A multitude of hardware manufacturers have pushed their research departments to come up with ways to fit more hardware into smaller spaces. On May 30, 2016, Asus’s ZenBook 3 put Apple’s MacBook to shame with a thinner and lighter case, managing to fit an impressively powerful array of hardware into spaces that would invoke claustrophobia in the most seasoned of IT veterans. While all of this is impressive, it prompts one essential question: is thinner hardware necessarily a good thing?
Advantages to Manufacturers
While the consumer is always the center of the manufacturing process, the companies making your iPhones and ultrabooks don’t completely remove themselves from the production chain equation. Making thinner hardware has very particular advantages to the maker, namely:
- lower production costs due to squandering less raw materials,
- diminished supply chain costs due to a lower requirement for storage space during transport,
- less retail overhead for distribution, and
- higher operating margins that could be reinvested in research and development of even thinner products (a self-perpetuating cycle).
While we often like to think in terms of how we as customers benefit from purchasing thinner and lighter hardware, we forget that manufacturers are also looking at how this direction in innovation affects their bottom lines.
Advantages to Consumers
The chief advantage that a smaller, lighter, and more powerful laptop presents for the customer is a higher degree of portability. In comparison to the 90s, today’s traveler benefits from a reduced “packing burden” when travelling with a laptop. Packing more power into smaller hardware also lowers the cost of laptops (here’s a neat chart depicting how computing just keeps getting cheaper). When provided with this perspective, the manufacture of evermore claustrophobic hardware seems like a win-win for both consumers and the companies that make devices. In the big scheme of things, however, there are some ways in which this phenomenon presents certain clear disadvantages.
Almost every innovative direction we choose comes not in the form of a unanimous sugar-laden victory but rather a trade-off that comes with challenges of its own. The disadvantage we are confronted with when making smaller products is an inflexibility in repair. More often than not, we are living in a time when it is sometimes more feasible to replace an entire unit than repair part of it. Because of the constrained space, most laptop manufacturers have to integrate most hardware (such as graphics and Wi-Fi) directly into the motherboard of their devices. While this is a given with smartphones, it has not always been this way with laptops. The result of this increased dependency on the device’s motherboard is a “slash & burn” approach to device maintenance where the end user is left with no choice but to replace the entire board when one component fails to work properly.
While we have no answer to the question asked in the title of this piece, the hope here is to construct a broader picture of how manufacturing processes can affect the consumer market. The push for thinner hardware is a response to a signal in consumer demand. People want more portability, and companies are responding to this by delivering it while sacrificing flexibility during maintenance. In general, the market will always deliver whatever a sufficient number of consumers will buy. Take modular phones like Google’s Project Ara, for instance. This is an attempt to combine the advantages of portability while addressing the disadvantages I’ve described above!
It’s your turn to join the discussion. Do you think that our push for thinner products is better? How can we improve upon the manufacturing practices we’re currently observing? Tell us in a comment!
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