All That Glitters Is Not Gold

With the release of the iPhone 8 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 anticipated this month, it’s a little hard to ignore the hype that new reveals can bring in the technology world. As consumers, we tend to want the latest and greatest devices, not wanting to be left behind the ever increasing technological curve of obsolescence, and the manufacturers know we’re willing to pay a premium for these brand new items. Preorders for the Galaxy Note 8’s start at $930 and iPhone 8’s cost is being estimated to be the first iPhone to go for over $1000. Now, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that’s a pretty hefty price tag for a device that may last you 2-3 years due to planned obsolescence or less if you’re one of the few individuals who buys each year’s model new regardless if the previous phone works or not (please stop).

So, I wanted to take a look at some of the features of smartphones that sound new and exciting and level the playing field a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I love new technology as much as the next person, but the big developments these devices tout aren’t really game changers… especially when comparing them to the last models that were released.

Smartphone

Screen resolution
1080p is losing out in favor of 4K for televisions and larger displays but still is at the high end of the screen resolution spectrum for phones… at the moment. But consider the size of your smartphone for a moment, is 1080p really necessary for a handheld device? Higher screen resolutions require more power to operate, not only because of the screen, but also the processor, draining your battery faster than lower resolution screens like those set to 720p would. Screen resolution isn’t the only factor to be considered when looking for a quality image, screen size comes into play as well. There is a big difference between having 1080p on a 5 inch screen versus a 72 inch screen; this is because the factor you want to look at is pixel density – or how many pixels there are per square inch. 300ppi (Pixels Per Inch) or so exceeds what the human eye is able to distinguish at a normal viewing distance. Many devices nowadays tout high ppi in their screens: the iPhone 7plus has 407 ppi and the Galaxy S8 has a whopping 570 ppi… that means you’d have to hold the phone closer than 6 inches to your eyes to make out the pixels on the screen. Basically, if you typically hold your phone over a foot away from your face when you’re looking at it, anything over 300ppi is just gravy.

Broken Glass back phone

Glass backs
Sure, they look absolutely beautiful from a design standpoint, but do little to protect your device should it be dropped. Gorilla glass, the type frequently used in smartphones, is designed to be damage resistant. The problem is it’s glass and any small surface marring – those tiny scratches your phone gets from everyday wear and tear – can weaken the overall structure of the glass making it more likely to shatter. Not to mention that glass on both sides of a device can make for a slippery surface conducive to jumping out of pockets with little warning; even a short drop to the carpet can have bad results and many glass back devices rely heavily on adhesive to hold the device together and this can make repairs quite a bit more stressful depending on how the device was designed.

image of smartphone

Curved-edge screens
While comfortable to hold and allowing for extra display area, curved-edge screens are some of the most difficult to repair and/or replace. Not only that, but according to a 2015 article from Tech News about the creation of 3D thermoformed glass used for the Galaxy S6 almost half of the screens produced were unusable… which means for every screen made another was thrown away. Also, that curve to the screen adds considerable cost to it; the cost of a flat gorilla glass screen can start at around $3, but curving the display runs the cost up to around $25 a screen.

Smart phone with water dropsWater resistance
Water resistance is great for those who are accident prone, but water resistant does not mean the device is water proof and issues can still arise with the device, most commonly problems with the speakers and ports. Although it’s a touted selling feature in many smartphones these days, there’s no warranty to back up the water resistance claims.

charging low battery phone

Internal batteries
Long battery life is what everyone looks for in a phone, but what happens when that battery wears out after two years of recharging? Many devices nowadays have sealed in their batteries in order to get higher water resistance ratings and subtly force you into purchasing a new phone every few years when the battery just won’t hold a charge anymore.

Finger print in blue

Fingerprint readers 
To be fair, these have come quite a ways since they were first introduced, but identity theft through fingerprint replication can be done albeit a bit troublesome and unlikely. But consider if someone did manage to duplicate your thumbprint, what can be done about keeping your device secure? It’s not like you can get a new thumbprint, that’s unique to you as an individual. Changing a password seems far simpler.

Take your time when deciding to make a device purchase so that you can evaluate your wants and needs and distinguish between the two and we at the Gadget Garage encourage you – whenever possible – to prolong the use of a device you own, because the most sustainable device you will ever find is the one that you already have.

*Links found in this article are provided for reference purposes and are not an endorsement by the Illini Gadget Garage or any outside entities.

