Monday, November 8, 2010

Stanford Students Design Recyclable Laptop with Autodesk Inventor Software


The main reason laptops are a bitch to tear apart is that laptop case design falls along two very common groups:

  1. The laptop has to look pretty (the Apple school of design), which means exotic manufacture processes that may make it very hard to design it for ease of tear down.
  2. The laptop has to sell really cheap (the ultra super mass produced generic design laptop), which means very common manufacture processes and parts designed to assemble easily. This means lots of plastic tabs and funny plastic overlays that you can break.

Almost every laptop that you will run into will neatly fit into one of these two groups. The industry knows this, which is why any laptop sold with more than two USB plugs will have more ad copy dedicated to brag about ports than about performance. ExpressCard slots were expected to be the fix to the lack of expandability, but the problem is the cards are expensive when compared with their desktop counterparts. And now most new laptops sell with some kind of built-in memory card reader, in part to free up the ExpressCard slot, but mostly to brag that there is one dongle less for you to carry with your laptop. My current Dell and Ivette’s Toshiba both shipped with SD slots, which is really nice.

It would be nice if the industry could at least make the GPUs and hard drives standard modular enclosures that can be replaced no differently than the current process to switch a couple of sticks of RAM. I should be able to unscrew a lid, maybe an extra screw and that should be enough to let me pull the drive out. Drives themselves are heavily standardized, so I don’t understand why we have to lock them into place. GPUs are much harder to deal with because of the heat management issues, but I am sure that some clever graduate student can figure out how to turn the whole GPU mess into a fixed heat enclosure slot and a removable card.

The real clever thing with the Stanford design is how they let you pull the whole keyboard and pad off the machine to use it wirelessly. RF wireless keyboards sell for under $50, which means that at the right mass volumes it is possible to build such a device for a laptop computer. It wouldn’t work for me because I am a pig, and I rely on the availability of < $50 wireless keyboard+mice combos to offset for my clumsiness. I call it a good year when a keyboard/mouse combo lasts me more than 6 months. My current combo was replaced in May, and it is about to die right on schedule. The way I see it, every time I ruin one of those is a missed opportunity to spill something into a $2000 Dell laptop.

And yes, I have lost laptops to fluid spills in the past. I ruined a brand new 15” Aluminum Powerbook G4 thanks to a coffee spill at work, and PJ poured (not spilled) a can of Coca Cola into my white 12” iBook just weeks after I moved to a 15” Titanium Powerbook. After the second dead laptop I have tried to not use the laptop keyboard while working from home, which is much easier now that I have two external monitors and a docking station.