Closeup of the inside of a computer with the motherboard and a large CPU air-cooling system.

Open and the right to repair and modify


Last Updated on June 7, 2024 by David Both

A couple years ago, my wife’s iPad died a long, slow, lingering death that she finally took to the Apple store near us. They said they couldn’t fix it, despite the fact that it was just a dead battery, but they would happily sell her a new iPad which had a significantly higher price than her old one. She declined.

In lieu of another tablet, I set her up with one of my System76 laptops for use when we’re at home. She uses her mobile when we’re away.

The Ugly

There are lots of ugly things happening in the various technology industries that are so bad they are almost incomprehensible to me.

For desktop computers, stay away from Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP) if possible because they use nonstandard cases and parts intentionally designed to lock us in to their repair services and unique, proprietary hardware. Upgrades to new motherboards that will accommodate faster processors are not possible with these systems. I’ve also seen instances of Dell laptops that had an otherwise available but empty memory slot intentionally blocked so that a new memory module can’t be installed. This motherboard was the same as another Dell computer that did not have that slot blocked but cost more because it “supported more RAM.” If you do have Dell or HP be aware of their non-standard limitations.

Those intentionally imposed limitations do force people into discarding computers that could otherwise be repaired.

Most mobile phones and tablets are irreparable. If they are reparable, the cost is usually high enough to justify a new device instead. Laptops can be the same because every laptop model is unique and parts from one model won’t fit into another model, even one from the same manufacturer.

The right to repair and modify the hardware we purchase is as basic and important as the right to see and modify the code for the open source software we use. But it’s not always easy. Every device we have should be easily reparable — especially things that should be trivial like replacing the battery. A simple battery change for most of today’s tablets and phones requires specialized tools. Can you say spudger? No, I couldn’t find that in the dictionary either but it’s a tool used to “poke and prod” until the microscopic seam between the halves of the device can be separated enough to allow larger tools to separate them completely apart.

The devices that can’t be fixed, or that are perceived as being irreparable, are typically discarded into solid waste dumps, or even worse, illegal roadside dumps, or my local Wake County, NC, walking paths1. The harm done to the environment is devastating.

Historically, all laptops have been the victims of unique, one-off designs. Pretty much everything except memory and storage drives is so unique that they must be purchased from the original vendor.

All-in-one computers, as attractive as they are due to the space as they save and the reduction in the number of external cables they require, once again are limited to replacement of expensive proprietary parts that can only be sourced from the original vendor.

The Good

In 1995, David Dent, working at Intel, created and patented a design that standardized motherboards and power supplies. This ATX standard defined motherboard sizes, form factors, and mounting screw positions. It defined a standard space at the rear of the motherboard for external connectors such as various video connectors, USB devices, network connections, and more. It also defined the power supply connector form factors and the voltages on each pin of the connectors, as well as the shapes of power supplies and the locations of mounting screws. The power standards have been adjusted a bit over the years in response to developments such as power connectors for SATA storage devices, and the need for more power for multiple graphics cards.

The ATX standard created an environment in which many vendors began designing computer cases that were consistent with the ATX standards, thus producing a de-facto standard for computer cases. That standardization means that one can purchase a computer that adheres to the ATX standard and then replace the standard motherboards and power supplies when the old ones broke. This makes it unnecessary to discard the entire computer when something breaks. A secondary effect is that the motherboard — and power supply if necessary — can be upgraded at will, again leaving the case, existing disk drives — whether HDD or SSD — for use in the upgraded computer.

Two vendors have embraced the right to repair and to upgrade with a passion. System76 of Denver, Colorado, builds a complete line of repairable desktops, laptops, and keyboards. They’re also in the process of designing a new laptop that uses components that can be upgraded as well as repaired. All of their systems com installed with POP!_os, thier own Linux distribution and a derivative of Ubuntu.

Another company, Framework, builds laptops that are designed for ease of repair and upgrade. Although they only preinstall Windows, they are Linux-friendly enough to sell laptops without it installed so you can install your favorite Linux distribution.

Linux Rescues slow computers

Apart from direct hardware issues, many computers get discarded just because they are slow.

No – they’re not! Computers always run at their predetermined processor speeds but may be designed to slow down when nothing is going on to save energy. They can then go faster when needed. Most people are misled into purchasing a new computer when their old ones seem slow.

The problem lies in all the malware that is collected by Windows that forces the computer to speed up. That crapware includes the pop-ups that encourage or scare you into purchasing the latest version of some software. That junk monopolizes system memory and processor which takes system resources, is annoying, and wastes energy. It also means that the real software you need to use like your accounting application, web browser, or word processor, is starved for those system resources so doesn’t do its job as fast as you expect it to.

I have built most of my own computers during the last 25 years — except the laptops — and still have all of them. Well, in one sense at least. I’ve repaired most of my workstations that use tower-style cases, and two of my System76 laptops. Some of my workstations still have all their original components while others have been almost entirely replaced.

Over the years I have published some articles on this site about using Linux and reclaimed parts to restore older computers. Rather than reproduce all of that here, you can use the following links.

The bottom line of all those articles, is that using Linux can enable old and broken computers to remain useful for much longer than would be possible under the Windows bloatware.

Some final thoughts

Most computers that get discarded for various reasons can be fixed. That would help save the environment and reduce overall IT costs. Replacing Windows with Linux on old computers would extend their lives even more, further reduce the damage to the environment, and save even more money.


  1. Both, David,, E-Waste – Where does it go? ↩︎