Proposed Right to Repair Legislation in Illinois

Illinois is one of 12 states currently with proposed legislation that would support what is called the “right to repair”—that is, the right of consumers and smaller independent repair businesses to have access to instructions, parts, and tools necessary to repair electronics. If passed into law, this type of legislation would require manufacturers of electronic equipment to sell repair parts and release service information to consumers and independent repair shops.

For more information on the “right to repair” movement, see our previous posts, Introducing Right to Repair and its Roots in the Automotive Industry and Right to Repair and the Tech Industry. You should also check the web site of the Repair Association, previously the Digital Right to Repair Coalition, a group which advocates for the repair industry and legislation to protect consumers’ right to repair the devices they own, or to take them for repair to the repair shop of their choice (not just those controlled by the manufacturers). See their “Statement of Principles” at https://repair.org/association/. This page also includes a summary of the history of the right to repair movement.

In Illinois the proposed bill is called the Digital Fair Repair Act (HB 3030). See the full text of the bill on the Illinois General Assembly web site. According to the General Assembly site, that bill was referred to the House Rules Committee in March 2017 and no recent action has taken place. If you’re interested in contacting your elected officials to express your support for this bill, the Repair Association has made it easy for you, with a form that will help you contact legislators based on the zip code you enter–see https://illinois.repair.org/. Of course, the form can also assist you in determining your legislators if you care to contact them and oppose the bill.

Other states with similar proposed legislation include Nebraska, New York, Minnesota, Kansas, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Tennessee, North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, and New Jersey. To learn more about proposed legislation in those states, see https://repair.org/stand-up/.

Incidentally, as in so many cases, the European Union is ahead of the US in terms of facilitating the repair of consumer products and thinking about designing products with repair in mind in the first place. On July 4, 2017 the European Parliament voted to approve a resolution calling on the European Commission, member countries and producers to take steps to improve repairability. While the resolution doesn’t place requirements into law, it does illustrate the desire of elected officials to address the issue of repair and design for repair in future laws and voluntary programs. See the 7/13/17 E-Scrap News article EU body takes aim at planned obsolescence in devices written by Jared Paben for further information.

drawing of wrench clasped in a fist enclosed in a circle
Right to Repair advocacy image from Repair.org

Group Laptop Teardown Offers Hands-on, No-Pressure Experience

Interested in taking a closer look at how your technology works? Want to try taking apart a device without the risk of damaging something you own? Stop in to the Illini Gadget Garage for a group teardown. We will work as a group to open and investigate a matching set of laptops in order to learn more about how they work and how to repair them. We only have 8 laptops available, so spots will fill up quickly. Reserve your spot today.

This event will be at our main location at 1833 S Oak Street, Champaign, IL on August 1, 2017 from 10:15 AM – 1:00 PM.

Close up of someone using a spudger to work on a circuit board. The words "Tech Teardown" appear in the upper right corner of the image.

 

Death by Design Screening, August 22 at Champaign Public Library

On Tuesday, August 22, the Illini Gadget Garage will be hosting a screening of the documentary Death by Design at the Champaign Public Library. Doors will open at 6:30 PM and the film will begin at 7:00. The film duration is 73 minutes.

The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances. The project promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream.

Death by Design explores the environmental and human costs of electronics, particularly considering their impacts in the design and manufacture stages, bearing in mind that many electronic devices are not built to be durable products that we use for many years. Cell phones, for example, are items that consumers change frequently, sometimes using for less than 2 years before replacing with a new model. When we analyze the effort put into, and potential negative impacts of, obtaining materials for devices through efforts like mining, the exposure to potentially harmful substances endured by laborers in manufacturing plants, and the environmental degradation and human health risks associated with informal electronics recycling practices in various parts of the word, the idea that we might see these pieces of technology as “disposable” in any way becomes particularly poignant. For more information on the film, including reviews, see http://deathbydesignfilm.com/about/ and http://bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/dbd.html. You can also check out the trailer at the end of this post.

After the film, there will be a brief discussion and Q&A session facilitated by Joy Scrogum, Sustainability Specialist from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) and project coordinator for the Illini Gadget Garage. UI Industrial Design Professor William Bullock will also participate in the panel discussion; other panelists will be announced as they are confirmed. Professor Bullock is also an adviser for the Illini Gadget Garage project; see more about IGG advisers at http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/meet-the-advisers/.  Check the IGG web site calendar and Facebook page for room details and panelist announcements.

