the cost of maintaining the supply chains needed to produce parts for vintage and obsolete models is likely “the main reason to dissuade [Apple] from offering repair services.”
“Even if they want to offer repair services, if the product was sold five years ago, it’s not cost-efficient for them to really have all the parts available,” Behdad said.
Apple declined to comment on the record for this story.
Just because Apple doesn’t want to be held responsible for fixing your old stuff doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try to, though. There are plenty of independent repair shops willing to fix vintage and obsolete Apple devices with new or used aftermarket parts. There are also countless free tutorials on YouTube and websites like iFixit that DIY-ers can follow to attempt to fix older devices at home.
“I don’t believe I ever ran into an Apple device I couldn’t find a part for somewhere in the world,” Link said. “This is true today with most of the top tier of independent repair shops.”
Generally speaking, the challenge of repairing an old device isn’t the availability of parts or expertise — it’s whether the device is repairable. Unfortunately, when it comes to Apple devices, repairability is a serious problem, one that only seems to be getting worse. Several repair professionals told me that today’s vintage devices are far easier to fix than the devices Apple will be sunsetting in a few years’ time due to a combination of design choices and software locks.
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On the design side, Apple’s modus operandi for the past decade has been to roll out products that are thinner, sleeker, and have fewer individual components than their predecessors. As a result, they are increasingly difficult to open up and fix, whether the case is secured shut with proprietary screws, the batteries are glued in place, or a key component like the hard drive is soldered to the logic board.
Even more troubling to some repair professionals is Apple’s increased use of anti-theft software locks that turn used devices into expensive bricks when they’re not properly reset before being handed off to a new owner. “Anyone in the [refurbishing] industry knows if you get a pile of iPhones, chances are half will be bricked because of activation lock,” said John Bumstead, whose business, RDKL, Inc., buys up old MacBooks from e-waste recyclers and restores them to good working order. A similar locking system involving the T2 security chip on MacBook Pros manufactured from 2018 onwards is starting to create the same problem for laptop refurbishers, he said.
Jessa Jones, a right-to-repair advocate and the owner of iPad Rehab, an independent repair shop located near Rochester, NY, recently had an experience that crystallized the difference between fixing a vintage Apple device and a modern one. A family sent her a dead 2008 MacBook in the hopes that they could recover photos from the hard drive. Jones was able to take the hard drive out of the computer, connect it to a working MacBook, and download the photos without any hassle. Soon after, she received another request to recover data from a MacBook, this one from 2017. By that year, Apple was soldering the memory onto the logic board, and this computer’s logic board was dead. In order to even attempt to remove the data, Jones had to spend hundreds of dollars purchasing a proprietary Apple tool to suck the data off the board. This tool appears to have been discontinued in MacBooks released in 2018 onward.
“I spent a day thinking [the 2017 MacBook owner’s] data was unrecoverable because the memory is soldered,” Jones said. “That would be the case if it was a 2020 MacBook.”
Unless Apple is forced to make a course correction on repairability, whether through consumer pressure or the passage of new laws and regulations, breathing new life into old devices is likely to keep getting harder. Bumstead expects to see many more laptops that are bricked by activation locks or shredded by e-waste recyclers because it’s more cost-effective than disassembling them. “The future is bleak,” he said.
Ultimately, more unfixable devices means more devices becoming part of the e-waste stream, already the fastest-growing waste stream on the planet at 50 million tons a year and counting. And because most of our spent electronics aren’t formally recycled for materials recovery, their untimely deaths also fuel more environmentally destructive mining and carbon-intensive manufacturing to produce replacements. Oh, and we could soon run short on some of the obscure metals we need to do so.
I don’t blame Apple for not wanting to fix my noisy, aging iMac. In fact, not long after speaking with Apple Support, I discovered a much better option: a $25 replacement CPU fan on iFixit, along with a step-by-step installation guide. The repair looks a bit challenging, but I’m grateful I have the opportunity to try. When this computer finally dies and I’ve got no choice but to upgrade, I wonder if that will still be the case.