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Editor’s Repair, Reliability Rant Oblivious to Product Reality

I recently read a column “We need the right to repair our gadgets” in The Wall Street Journal (you can read it here or here) in which the author was angry about what he saw as the “planned obsolescence” of so many electronic devices, and how we should demand that they be repairable. The example he used was a friend's TV: when it failed, the estimates to get it repaired were on the order of $200-$300, which was too much for a $350 item.

He decided to seize control for the situation, opened up the TV, found a visibly blown component that turned out to be a capacitor (now that's luck!). Calling on some friends for help, he got a replacement part, bought a soldering iron, and watched a YouTube video on how to solder. Soon he had the unit working fine, at a cost of only a few dollars and a few hours.

I'll say: good for him. What he did was sensible and worth trying. But that's where my accolades stop. He went on to use this incident as an indicator of the broader example of how vendors are cleverly and deliberately using unrepairability and high repair costs as their planned obsolescence tactic, so that as soon as something fails, we might as well buy a new one.

Part of that statement is true: these days, when something fails, it very often is not repairable, and that's unfortunate. But the rationale for it is not planned obsolescence. Instead, it's that if you want a product that is small, lightweight, and low cost, it usually has to be designed and built as a tightly packed device with little opportunity for disassembly, repair, and re-assembly. Today's smartphones, for example, would not be possible in their size and price if removable boards and replaceable components (active and passive) were used.

Further, despite his bad experience with the blown capacitor, today's electronics are actually fairly reliable; in fact, many of the “failures” are really due to software bugs and physical repair isn't the issue.

I wonder, rather than the capacitor, would he have been able to identify, remove, and replace a bad IC in the power-supply subsystem or the communications core? Of course not: having a visibly blown capacitor is really just one the many things that can go bad. Changing bad bulk- capacitor is one thing, but I don’t think a soldering-iron novice could find and replace pin-head sized passive on any of today's board or an IC with hundred of contacts underneath.

Would you ever try repairing the electronics in your phone?

Would you ever try repairing the electronics in your phone?

Let's face it: part of the “deal” we as consumers made to pack so much functionality into such a small box at such a low cost was to give up “something.” That something was the option, in many cases, to diagnosis and repair a failed unit (with a few exceptions).

To read the rest of this article, visit EBN sister site EE Times.

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