Computer-themed cases of obsolescence by design

Article By : Brian Dipert

These cases of obsolescence by design are all computer-themed; what real-life examples have you experienced lately?

My colleague David Benjamin covered the topic of “obsolescence by design” (or as he called it, “Planned Obsolescence in the Digital Age”) over at EE Times in mid-March. And as longstanding readers may recall, I also regularly revisit the topic, most recently last August. The topic isn’t just conceptual to me; I also frequently experience it personally: herein some recent examples, all (coincidentally) computer-themed.

The laptop that turned into an egg

Back in late November 2017, I saw (and promptly bought) a loaded, still brand-new (therefore still eligible for AppleCare+ warranty extension) “early 2015” model 13” Apple Retina MacBook Pro at B&H Photo Video. It’s been my primary work system ever since, aside from a brief stint at a local Apple Store nine months post-purchase for an under-warranty motherboard replacement. Its extended warranty expired last November, alas, and shortly thereafter (isn’t that always the way it works out?) I started noticing it slightly wobbling on my desk. At first I convinced myself that it was my imagination, but eventually it got too severe to ignore.

screenshot of the about this mac window for a 2015 MacBook Pro

Here’s what it looked like open, at the point where I finally threw in the towel (note that only the center of the underside is making contact with the desk):

photo of a swollen MacBook Pro open

And here it was with the lid supposedly closed (note the gap between the lid and the keyboard):

photo of a swollen MacBook Pro almost closed on a desk

In contrast, here’s the “late 2013” model surrogate system I temporarily pressed into service (and upgraded to MacOS 10.14 “Mojave” in the process):

screenshot of the about this mac window for a 2013 MacBook Pro

photo of a 2013 MacBook Pro open on a desk

photo of a 2013 MacBook Pro closed on a desk

Big difference, eh?

So what happened? Battery chemistry adepts already know the answer to this one. Lithium-ion battery packs like the ones in this laptop last the longest when they’re used as batteries, i.e. not perpetually being trickle-charged, but allowed to discharge regularly. Unfortunately, I have a longstanding nasty habit of using my laptops as mini-desktop computers, historically standalone and more frequently of late also tethered to external displays, but pretty much always running on AC. To wit, here’s the relevant portion of the system info statistic report on the early 2015 system, captured at the point where I decided I’d had enough with its swelling:

screenshot of system info window showing power statistics for the 2015 MacBook Pro

Only 144 battery cycles logged through over three years of use. In contrast, here’s the report for the late 2013 surrogate system, which I’d bought used:

screenshot of system info window showing power statistics for the 2013 MacBook Pro

699 cycles logged, even after doing nothing but sitting in a box for the 1.5 years since it came into my possession: that’s more like it.

But look back at that earlier report. The battery condition was still reported as “normal.” The system was still charging normally, in fact, and on the rare occasions when I had it off AC, it seemed to still have reasonable battery discharge (i.e. between-charges operating life) rates. Herein why I dragged my feet on doing anything. Clearly, however, I was nearing the point where the trackpad, for example, would start acting wonky. If I waited too long, the system board might crack, or worse explosions and flames aren’t out of the realm of possibility.

So why didn’t I just replace the battery pack myself? I’ll quote just a couple of paragraphs from iFixit’s online repair guide (which is worth a full perusal if you can spare the time):

Level of Difficulty: Difficult

Steps: 36

Time Required: 45 minutes – 2 hours

iFixit adhesive remover is highly flammable. Perform this procedure in a well-ventilated area. Do not smoke or work near an open flame during this procedure.

To minimize risk of damage, turn on your MacBook and allow the battery to fully discharge before starting this procedure. A charged lithium-ion battery can create a dangerous fire if accidentally punctured. If your battery is swollen, take extra precautions.

All that, and the iFixit kit (including tools, adhesive removal, and even protective gloves) is $99.99. Yeah, you can find batteries for slightly lower prices on Amazon, eBay, and elsewhere, but they’re not complete kits, and considering the time and effort, I don’t want to take a chance on a no-name battery.

I briefly thought about bailing on the system completely and doing a full-disclosure charity donation, but as you can see from the above screenshots, the early 2015 system has twice the soldered-down RAM of its older surrogate. It also has twice the SSD capacity and it’s noticeably faster, too. I don’t know if the difference is due to the newer-generation CPU/GPU, the faster DRAM and/or SSD, or what, but it was hard to go backwards. So, after striving mightily (but ultimately unsuccessfully) to convince Apple to grant me a gratis “just out of warranty” fix, I went ahead and spent $200 (plus $20 for roundtrip shipping) on the repair.

All in all, truth be told, it wasn’t a bad investment. That shipping charge translated to a one-day FedEx in each direction, turns out, and they also turned around the repair in a day, so I had it back in my hands within a week. The $200 pays for not only the battery pack replacement but also a brand-new keyboard and trackpad. I didn’t have to worry about causing a fire at my house or (less dramatically) ruining the system in the process of attempting the battery swap myself. I also upgraded it to MacOS 10.14 “Mojave” before putting it back into regular use. And it’s like-new now; I’m typing these very words on it, in fact. I only wish that Apple hadn’t turned its back on user-replaceable batteries of years past, no matter that I realize the systems are slimmer as a result.

The hybrid PC that’s turning into an egg

This story’s shorter, but that’s because it’s only begun. Remember the Microsoft Surface Pro 5 with LTE that I told you about last year? About a month ago, I noticed a weird white blotch in the lower left corner of the LCD (it’s right below the Mozilla Thunderbird icon on the desktop):

photo of a Microsoft Surface Pro screen with a white blotch

Abundant online research of others’ experiences has reluctantly convinced me that it’s caused by initial swelling of the battery behind the LCD, which is pressing on some intermediary component between the two. Eventually, of course, it’ll turn into an egg, too, and of course its battery pack is no easier to user-replace (although hey, it’s at least less expensive!). And yes, I also rarely run it apart from its AC tether; old dogs, new tricks.

