Green Initiatives in the Era of Apple Silicon

I will not bury the lede: I’m going to whine about modularity in Apple’s computers.

I greatly appreciate how Apple’s devices are tightly integrated and pack enormous power into very thin enclosures. The downside, as Apple has pushed their hardware in this direction, is that it went from “difficult” to “impossible” to do anything with hardware inside of Apple’s cases. I’m not cynical enough to suggest that Apple has only done this to charge exorbitant prices for their RAM and SSD’s at the time Macs are purchased, though I’m sure that certainly is a perk. It seems to be a very genuine desire to package peak performance.

However, the speed and power trade-off is that Macs are more disposable than ever. Not immediately disposable, heaven’s no, but that shipping configuration will be the same from the time it’s boxed for shipment to the time it’s e-waste. Apple highlights recycling programs, and trade-in programs to mitigate it, but recycling a computer isn’t zero-waste alchemy, and certainly nothing like the impact of upgrading an existing computer. When Apple refers to “longevity” of devices in their environmental reports they’re only talking about the the hardware being durable.

Memory Over Time

Look, I get it, soldering the RAM together with the M-chip gives Apple an incredible performance advantage over moving the RAM to chips that are seated in slots on the motherboard. It’s also not elegant. Savvy nerds would upgrade their RAM with inexpensive (relative to Apple’s prices) DIMMS and sometimes run into problems with the quality of those chips which was a support headache. However, the key thing is that when there were memory problems, that chip could be yoinked right out of there.

The soldered RAM problem also extends to perceptions around how much RAM to buy at the outset, knowing that it can never be changed. If you guess wrong, or had guessed based on conditions that were true at time of purchase, then the only recourse is to trade-in the machine and buy a new one, even if that new one is the same except for the RAM size.

AppleInsider found an interview where Bob Borchers, Apple vice president of worldwide product marketing, said that 8 GB of RAM is really more like having 16 GB on other systems because of how efficiently the Mac uses the RAM. Sure, ~Jan~ Bob. I won’t litigate exactly how much magic RAM certain kinds of customers need, or what the floor is on RAM in Macs, but that Bob is talking about this at all highlights a genuine concern buyers have.

Will the RAM be enough at first, and will it continue to be enough?

I, obviously, don’t have a solution that doesn’t sacrifice performance, but there’s gotta be something greener than this. Do you have socketed M chips with their RAM that can be popped out whole?

I don’t take as much of an issue with storage. It’s easier to figure out your needs based on current usage than it is to guess at RAM usage over a period of time. The prices Apple charges are highway robbery, but it’s the price of doing business. It’s just that sometimes “drives” fail —chips fail. A lot needs to be replaced when that happens on these systems where the NAND is soldered on.


We’re all charmed by all-in-one computers. Well, except for the hideous Molar Mac. They are, however, supremely wasteful when you consider the longevity all-in-one displays, and their enclosures, vs. their computer components.

Jason Snell, in his iMac review, and on his Upgrade podcast with Myke Hurley, lamented that Target Display Mode went away many years ago with the introduction of the Retina iMac. The bandwidth just wasn’t there to drive the panels in the iMac. Now, we absolutely have that bandwidth with Thunderbolt 3 and 4, but no Target Display Mode to turn an old iMac into an excellent monitor. Apple’s preferred solution is that you return the iMac to Apple for a pittance of what you paid for it to apply to the purchase of a new Apple Product.

That’s not that weird until you consider how long Apple uses some of its parts for. The panel Apple uses in its Studio Display is the same one that’s in Jason’s 5K iMac Pro. It’s been the same panel for years and years. The trade-in for that iMac Pro is a maximum of $550, and a Studio Display, with that same panel, is $1599. Why not just use the old display instead of creating a wasteful cycle?

It’s a pretty niche, pretty nerdy concern, I’ll absolutely grant you that. A lot of people would sooner trade in the computer and have a cleaner desk setup, but’s less discuss trading-in in the context of the M1 iMac.

The M1 iMac was introduced in 2020, and three years later there’s the M3 iMac. It is identical in every way to the previous model except for the M3, and the wireless connectivity. It was a refreshing design when it was introduced (some quibbles aside) so there’s no great urgency for it to be overhauled. However, because everything that changed is localized to the logic board, that tiny board could be swapped to make it the latest and greatest iMac. Even with everything soldered to the board.

Instead, if someone had an M1 iMac and wanted an M3 iMac they must trade-in for “up to $460” in credit towards buying a whole new computer.

Look, I’m not saying everyone wants to replace their logic boards, especially not with the unfriendly-to-service design of the iMac, but if the goal is to reduce waste, and emissions, why are we reprocessing and remanufacturing entire machines that are identical except for one thing? Where’s the logic in that? Oh right, it’s on a teeny-tiny PCB!

Why design a computer that has modular manufacturing, like reusing the same display panels, the same cases, the same speakers, the same anodized colors, the same cameras — for years and years — if the end product has none of that modularity?

Trade-in seems like it absolves everyone, but the iMac, as newly designed in 2020, and still manufactured today, contains only 14% recycled or renewable content. The logic board is less than 14% of the iMac’s content. That’s worse than any laptop Apple sells, which a lot of people would assume are pretty wasteful.

If the answer is that people concerned with the environment shouldn’t buy all-in-one computers than why does Apple sell them?

Battery Blues

The other week John Siracusa wrote that he thought Apple should go back to removable batteries. I honestly just furrowed my brow when I started reading it. It didn’t make a lot of sense, or seem all that likely in the context of swapping batteries, like road warriors used to do. We have high performance charging these days. However, in the context of waste, John is right on the money.

Finally, related to that last point, worn-out batteries are an extremely common reason that old tech products are traded in, recycled, or replaced. Removable batteries are an easy way to extend the useful life of a product. This leads to less e-waste, which is perfectly aligned with Apple’s environmental goals as 2030 approaches.

Of course, longer product lifetimes means fewer product sales per unit time, which seems to run counter to Apple’s financial goals. But this is a problem that can be solved using one of Apple’s favorite financial tools: higher product margins. If Apple can actually make products that have a longer useful life, it can charge more money for the extra value they provide.

Back in the day, I could bring my MacBook Pro in to the Apple Store, turn it over, and slide the spring-loaded release to pop out the battery. Then simply pay for the new battery, pop it in, and be on my merry way. Nothing approaching that experience is possible with an Apple product today.

Signifying Nothing

Ultimately, I don’t think any of thins whining means a lot, and how much of my kvetching is rooted in my reluctance to spend large sums of money in shorter spans of time? Probably most of it. Green-wash-concern-trolling, or whatever. That’s me, I suppose.

I don’t foresee a future where Apple optimizes around people upgrading Macs again. Hell, the Mac Pro completely comes apart like a Mr. Potato Head, but for absolutely no real reason at all since anything worth upgrading is soldered on. We’re not going back to daughter cards, or Processor Direct Slots. Nor will we have Apple Stores performing logic board swaps for any reason other than hardware failures.

2023-11-08 13:15:00

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