Chromebook expiration date, repair issues 'bad for people and planet'

US PIRG slams Google for selling schools short-lived, repair-resistant kit

Updated Google Chromebooks expire too soon, saddling taxpayer-funded public schools with excessive expenses and inflicting unnecessary environmental damage, according to the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund.

In a report on Tuesday, titled "Chromebook Churn," US PIRG contends that Chromebooks don't last as long as they should, because Google stops providing updates after five to eight years and because device repairability is hindered by the scarcity of spare parts and repair-thwarting designs.

We're asking Google to use their leadership among the OEMs to design the devices to last

This planned obsolescence, the group claims, punishes the public and the world.

"The 31 million Chromebooks sold globally in the first year of the pandemic represent approximately 9 million tons of CO2e emissions," the report says. "Doubling the life of just Chromebooks sold in 2020 could cut emissions equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road for a year, more than the number of cars registered in Mississippi."

The report says that excluding additional maintenance costs, longer lasting Chromebooks could save taxpayers as much as $1.8 billion dollars in hardware replacement expenses.

The US PIRG said it wants: Google to extend its ChromeOS update policy beyond current device expiration dates; hardware makers to make parts more available so their devices can be repaired; and hardware designs that enable easier part replacement and service.

Google makes various claims about the environmental benefits of Chromebooks. "Chrome OS devices made by our manufacturing partners consume up to 46 percent less energy than comparable devices and are designed with sustainability in mind — from their durable shells to their scratch-resistant glass," the company said last year, adding that "Switching 1,000 devices to Chrome OS can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent."

'We can't keep producing so many disposable laptops'

In the report, Dr. Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of sustainability at iFixit, challenges those assertions by arguing Google's focus on energy consumption is the wrong measurement.

"The vast majority of a laptop’s environmental impact happens in manufacturing," Chamberlain said. "Keeping our stuff around for longer is the most sustainable electronics choice we can make."

According to US PIRG, making an average laptop releases 580 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, amounting to 77 percent of the total carbon impact of the device during its lifetime. Thus, the 31 million Chromebooks sold during the first year of the pandemic represent about 8.9 million tons of CO2e emissions.

"More efficiency in power consumption is great, of course, but we just can't keep buying new stuff all the time," said Lucas Gutterman, who leads US PIRG's Designed to Last campaign, in a phone interview with The Register. "We can't keep producing so many disposable laptops, phones, and appliances. They need to be designed to last."

While Google stops providing automatic software updates to Chromebooks after five to eight years, depending on the model, Gutterman said the reality is something less than that.

"We found that schools are really planning to replace Chromebooks sooner, generally four to five years – it depends on the school – for all the reasons we list in the report," said Gutterman. "The upshot is that we can't churn through technology at that rate. Google is not solely responsible for the rapid churn across the entire industry, but if they want to be the source of hundreds of millions of laptops for students, they should do it right."

He noted that the report doesn't cover devices from Apple or Microsoft, which also show up in schools. "We're looking at the specific decisions that Google has made that make the devices not last as long as they could," he said.

"We think that Google should extend the automatic update expiration to 10 years after launch date. There's just no reason why we should be throwing away a computer that still is otherwise functional just because it passes a certain date."

Derry Lyons, director of information technology services for South Kitsap School District, near Seattle, Washington, explained in an email to The Register that Chromebook expiration doesn't entirely brick the devices but does render them unusable for a critical function: testing.

"For South Kitsap, the constraining factor in end-of-life is that the publishers of our state testing software require specific (current) ChromeOS versions to run the clients," said Lyons. "Once a Chromebook goes end-of-life and is no longer eligible for OS updates, we have a very limited time before the device is no longer supported for state testing - a BIG need for mobile devices.

"Technically, the Chromebook may still function for general browsing purposes, but it would be incompatible with the testing software," he said.

When asked how Google's Chromebook hardware partners could do better, Gutterman said manufacturers do make a lot of decisions that affect device repairability but insisted Google should take the lead.

"We're asking Google to use their leadership among the OEMs to design the devices to last, to make some of the changes that we list, to have them be more easily repairable by actually producing spare parts that folks can buy at reasonable prices," he explained. "And to design with modularity and repair in mind, so that you can, for example, use the plastic bezel on one Chromebook on the next version, rather than having to buy a whole new set of spare parts just because a clip has changed."

Lyons said his school district hasn't had to worry about repairs. "Other than some pandemic-related supply chain issues, we have not had any hardware repair issues," he explained.

"We have a very successful repair program which can get parts and effectively repair and the damage rates are very similar to districts that have traditional Windows or Mac laptops," he said. "Physical repair isn’t a concern with Chromebooks."

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

US PIRG evidently had the same experience. According to Gutterman, "We reached out to Google to discuss the report and never heard back."

The non-profit plans to release its report on Tuesday outside Google's offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "So we're hoping that they take notice of that," he said. ®

Updated to add

In a statement provided to The Register after this story was published, a Google spokesperson said, "We've worked diligently with our hardware partners to increase the years of guaranteed support Chromebooks receive, and since 2020, we now provide eight years of automatic updates, up from five years in 2016.

"We also are always working with our device manufacturing partners to increasingly build devices across segments with post-consumer recycled and certified materials that are more repairable, and over time use manufacturing processes that reduce emissions.

"Regular Chromebook software updates add new features and improve device security every four weeks, allowing us to continuously iterate on the software experience while ensuring that older devices continue to function in a secure and reliable manner until their hardware limitations make it extremely difficult to provide updates."

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