Planned Obsolescence?

Are laptop computers designed to fall apart after three years? Three and a half years ago, we purchased a set of Dell Latitude c840 laptops for our science teachers and laboratories. Over the course of three years, some were used heavily and some lightly, as is the case with most laptop installations. This fall, we replaced the computers with newer laptops, as per our customary three-year replacement schedule for laptops. They were experiencing typical third-year hardware faults, and the extended warranties we had purchased had expired. The c840s were migrated into our loaner pool, where they were distributed as needed to students and teachers.

The surprise was how quickly the laptops fell apart in their fourth year. Each time we attempted to use the laptops for a training, most of them had problems. We discarded half the remaining inventory within three months. The problems had nothing to do with the processor speed (1.6GHz P4) or disk size (20-40GB). They were always related to a hardware fault, such as a motherboard failure. Fortunately, we received an in-kind donation of a number of laptops from parents who work at HP and IBM, so we are now able to replace the loaner pool without incurring additional cost to our operating budget. However, our plan to use laptops retired from primary duty as loaners seems unsupported by our experiences.

The three-year problem is a major issue for our proposed student laptop program. If families only had to buy one computer over a student’s high school years, it would be a lot easier to launch a student laptop program. Currently, we face the prospect of charging an annual fee that allows us to purchase two laptops during a student’s career.


  1. Ben says:

    I’m not sure if this is a scientific reason or not, but the heat management on most laptops is subpar when compared to desktops. Not that they don’t handle heat well, but a lot of hardware failure that I come across stems from fatigue and overheating of equipment. My guess is that after three years of use in that confined of a space, the hardware has been choking on heat long enough and is ready to die. That and laptops are profitable business, so most computer manufacturers probably encourage the purchase of parts that they know will lead to shorter lifespans and future purchases of hardware.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    This was not me, by the way. I guess i should start signing my comments w/ full name.

  3. Jason says:

    At our school, students are required to use laptops from Gr. 9 to 12. At least half of the laptops last the entire 4 years, although most end up in rather rough shape by the end of that time. A considerable number of our students also purchase new laptops before the 4 years is up.

  4. rkassissieh says:

    What school is that? At this mini-conference on Wednesday, Kai from Town School noted that laptops are lasting longer than they used to, although they are not quite at 4 yrs. yet.

  5. rkassissieh says:

    That’s Ben the Tech Savvy Educator. He comments occasionally.