Admission to this public screening is FREE, but donations are suggested and appreciated to support future outreach and educational efforts of the Illini Gadget Garage. See http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/donate/donation-form/ to make an online donation and http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/ for more information on the project.

Bullfrog Films presents…DEATH BY DESIGN from Bullfrog Films on Vimeo.

Webinar, 7/27/17–What the Tech? Learn Basic Electronic Component Function with the Illini Gadget Garage

Computers and smartphones are really complex machines, right? Well, if you know a little bit about them, they’re not all that intimidating. We’re going to break it down for you in our “What the Tech?” series of workshops, providing a basic walk through of different computer components and what they do.

This first presentation, via webinar, focuses on the basic components found in computers, smartphones, and other electronic devices and their functions in making a computer operate properly. Components to be covered include, but are not limited to: processors, hard drives, memory cards, and cooling elements. The Illini Gadget Garage’s Amanda Elzbieciak will guide you through the basics. The presentation will take place on Thursday, July 27 from 10-10:45 AM. (Note that the our campus workshop will be closed from 10-11 that day as a result.) Register online at https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/331629583625614595

This webinar presentation is free, but donations are appreciated to support future Illini Gadget Garage programming. The Illini Gadget Garage is a repair center that helps consumers with “do-it-together” troubleshooting and repair of minor damage and performance issues of electronics and small appliances which promotes repair as a means to keep products in service and out of the waste stream. In order to pay hourly staff to help the public and train and oversee volunteers, as well as to pay for expenses like utilities, consumables, etc., we rely on the generosity of sponsors like you or your organization! See http://wp.istc.illinois.edu/ilgadgetgarage/donate/donation-form/

A future presentation will offer hands-on opportunities to dismantle devices at our campus workshop. If you have suggestions for topics for future presentations, email us at illinigadgetgarage@gmail.com.

photo of various electronic components laid out on a table next to a ruler for scale

Greenpeace and iFixit Assign Reparability Grades, Advocate for Durable Electronics

iFixit, the self-proclaimed “free repair guide for everything, written by everyone,” and Greenpeace, the environmental organization which has in the past published a “Guide to Greener Electronics,” have teamed up to assess how easy or difficult it may be to repair over 40 popular electronic devices. The assessments, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops launched between 2015 and 2017, can be found online at https://www.rethink-it.org/.

As electronic devices become smaller and sleeker, it’s sometimes the case that decisions are made at the industrial design stage, that, while making the product lighter and more aesthetically pleasing, can adversely impact the ability to repair it, or to dismantle it for recycling and material recovery at its end-of-life. Perhaps a battery will be glued in to avoid inclusion of a structure to hold the battery in place. Or perhaps the device will be unable to be opened without a special tool that most consumers or even many independent repair shops wouldn’t have. iFixit has been giving electronics “repairability scores” for years, based on criteria such as these, as well as considerations of how quickly a device can be dismantled, whether parts are modular and durable, whether components such as memory are upgradeable, whether repair manuals for the product are readily available, etc. Scores are on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most easily repaired item. The trend toward devices that are harder to repair or upgrade has resulted in a proliferation of electronic waste. When something goes wrong with a gadget these days, it’s not uncommon to simply replace it without giving repair a second thought.

The scores in the joint iFixit/Greenpeace list are also on a scale of 1-10, but are based on a simpler list of criteria: battery replaceability, display replaceability, whether special tools are needed, and whether spare parts are available. This latest round of repairability scores is all part of a joint campaign called “RethinkIT.” The campaign is focused on encouraging consumers to be more aware of how manufacturers contribute to waste generation through poor design and planned obsolescence–and how such design decisions can actually benefit the manufacturers. After all, they WANT to sell electronics, so if you’re more likely to replace something than repair it, that’s a form of success from their perspective. The “RethinkIT” campaign ties the list of repairability scores to a petition consumers can sign, expressing their desire for manufacturers to create products that are meant to last.

At the Illini Gadget Garage, consumers can observe first hand how design decisions impact the repairability of their personal devices, as they work with our staff and volunteers to troubleshoot and repair them. It can be an eye-opening experience, which may end up influencing future decisions on device purchases.

Read more about the RethinkIT campaign here: Greenpeace and iFixit slam smartphone companies over e-waste

Example of score from the iFixit/Greenpeace list, showing the Fairphone 2 with a 10 out of 10 possible points.

Note: Organizations, products, or links included here are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute endorsement by the Illini Gadget Garage, the University of Illinois, or associated departments and projects.