Energy and cloth use of a laptop
Not buying new laptops saves a lot of money, just also a lot of resources and environmental destruction. Co-ordinate to the most recent life cycle analysis, information technology takes three,010 to 4,340 megajoules of master energy to make a laptop – this includes mining the materials, manufacturing the machine, and bringing it to market. 
Each year, nosotros purchase betwixt 160 and 200 million laptops. Using the data in a higher place, this means that the production of laptops requires a yearly energy consumption of 480 to 868 petajoules, which corresponds to between one quarter and near one-half of all solar PV energy produced worldwide in 2018 (ii,023 petajoules).  The making of a laptop likewise involves a high material consumption, which includes a wide variety of minerals that may be considered scarce due to different types of constraints: economic, social, geochemical, and geopolitical. [four]
The production of microchips is a very energy- and material-intensive process, merely that is not the only problem. The high resource use of laptops is also considering they have a very short lifespan. Most of the 160-200 one thousand thousand laptops sold each year are replacement purchases. The average laptop is replaced every three years (in business) to v years (elsewhere).  My v.7 years per laptop experience is not infrequent.
Laptops don’t change
The report cited dates from 2011, and information technology refers to a motorcar made in 2001: a Dell Inspiron 2500. You are forgiven for thinking that this “virtually contempo life cycle assay of a laptop” is outdated, only it’south not. A 2015 inquiry paper discovered that the embodied energy of laptops is static over time. 
The scientists disassembled xi laptops of similar size, fabricated betwixt 1999 and 2008, and weighed the different components. Also, they measured the silicon die area for all motherboards and 30 DRAM cards produced over roughly the same menstruation (until 2011). They found that the mass and material composition of all cardinal components – battery, motherboard, hard drive, memory – did non change significantly, even though manufacturing processes became more efficient in energy and material employ.
The reason is simple: improvements in functionality residuum the efficiency gains obtained in the manufacturing process. Battery mass, memory, and hard disk mass decreased per unit of functionality but showed roughly abiding totals per yr. The aforementioned dynamic explains why newer laptops don’t show lower operational electricity consumption compared to older laptops. New laptops may be more energy-efficient per computational power, but these gains are offset past more computational power. Jevon’southward paradox is nowhere as evident as it is in computing.
All this means that there’s no environmental or fiscal benefit whatsoever to replacing an old laptop with a new one. On the opposite, the only thing a consumer can practise to meliorate their laptop’s ecological and economic sustainability is to use information technology for as long every bit possible. This is facilitated by the fact that laptops are now a mature engineering and take more than than sufficient computational power. One trouble, though. Consumers who endeavor to keep working on their sometime laptops are likely to end up frustrated. I presently explicate my frustrations below, and I’k pretty confident that they are not infrequent.
The three new laptops I used from 2000 to 2017.
My get-go laptop: Apple iBook (2000-2005)
In 2000, when I was working as a freelance scientific discipline and tech journalist in Belgium, I bought my starting time laptop, an Apple tree iBook. Fiddling more than two or 3 years subsequently, the charger started malfunctioning. When informed of the toll for a new charger, I was so disgusted with Apple’s sales practices – chargers are very cheap to produce, but Apple sold them for a lot of coin – that I refused to buy it. Instead, I managed to keep the charger working for a few more years, first by putting it under the weight of books and furniture, and when that didn’t work anymore, by putting it in a firmly tightened clench.
My second laptop: IBM ThinkPad R52 (2005-2013)
When the charger eventually died entirely in 2005, I decided to expect for a new laptop. I had just one demand: it should have a charger that lasts or is at least inexpensive to replace. I found more than I was looking for. I bought an IBM Thinkpad R52, and it was honey at beginning utilise. My IBM laptop was the Apple iBook counterpart, not just in terms of design (a rectangular box available in all colours as long as information technology’s black). More than importantly, the unabridged machine was congenital to last, built to be reliable, and congenital to exist repairable.
Circular and modular products are all the hype these days, just my IBM Thinkpad was precisely that. Every component in the laptop could be screwed off and replaced, the sturdy case (with steel hinges) was spacious plenty to make serious upgrades possible, and it had every connector you tin can imagine. My 2005 machine still works today, and I am convinced that it could proceed working for another 500 years if given proper care. Like a pre-industrial windmill, its lifetime could exist extended incessantly past gradually repairing and replacing every function that information technology consists of. The question is not how we can evolve towards a circular economy, but instead why we continue to evolve away from information technology.
