Chromebooks have become a key part of many students’ educational lives, but like our smartphones, they aren’t built to last.
It’s worse than that, though: They have an expiration date, one that creates a big problem with e-waste down the line. That’s a problem that has long been known about these low-end machines, but it’s something that “Chromebook Churn,” a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund makes clear.
The report, an analysis of the Chromebook market in the wake of its extreme growth in popularity at the beginning of the pandemic, notes that these devices are manufactured to be inexpensive, which means that when they fall apart, they tend to do so in a non-repairable fashion, creating 9 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions during the first year of the pandemic alone. By extending the life of the devices, the organization states, it could not only save emissions, it could save taxpayers $1.8 billion by cutting down on the need for replacements.
Chromebooks, the report argues, come with hidden costs that aren’t highlighted by the price tag. For one: Finding replacement parts can be really hard, even between two similar designs.
U.S. PIRG pointed to the very minor differences between the cases on the Dell 11 3100 and the Dell 100 3110, which nonetheless rendered the designs incompatible.
Additionally, manufacturer parts sites tend to be lacking. For example, HP only sells power cords and AC adaptors on its parts store—at a price well above what you’d find them for at retail.
“The combined price of these parts is more than half the cost of a new laptop,” the report states. “These high costs may make schools reconsider Chromebooks as a cost-saving strategy.”
In the United States, there are no official measures of a device’s repairability, so U.S. PIRG analyzed repair scores from France, where devices are measured for repairability, just like how the Energy Star program measures a device’s energy consumption. France’s program found that on average, Chromebooks scored a 5.8 out of 10, well below the 6.9 average for non-Chromebook laptops.
(On the plus side, at least one Chromebook manufacturer, Framework, has made easy repairability a part of its business model. However, it is the high-end exception rather than the low-end rule.)
But even if a device does somehow survive more than a few years, the machines are designed to eventually fall out of support.
Some Chromebooks tend to have expiration dates well into the future—for example, Google’s Pixelbook 2-in-1, sold from 2017 to 2020, will see its Auto Update Expiration date hit next year. However, many of the lowest-end models that are attractive to both consumers and schools tend to be far older, meaning that the Chromebook’s effective life might only be a year or two before the device stops receiving software updates.
And because Chromebooks, like MacBooks, are often locked down by administrators, it can become impossible to put them back into circulation, even with an alternative operating system, like the Linux-based GalliumOS.
U.S. PIRG recommends that Google take steps to resolve these issues both by increasing the length of its automatic updates to 10 years, and by putting pressure on manufacturers to improve access to standardization and common hardware.
“Our tech should last longer, and Google can lead the industry,” Lucas Gutterman, the director of U.S. PIRG’s Designed to Last campaign, wrote in a blog post.
In a statement responding to the report, Google noted that it has improved the length of its automatic updates to eight years—an improvement from 2016, when it was just five years.
“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,” the company said.
As for U.S. PIRG’s critique of how the machines are manufactured, the company added, “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.”
This article has been updated with comment from Google.