Are tablets now disposable computing devices?

Sections: Features, iPad, iPad mini, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Opinions and Editorials

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With the price of 7″ tablets now plumbing the sub-$200 level, should these entry-level units be considered disposable computing devices?

ZNet’s Jason Perlow posed that question in a commentary last weekend, in which he relates an anecdote about his wife falling asleep in bed while using a Google Nexus 7 he’d recently passed on to her, dropping the tablet onto a tile floor, the impact of which shattered its glass screen. Perlow vetted out the cost of replacing the screen, discovering that ASUS charges about $170 to replace the digitizer/screen/glass assembly, and the parts for a DIY repair would cost about $140. The Nexus 7’s touch digitizer, LCD and touchscreen glass are fused together in the interest of saving both device thickness and overall cost, so you can’t just replace the glass if it gets broken. Perlow notes that a relevant point is Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK HD are both believed to use Corning Gorilla Glass for their screens, which the Nexus 7 doesn’t.

Conclusion: it makes more economic sense just to buy a new Nexus 7 than to repair a broken screen, what with a replacement 16GB model now selling for $199 (if you can find one), and the 32GB model going for $249.

So the operative question is: have tablets now become so cheap that they should be considered a disposable computing platform? Perlow deduces that in the case of 7″ devices, excepting the $329 iPad mini (which has a super-tough Gorilla Glass 2 screen), the answer is affirmative. But for 10″ devices with their $400 to $500 entry-level price range, not so much, the latter he deems as having an expected lifespan of 2 or 3 years, which sounds about right. The math dictates what makes sense.

My iPad 2 is just past the halfway mark of a three-year replacement cycle, although I may end up handing it off to my wife and buying whatever Apple releases in March, presuming they stick to their March major iPad upgrade roadmap. Even the current 4th-gen iPad would be a substantial upgrade from my iPad 2, what with the Retina display and A6X SoC. However, I will be surprised if we don’t see another iPad revision in March, and in the meantime, the iPad 2 still offers roughly the same features and performance as the hot-selling new iPad mini in a larger (more desirable for my purposes) form factor.

I’ve actually fallen asleep and dropped my iPad on the floor twice over the past 19 months—once caseless and onto hard ceramic tile; the second time in a thin case and onto wood. No damage sustained in either incident, which speaks well of the iPad’s ruggedness, and especially that of its high tensile strength Corning Gorilla Glass screen. Barring any more destructive incidents, I expect that the internal battery’s finite charge cycle capacity will eventually determine the end of the tablet’s useful service life, probably sometime after the three-year mark, at which point the iPad 2 will be too obsolete to consider returning it to Apple for a battery replacement.

So in that sense, even Apple tablets are essentially disposable devices, at least in the context of my personal and family history with computers. Currently, my newest Mac is nearly four years old, I still have two going-on-13-year-old Pismo PowerBooks in active service, and my wife’s daily driver is a 2004-vintage 17-inch PowerBook G4.

I’ve become addicted to the iPad, but I have to say that the whole concept of an item that costs $500 having a three-year lifespan rubs me the wrong way, both from cost and environmental perspectives. Unfortunately recent trends in Apple computer design and engineering—for example, the new Retina MacBook Pros—indicate that the Mac is headed down a similar “disposable device” road, at an even greater cost, which from my perspective amounts to value diminished rather than value added.

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