My Thinkpad was more expensive to buy than my iBook, but at least I didn’t spend all that money on a beautiful design merely a decent calculator. The charger gave no problems, and when I lost it during a trip and had to purchase a new one, I could do so for a fair price. Lilliputian did I know that my happy purchase was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The IBM Thinkpad R52 from 2005.
My tertiary laptop: Lenovo Thinkpad T430 (2013-2017)
Fast frontwards to 2013. I am now living in Espana and I’one thousand running Low-tech Magazine. I’m still working on my IBM Thinkpad R52, just there are some bug on the horizon. Beginning of all, Microsoft volition presently force me to upgrade my operating system, considering support for Windows XP is to end in 2014. I don’t feel like spending a couple of hundred euros on a new operating system that would exist too enervating for my quondam laptop anyway. Furthermore, the laptop had gotten a bit ho-hum, even subsequently it had been restored to its factory settings. In curt, I savage into the trap that the hardware and software industries have gear up for us and fabricated the mistake of thinking that I needed a new laptop.
Having been so addicted of my Thinkpad, information technology was only logical to get a new ane. Here’s the trouble: in 2005, shortly after I had bought my first Thinkpad, Lenovo, a Chinese manufacturer that is at present the largest figurer maker in the globe, bought IBM’s PC business. Chinese companies don’t have a reputation for building quality products, especially not at the time. However, since Lenovo was still selling Thinkpads that looked nearly identical to those built past IBM, I decided to try my luck and bought a Lenovo Thinkpad T430 in April 2013. At a steep cost, merely I assumed that quality had to be paid for.
My mistake was clear from the beginning. I had to transport the new laptop back twice because its case was deformed. When I finally got one that didn’t wobble on my desk-bound, I rapidly ran into another problem: the keys started breaking off. I can notwithstanding recollect my atheism when information technology happened for the outset time. The IBM Thinkpad is known for its robust keyboard. If yous want to break it, you need a hammer. Lenovo obviously didn’t discover that so important and had quietly replaced the keyboard with an inferior i. Mind you lot, I tin be an aggressive typist, merely I have never broken whatever other keyboard.
I grumpily ordered a replacement central for 15 euros. In the months after that, replacement keys became a recurring toll. After spending more 100 euros on plastic keys, which would soon break again, I calculated that my keyboard had 90 keys and that replacing them all only once would cost me one,350 euros. I stopped using the keyboard altogether, temporarily finding a solution in an external keyboard. Nonetheless, this was impractical, especially for working abroad from dwelling – and why else would I want a laptop?
In that location was no getting around it anymore: I needed a new laptop. Again. Merely which one? For certain information technology would not be one fabricated by Lenovo or Apple.
Replacing all keys on my Lenovo T430 would accept cost me one,350 euros.
My fourth laptop: IBM Thinkpad X60s (2017-now)
Not finding what I was looking for, I decided to go dorsum in time. By at present, it had dawned on me that new laptops are of inferior quality compared to older laptops, even if they conduct a much higher price tag. I plant out that Lenovo switched keyboards effectually 2011 and started searching sale sites for Thinkpads congenital earlier that twelvemonth. I could have changed back to my ThinkPad R52 from 2005, just by now, I had go accustomed to a Castilian keyboard, and the R52 had a Belgian one.
In April 2017, I settled on a used Thinkpad X60s from 2006.  As of Dec 2020, the machine is in operation for almost four years and is 14 years one-time – three to five times older than the average laptop. If I loved my Thinkpad R52 from 2005, I admire my Thinkpad X60s from 2006. It’s just as sturdily built – it already survived a driblet from a table on a concrete flooring – only it’s much smaller and also lighter: 1.43 kg vs. iii.2 kg.
My 2006 Thinkpad X60s does everything I want information technology to exercise. I apply information technology to write manufactures, do research, and maintain the websites. I have also used it on-stage to give lectures, projecting images on a big screen. There’due south only one matter missing on my laptop, specially present, and that’south a webcam. I solve this past firing upwardly the cursed 2013 laptop with the broken keys whenever I demand to, happy to give it some utilise that doesn’t involve its keyboard. It could also be solved past a switch to the Thinkpad X200 from 2008, which is a newer version of the same model and has a webcam.
My ThinkPad X60s from 2006.