Perfectly good, albeit obsolete, hardware

Speaking of upgrades to MacOS 10.14 “Mojave,” Apple historically has supported (with security patches, bug fixes, and the like) not only its most recent O/S revision but also the prior two. And I generally run the oldest supported version, both (speaking of bugs) because it’s the most mature and because I can delay dealing with Apple’s inevitable de-featuring. MacOS 10.14 no longer reliably runs older non-subscription versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite, for example, and MacOS 10.15 “Catalina” drops all support for legacy 32-bit applications; rinse and repeat.

So it is that, until recently, I’d been running MacOS 10.13 “High Sierra,” which initially dates from September 2017, on my stable of Apple hardware. As of last November’s “gold” availability of MacOS 11 “Big Sur,” however, ongoing support for MacOS 10.13 ceased. So began my yearly O/S upgrade cycle, which abruptly, sadly ended in one case. Regular readers may recall that I’ve long used a mid-2011 Mac mini as my primary desktop system; I’d successfully (eventually) upgraded it to 16 GBytes of RAM, twice as much as Apple had said was possible, and I’d also supercharged its boot and application load speed courtesy of an external Firewire-tethered SSD.

Turns out, however, that Apple dropped support for this particular model in the transition from “High Sierra” to “Mojave.” As far as I can gather, this is because with “Mojave” the company deprecated support for OpenGL as its graphics API in favor of its own “Metal” API and decided to not support the Intel HD Graphics 3000 graphics generation found in the mid-2011 Mac mini. Unofficial workarounds such as dosdude1’s Mojave Patcher Tool are wonky at best, so I instead decided to donate it to my new best friends at Evergreen Christian Outreach (with upfront disclosure, of course). It’s going to a good home where it will hopefully lead an even longer life, and I’ve replaced it with a still-supported “late 2014” successor (whose interesting “Fusion Drive” architecture will likely prompt at least one post to come), but I still find it quite frustrating to have to dispense with perfectly good hardware obsoleted by evolving software.

The case of the disappearing hard drive space

This last one was ultimately resolved in my favor, though not without plenty of angst, research, and effort. Long-term support for Windows 7 ended more than a year ago, as you may already know, but I’m still stubbornly clinging to it on my Windows Media Center “server” (one of these days I’ll bite the bullet and upgrade to Windows 8.1, which is still supported through the end of next year). Microsoft-supplied program guide updates ceased nearly two years ago, but the combination of enthusiast-developed EPG123 and subscription service Schedules Direct more-than-ably fills the gap.

Of late, however, the system had started acting a bit “off.” I’d notice, for example, that thumbnail images of already-recorded programs would disappear until I rebooted the system, then disappear anew for newly-recorded programs (rinse and repeat, redux). Windows 7 (either in its entirety or, minimally, the Media Center service running on it) would also randomly crash. And one day, post-crash and post-reboot, the O/S informed me that the hard drive was nearly full. Indeed, checking the 1 TByte hybrid HDD (speaking of Fusion Drives and surrogates) stats confirmed that there was well under a GByte free. That didn’t make sense. I was recording programs to a separate external USB-tethered drive. And the only things notable installed on the system HDD, aside from aforementioned EPG123, were TightVNC for “headless” remote access (this is Windows 7 Home, not Professional with built-in remote desktop facilities) and the DynDNS update client.

I ran Disk Cleanup, but it didn’t find anything significant to delete. So I instead took matters into my own hands, analyzing the HDD contents via a copy of WinDirStat, which reported around 900 GBytes of files in the windows/temp folder??!! It turns out, my research uncovered, that this is a known bug with not only Windows 7 but also Windows 8:

I’ve had repeated instances where a Windows 7 x64 client runs out of hard drive space, and found that C:\Windows\TEMP is being consumed with hundreds of files with names following the pattern “cab_XXXX_X”, generally 100 MB each, and these files are constantly generated until the system runs out of space. Upon removing the files & rebooting, the files start being generated again.

I’ve found that this is caused by large Component-Based Servicing logs. These are stored at C:\Windows\Logs\CBS. The current log file is named “cbs.log”. When “cbs.log” reaches a certain size, a cleanup process renames the log to “CbsPersist_YYYYMMDDHHMMSS.log” and then attempts to compress it into a .cab file.

However, when the cbs.log reaches a size of 2 GB before that cleanup process compresses it, the file is too large to be handled by the makecab.exe utility. The log file is renamed to CbsPersist_date_time.log, but when the makecab process attempts to compress it the process fails (but only after consuming some 100 MB under \Windows\Temp). After this, the cleanup process runs repeatedly (approx every 20 minutes in my experience). The process fails every time, and also consumes a new ~ 100 MB in \Windows\Temp before dying. This is repeated until the system runs out of drive space.

Thankfully, the fix described here worked for me, although I had to jump through a few more hoops than documented to get the aforementioned service stopped first. I’m now back to 875 GBytes free on the 1 TByte drive, as expected, and Windows is running normally again. And yeah, I know, Windows 7 is no longer supported. But that bug, according to the writeup, has been around since 2014. And the fix isn’t feasible for implementation by the masses, who will likely instead just throw up their hands and buy a new PC instead. Sigh.

What real-life examples of “obsolescence by design” have you experienced lately? Tell your tales in the comments!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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