On Tuesday, Dell announced a new design concept for a laptop that’s long lived, easy to take apart and fix, and takes a smaller toll on the climate. It’s a collection of ideas that could go a long way toward making the tech giant’s products more sustainable — depending on whether, and how, Dell decides to implement them.
Called “Concept Luna,” the proof-of-concept laptop dreamed up by Dell’s design team has a number of unusual features that are intended to make repair and maintenance easy. No screwdrivers or glue solvents are needed to pry loose a broken keyboard or peel off a cracked screen; both components simply pop free after a pair of keystones holding them in place are removed. The entire system contains far fewer screws than a typical Dell laptop, reducing the time needed to replace components. And you’ll never have to worry about replacing a broken fan, because there isn’t one: a shrunken-down motherboard placed in the top cover allows the laptop to passively cool itself.
Dell design strategist Drew Tosh described Luna as a “front end concept” intended to “solve some of the larger problems we’re trying to get ahead of in the future,” namely e-waste and climate change. A laptop that is easy to repair and upgrade is less likely to be replaced with a new one that takes yet more energy and resources to produce. When that computer eventually does stop working, parts can be harvested to live on in other machines rather than winding up as toxic trash in landfills.
“We’re really focused on reuse and recycle,” Tosh told The Verge. “And really, it would be more like reuse, reuse, reuse, and recycle only when we really have to.”
So far, only several prototype versions of this laptop exist. But the design Dell is showing off is as sleek and portable as any laptop in the company’s current lineup. If a modern-looking laptop with these sorts of features can be mass produced, it would make it that much harder for other leading consumer tech brands to argue there’s an inherent tradeoff between repairability and design.
Taylor Dixon, a teardown engineer at the repair guide site iFixit, says that overall, Dell laptops tend to be “fairly repairable” compared with competitors like MacBooks. Recent models of the XPS 13 and 15 that Dixon has worked on feature common types of screws such as Phillips head, batteries that are fastened in place rather than glued down, and screens that are relatively easy to disassemble. And in stark contrast to Apple, Dell regularly publishes repair manuals for its laptops on its website.
Still, there’s room for Dell to improve, and reducing the overall number of screws inside its machines — Dell says that Concept Luna features ten times fewer screws than the Latitude 7300 AE — is “cautiously a great thing,” says Dixon. Replacing screws outright through the use of keystones, as Dell is proposing to do for Concept Luna’s screen and keyboard assembly, could make DIY repair even simpler.
“If you can just use your hand to take something apart, that’s better than screws or adhesives,” Dixon says, adding that Dutch smartphone maker Fairphone and San Francisco-based laptop startup Framework have helped pioneer screw-free design alternatives like clips and magnetic bezels.
Other ideas in Concept Luna are more focused on the climate impact of electronics. The aluminum in the chassis is smelted using hydropower energy, replacing what is often one of the dirtiest manufacturing steps with a low-carbon alternative. The motherboard is a quarter the size of the board in the Latitude 7300 AE, and according to Dell, it could have a 50 percent smaller carbon footprint. A life cycle analysis of the Latitude 7300 AE found that manufacturing accounted for 65 percent of the device’s climate impact and printed wire boards were the most energy-intensive components to make. Considering Dell’s leading position in the global laptop market, this level of carbon cutting on an individual parts basis could translate to significant reductions across the industry.
But while shrinking the motherboard may have climate benefits, it also raises a repairability red flag for Dixon: smaller boards, he says, tend to have less room for individual components and sockets to hold them in place. Integrated parts like Apple’s M1 chip, which includes CPU, GPU, and RAM all in one place, are well-suited to small boards, and while this technology is great for efficiency and performance, repair advocates have described it as “devastating” that the memory and storage on M1 devices can’t be upgraded. Dell told The Verge that Concept Luna’s board “doesn’t have any more soldered on or integrated components than a typical laptop we sell today,” but if that changes as this idea moves from renderings to reality, it could impact the longevity of the device.
Another key factor determining how long lived any laptop will be is the availability of spare parts for repair — most importantly, screens and batteries, which are “the key components that govern the life of the product,” according to Sara Behdad, a sustainable electronics design researcher at the University of Florida. Page Motes, who heads global sustainability at Dell, says that individuals can already order “tens of thousands” of spare parts from Dell, including replacement screens and batteries, however, these components are often unavailable for purchase online. Motes says that increasing the number of spare parts customers can buy online is “something we are working on right now.” While she wouldn’t comment on future spare parts plans related to Concept Luna, one would hope that would include parts for any future laptops designed to be long lived and easily fixed.
Finally, if the idea behind Concept Luna is a laptop that can be upgraded indefinitely, all of the components not only need to be available but future-proofed. Otherwise, new innovations risk making earlier models obsolete a la Dell’s own Alienware Area-51m.
All of these considerations hinge, of course, on the ideas in Concept Luna eventually trickling into consumer products. That won’t happen next year, Tosh said, considering that Dell still needs to take time to validate that the concepts are reliable enough for mass production. But by 2030, he would “certainly expect” many of these design concepts to be implemented.
“I think the great excitement with this alpha [design] is that we’ve got an example that it’s possible,” says Motes. “And we’re not doing this because it’s fun. We are doing this because we want this to be the future of our work.”