How to make an old laptop run similar it’s new
Not buying any more new laptops is not as simple as buying a used laptop. Information technology’s appropriate to upgrade the hardware, and it’southward essential to downgrade the software. At that place are 2 things you need to practice:
i. Use low free energy software
My laptop runs on Linux Lite, ane of several open up-source operating systems particularly designed to piece of work on former computers. The use of a Linux operating system is not a mere suggestion. There’southward no manner you’re going to revive an old laptop if y’all stick to Microsoft Windows or Apple OS because the machine would freeze instantly. Linux Light does not have the flashy visuals of the newest Apple and Windows interfaces, but it has a familiar graphical interface and looks anything merely obsolete. Information technology takes very little infinite on the hard disk drive and demands even less computing power. The result is that an sometime laptop, despite its limited specifications, runs smoothly. I also use light browsers: Vivaldi and Midori.
Having used Microsoft Windows for a long time, I find Linux operating systems to be remarkably improve, even more so considering they are free to download and install. Furthermore, Linux operating systems exercise not steal your personal data and practise non attempt to lock you in, like the newest operating systems from both Microsoft and Apple do. That said, even with Linux, obsolescence cannot be ruled out. For example, Linux Lite will stop its support for 32-chip computers in 2021, which ways that I will soon accept to look for an culling operating system, or purchase a slightly younger 64-bit laptop.
2. Replace the hd with a solid-state drive
In recent years, solid-state drives (SSD) have become bachelor and affordable, and they are much faster than hard disk drives (HDD). Although y’all can revive an former laptop by but switching to a light-weight operating system, if you also supervene upon the hard disk drive drive with a solid-land drive, you lot’ll have a machine that is just as fast as a make new laptop. Depending on the storage chapters you want, an SSD will cost y’all between xx euro (120 GB) and 100 euro (960 GB).
Installment is pretty straightforward and well documented online. Solid-state drives run silently and are more than resistant to physical shock, but they take a shorter life expectancy than difficult disk drives. Mine is now working for almost 4 years. It seems that both from an environmental and financial viewpoint, an old laptop with SSD is a much improve choice than ownership a new laptop, even if the solid-state drive needs replacement now and then.
Meanwhile, my strategy has evolved. I have bought ii identical models for a like price, in 2018 and early on 2020, to apply as spare laptops. At present I plan to proceed working on these machines for as long as possible, having more than sufficient spare parts available. Since I bought the laptop, it had two technical issues. After roughly a year of use, the fan died. I had it repaired overnight in a tiny and messy It shop run by a Chinese human in Antwerp, Belgium. He said that my patched fan would run for some other half-dozen months, but it’s however working more than than ii years afterward.
And then, last yr, my X60s suddenly refused to accuse its bombardment, an result that had likewise appeared with my cursed 2013 laptop. It seems to exist a mutual trouble with Thinkpads, but I could not solve it withal. Neither did I actually have to considering I had a spare laptop ready and started using that i whenever I needed or wanted to work exterior.
Three identical laptops for less than 200 euros.
A Thinkpad X60s spare laptop.
Inside the Thinkpad X60s. Source: Hardware Maintenance Transmission.
The magical SD-card
This is the moment to introduce you to my magical SD-bill of fare, which is some other hardware upgrade that facilitates the use of old (simply also new) laptops. Many people have their personal documents stored on their laptop’s hard drive and then make backups to external storage media if all goes well. I do information technology the other way around.
I have all my data on a 128 GB SD-carte du jour, which I can plug into any of the Thinkpads that I own. I so make monthly backups of the SD-carte du jour, which I store on an external storage medium, as well equally regular backups of the documents that I am working on, which I temporarily store on the drive of the laptop that I am working on. This has proven to be very reliable, at to the lowest degree for me: I accept stopped losing work due to computer problems and bereft backups.
The other advantage is that I can work on whatever laptop that I desire and that I’m not dependent on a particular machine to access my piece of work. Y’all can get like advantages when you keep all your information in the cloud, but the SD-card is the more sustainable option, and it works without internet admission.
Hypothetically, I could accept up to two difficult drive failures in one day and proceed working as if nothing happened. Since I am now using both laptops alternately – one with battery, the other i without – I can also get out them at different locations and cycle between these places while carrying only the SD-bill of fare in my wallet. Endeavour that with your brand new, expensive laptop. I can likewise use my laptops together if I need an extra screen.
