I Need...A New Laptop

>> Monday, July 6, 2009

I'm dreaming about getting a new laptop, but since I've decided to stick it out with our seven-year-old desktop for at least a few months, this is a post with more questions than answers. The environmental impact of our endlessly upgrading technology is a topic I'm just beginning to take a peek at, and the more I learn, the more overwhelmed I feel as a consumer.

Here are just a few problems with laptops:

Short Lifetime

While researching this post, I stumbled upon this "eco-claim" from the XO Laptop by One Laptop Per Child: "The laptop lifetime is 5 years or 2.5 times longer than a typical laptop."

That means that the typical lifetime of a laptop is only two years!

I can attest to that statistic from experience. My defunct laptop was an Asus Eee PC, and I loved that it was compact and highly portable, but it died after a year and a half. Before that, I had a Dell that lasted for a year before becoming a permanent dust-collector in my closet. My husband, a software engineer, says he's never had a laptop last longer than three years.

An average lifetime of only two years seems utterly ridiculous for a product that can carry such a high price tag. Especially considering all of the toxic substances it can contain...

Harmful Substances

Laptops contain a number of harmful substances, including the following:

  • lead
  • mercury
  • cadmium
  • PVC
  • brominated flame retardants
Not to mention that laptops contain valuable metals such as copper and gold.


With all the hazardous substances that laptops may be harboring, tossing dead laptops into a landfill seems like an obvious no-no. But recycling a laptop may not be much better.

Much of the e-waste in this country is sent to developing nations with lower environmental standards, such as China and India. There, poor workers dismantle computers, laptops, cell phones, and other types of electronic waste without proper equipment or protection, exposing themselves, the land, and the water to highly toxic substances.

My Perfect Laptop

In my dreams, laptops would be designed without all those harmful materials. They would be easily disassembled so the valuable materials they are made of can be recycled. They would be easy to repair and would boast a long lifespan. They would be energy efficient. And it would be awesome if they could come in minimal (but recyclable) packaging.

Turns out, I'm not the only person who has dreamed up that type of laptop. The Green Electronics Council has developed a program called EPEAT that assesses laptops and computers according to their environmental impact and assigns them either a Gold, Silver, or Bronze rating. Consumers can use these ratings to find eco-friendly computers that fit their needs.

However, after browsing through their database, it seems like the laptops that have earned a Gold rating are also the ones that are most expensive. My Asus Eee, for instance, only received a Silver rating, but it also only costs $400. It makes me cringe to think of spending $1500-$2000 on a laptop that will die after two years, Gold rating or not.

Repair or Buy New?

The other option is repairing. I now have two laptops that could be repaired instead of buying a new one, but with each one, the cost to repair feels prohibitive compared to the cost of a new, better product. Most of the time, repairing seems like the perfect environmental choice, but if it means I'll be stuck with an inferior product when I could have upgraded to something better for almost the same price, I have trouble feeling happy about choosing repair over new.

This is a case where my inner tightwad and my inner environmentalist are at war. Luckily, I still have my old desktop to keep me satisfied for a few months while I decide what to do.

What do you think is the best option?

Photo by manbeastextraordinaire

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Carrie July 7, 2009 at 10:12 AM  

i'd undoubtably go for an apple brand laptop. http://www.apple.com/macbookpro/environment.html

Green Bean July 7, 2009 at 11:53 AM  

We've had similar experiences with laptops. They last for a couple years and then die. Seems utterly ridiculous. I wonder about what Carrie says. My brother in law has had his iPhone since they came out and hasn't had an issue. My sister just had her PC laptop die after 2 years and, completely fed up, decided to go for a Mac in hope that it lasts longer. Insane how things are made to fall apart these days!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 8, 2009 at 12:28 AM  

@Carrie and Green Bean - My husband has been trying to get me to buy a Mac for years, but the few times I've tried one, I haven't liked the interface. But if it would last longer than a year and a half, I could probably get over that! Wish they weren't so expensive, though.

Maren Hansen July 8, 2009 at 8:35 PM  

My solution is to stick w/a desktop. You can replace pieces at a time and stretch it for years before you have to upgrade major things, like the motherboard or processor. Mine is 5 years old now and doing very well thanks to the minimal upgrades every year...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 9, 2009 at 12:32 AM  

Maren - I think that's a smart solution if it works for you. But I have to have a laptop. My husband and I like to sit side by side in the evenings and work on our respective projects on our laptops. Or I'll blog while he watches TV. It sort of feels like we're doing something together, even though we're not really. If I work on our desktop, we're in separate rooms. Also, sometimes I take my laptop into the boys' playroom or outside while they're playing so I can still keep an eye on them while I check my email. I also use my laptop as a cookbook...Maybe I should just get an iPhone!

Anonymous,  July 9, 2009 at 12:52 AM  

Your inner tightwad will be happy if you buy a cheap one like your old Asus

Your inner environmentalist might be happy if you make certain it has low power requirements. Then spend the savings on something that will make a bigger environmental difference in your life, like better food that is locally grown, or organic milk. Or spend the money to build a chicken coup or start keeping bees.

If you saved enough money maybe you could buy a used canoe to help your children become more environmentally aware.

Frank Ladd

Robyn July 9, 2009 at 7:28 AM  

Erin- I really think that you would love the Mac once you got used to it. I worked for Apple and the most common problem I saw from PC users going Mac is they tried to overcomplicate things. Usually with a Mac you just click or click and drag.
Two things-
1) get the Apple Care and you'll be sure your computer will last at least three years. I saw MANY that were older and still working just fine too, by the way. Living in Raleigh you have a store near by that you can take it to (the Genius bar) if you ever have a problem with it.
2) Get the One to One. When I was working a year ago (and I'm pretty sure it's the same) It's $99 but you can come into the store up to one time a week and have a lesson- one on one for an hour- about how to use your Mac, how to make a movie on your Mac, pretty much whatever you want to learn about your Mac and make you more comfortable with it. It's a really great deal- $99 for up to 52 hour long one on one lessons.
Have you been in the store? You should check it out..... :)

Carrie July 9, 2009 at 2:58 PM  


my current mac is a year and a half old right now and still going strong. i expect it to have a good 5 years of life in it although my typical computer cycle is to upgrade at 3 years and sell the old still working well computer on ebay. (i'm a tech-y geek though so 3 years is the point where i feel the need for a new computer, if you're not so geek-y you should be able to use the same on longer)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper July 9, 2009 at 8:52 PM  

@Frank - I loved my Asus, so I'm definitely thinking of getting another. Very good little computer for the price. Hmmm...a canoe...We like to take our boys over to Lake Johnson and rent the paddle boats there. They'd love a canoe, I bet!

@Robyn and Carrie - You've totally sold me on getting a Mac. It's now in my top three possible choices. I'm still considering, though - will probably buy something in a few more months.

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