When Gadgets Should Be Repaired, Not Replaced

When I was 14, my stereo broke. Opening it up, I found a small piece of metal had been disconnected from the circuit board at the base. I grabbed a lighter and melted the piece back in place. I plugged the stereo back in and turned it on. It worked. It was the first time I actually got something I tried to fix working.

Picture: odomut/Flickr

The pure joy that follows when you fix a gadget that was once broken is hard to match, and it can become an addiction. However, as time goes on, gadgets have become smaller and harder to work on. They're harder to fix, and most of us decide it's easier to just buy a new one than to repair an old one.

But just because it's easier to move on to a new gadget doesn't mean we should. Last month, I had the misfortune of losing both a hard drive and a graphics card on a notoriously impossible to work on iMac. My first reaction was to just abandon it and move on, but my research showed that both of those parts were replaceable. The final cost of repair? About $400 and a lot of time. The cost of a new 27-inch iMac? At least $1999.

It's not just the fact I saved a lot of money; it's that I didn't have to buy something new. I fixed the computer I already paid (too much) money for and breathed life back into it. When that startup chime rang again, it made my heart skip a beat.

The point is that a quick repair like this can get you something that more than meets your needs. When you're done, you realise that the newest thing isn't necessary. For me, that new iMac was shiny but totally unneeded. Once I was up and running again, I was happy with the old one. It's not just about repairing, it's about making what you already have work, even when you think it shouldn't.

We talk a lot about the value of making things here and doing everything yourself. But as Wired pointed out recently, the maker movement is just half of the equation. We need a "fixer movement" too:

We need, in short, a fixer movement. This would be a huge cultural shift. In the 20th century, U.S. firms aggressively promoted planned obsolescence, designing things to break...

Today e-waste has become one of the fastest-growing categories of refuse. We chucked out 2.4 million tons of it in 2010 and recycled just 27 per cent. And “recycling” often means shipping electronics overseas, where the toxic parts pollute developing countries. It’s a mess. A fixer movement could break this century-old system.

One superb place to start is fixing computers -- because these days old models perform nearly as well as new ones. As hardware hacker Andrew Huang has noted, cloud computing has artificially slowed Moore’s law: An older laptop runs a browser just fine. Plus, computers are often surprisingly fixable. Vincent Lai, a Fixer Collective volunteer, gets handed “dead” laptops -- “and for $US20 I can fix it. It’s a user-replaceable part! For $US20 the user could have fixed it.”

And Wired's totally right. Computers and laptops are deceptively easy to fix, and their lives are a heck of a lot longer than most of us give them credit for. I fixed and cleaned up my seven-year-old laptop to pass on to my dad a few months ago, and it's still kicking just as strongly as it did the day I bought it. All it took was a few hours of work.

Of course, it's not just about computers. It's about every product we buy. From toasters to speakers, having the skill set (or the willingness to look online for repair guides), patience and ability to fix the stuff we pay for really matters. Unfortunately, it's not always as easy as it should be.

In some cases, companies are just making their products smaller and less user-serviceable. But the other problem is that if you try to fix something yourself, you're going to void the warranty. All of these issues have prompted sites like iFixit and Sugru to post their own "fixer manifestos". Both boil down to a pretty simple set of ideas and rights, including:

  • The right to open and repair our things without voiding a warranty.
  • The right to choose your own repair technician.
  • The right to troubleshooting instructions and documentation.
  • The right to hardware that doesn't require proprietary tools to repair.

While it would certainly be nice for companies to make repairs easier for us, it boils down to making the effort to fix and preserve things ourselves. The maker movement, and the idea of creating something from nothing, is a lot easier to sell than just fixing up that 30-year-old blender.

Seriously, from bikes, cars and chairs, to computers, repairs are surprisingly easy to do yourself. After all, when a broken gadget is brought back to life, you feel the same elation as powering something on for the first time.


    When I was 18 I was given a laptop at work and told if I could fix it I could keep it, otherwise throw it out. I opened it up and found that the only thing wrong with it was the connection to the power button had come loose. Got myself a perfectly good laptop for nothing!

    Love those situations when a device is buggered, so having a crack at fixing it (when you have the time) is worthwhile even if only for resale value.

    When I were a lad, and thankfully that is not all that long ago, my dad and I always fixed our household appliances. I try to do that today. Being a computer guy obviously helps, but I try and reduce waste, reuse what I can and repurpose where I cannot. Then I recycle.

    Recently my 9 year old son was tasked with a homework project to come up with ways to reduce, etc. I introduced him to the repurpose part of the equation as an option to recycle and his homework got top marks in his class for a creative way to go about the recycling process.

    We have to force companies to stop making things uselss beyond their planned life. They want to sell more, I want to buy one good one that lasts me a few years, and that I can repair. If you stop bying the latest gee-gaw they'll get the hint. Unfortunately there are too many mice hitting the feeder bar, and not enough wondering whether we should. Hopefull this will bring a little more light to the conversation.

    Last edited 25/06/13 10:57 am

    I love the idea of fixing and repurposing, but I suffer from the same thing a lot of people do - no space to work on things and not the right kind of tools.
    I'd love to see more places like communal sheds where people could go and work on things like this, then I think we'd see an increase in the repair rate.
    It's also a good self esteem booster too - I know my son had a total positive change in his self belief when we started to work on things together, even the odd failure and lost cause was a learning experience.

      Add to the lack of tools - my hands aren't as good as they used to be. Cracking open an old iPod [to replace the battery] has gone from difficult to oops, I damaged the case.
      I would REALLY LIKE someone to make replacement cases for old iPods etc. that are "dead simple" to open. You could combine that with different case styles: I'm thinking of a 3mm thicker case holding a battery with double the operating time.
      If someone offered you a Mac powerbook that was all of 3mm thicker, but extended the [advertised] 7 hours of use out to 10 or 11 hours, would you buy it? With a bonus of a user-replaceable battery, and access to the motherboard?

    My favourite target for repairing is motors. I sometimes pick old tools up from verge hard rubbish collections (drills, saws etc.) and every one of them I've been able to fix simply by replacing the carbon brushes. These cost a few cents to a few dollars depending on the size. As I now have enough drills, I'm getting fussier these days. I picked up a compound mitre saw the other week that now works perfectly; good timing too, as I used it that weekend for a busy bee at my son's school.

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