In combination with a hard disk bulldoze, the SD-carte du jour as well increases the performance of an sometime laptop and can be an alternative to installing a solid-state drive. My spare laptop does not take ane and information technology can be slow when browsing heavy-weight websites. Notwithstanding, thanks to the SD-carte, opening a map or certificate happens almost instantly, equally does scrolling through a document or saving it. The SD-card also keeps the hard disk running smoothly because it’s mostly empty. I don’t know how practical using an SD-carte du jour is for other laptops, merely all my Thinkpads accept a slot for them.
Permit’s make a consummate price adding, including the investment in spare laptops and SD-carte, and using today’s prices for both solid-land drives and SD-cards, which have go much cheaper since I accept bought them:
- ThinkPad X60s: fifty euro
- ThinkPad X60s spare laptop: 60 euro
- ThinkPad X60 spare laptop: 75 euro
- Ii replacement batteries: 50 euro
- 240 GB solid-state drive: 30 euro
- 128 GB SD-card: xx euro
- Total: 285 euros
Even if y’all purchase all of this, you only spent 285 euros. For that cost, you may exist able to purchase the crappiest new laptop on the market, but it surely won’t get you ii spare laptops. If y’all manage to continue working with this lot for ten years, your laptop costs would be 28.5 euros per year. You may have to replace a few solid-country drives and SD-cards, but information technology won’t brand much divergence. Furthermore, you salve the ecological damage that is caused past the production of a new laptop every 5.7 years.
My laptop needs are met for the foreseeable future.
Don’t accept it also far
Although I accept used my Thinkpad X60s as an example, the aforementioned strategy works with other Thinkpad models – here’s an overview of all historical models – and laptops from other brands (which I know nothing almost). If you adopt not to buy on auction sites, you lot can walk to the nearest pawnshop and get a used laptop with a guarantee. The chances are that you lot don’t fifty-fifty demand to buy anything, equally many people have old laptops lying effectually.
There’due south no need to go back to a 2006 machine. I hope it’s articulate that I am trying to make a statement here, and I probably went equally far back as one can while keeping things practical. My offset effort was a used ThinkPad X30 from 2002, but that was 1 stride too far. It uses a dissimilar charger type, it has no SD-menu slot, and I could not go the wireless internet connection working. For many people, it may serve to cull a somewhat younger laptop. That will give y’all a webcam and a 64-bit architecture, which makes things easier. Of course, yous can also try to beat me and go dorsum to the 1990s, merely and so you’ll take to do without USB and wireless internet connection.
Your choice of laptop also depends on what you want to do with it. If you use it mainly for writing, surfing the web, advice, and entertainment, you can practise it as cheaply as I did. If you do graphical or audiovisual work, it’s more complicated, because in that case, you lot’re probably an Apple user. The aforementioned strategy could be practical, on a somewhat younger and more than expensive laptop, just information technology would suggest switching from a Mac to a Linux operating system. When information technology comes to office applications, Linux is clearly meliorate than its commercial alternatives. For a lack of feel, I cannot tell you if that holds for other software also.
This is a hack, not a new economical model
Although capitalism could provide usa with used laptops for decades to come, the strategy outlined in a higher place should be considered a hack, not an economical model. It’s a way to bargain with or escape from an economical arrangement that tries to force you lot and me to consume as much as possible. It’s an attempt to break that system, but it’s not a solution in itself. Nosotros need another economical model, in which nosotros build all laptops like pre-2011 Thinkpads. Equally a consequence, laptop sales would go down, but that’south precisely what we need. Furthermore, with today’s calculating efficiency, we could significantly reduce the operational and embodied energy apply of a laptop if nosotros reversed the trend towards ever college functionality.
Significantly, hardware and software changes drive the fast obsolescence of computers, but the latter has now get the most crucial factor. A computer of fifteen years one-time has all the hardware you need, but it’s not compatible with the newest (commercial) software. This is true for operating systems and every type of software, from games to role applications to websites. Consequently, to make laptop utilise more sustainable, the software manufacture would need to commencement making every new version of its products lighter instead of heavier. The lighter the software, the longer our laptops will last, and we will need less energy to use and produce them.
Kris De Decker
Images: Jordi Manrique Corominas, Adriana Parra, Roel Roscam Abbing.
Proofreading: Eric Wagner.
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 Bihouix, Philippe. The Age of Depression Tech: Towards a Technologically Sustainable Civilization. Policy Press, 2020. https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-age-of-low-tech
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 Lenovo took over IBM’s PC business in 2005 and so strictly speaking I bought a Lenovo Thinkpad X60s. However, the hardware had not inverse yet, and the laptop only carries the new brand name along that of IBM.
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