Microsoft delivers promised study revealing device repair reduces waste, climate emissions

Surface Laptop Se Repair
Surface Laptop Se Repair (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

Microsoft's Surface devices often win accolades for their advanced, clean, minimalist designs, but those come at the expense of repairability. Instead of relying on visible screws, Microsoft often depends on glue and a chassis that is hard to open without destroying the device. A computer like Surface Pro 7 earned a measly score of one (out of 10) for repairability from iFixit — the same score shared by previous Surface Pros.

As a consequence, in October 2021, Microsoft was called out by As You Sow, a shareholder representative, which filed a resolution demanding that the company respond to the growing right to repair movement. Microsoft had a quick turnaround on the matter, which resulted in the complaint being withdrawn. In its response, Microsoft remarked it would take these immediate actions:

  • Complete a third-party study evaluating the environmental and social impacts associated with increasing consumer access to repair and determine new mechanisms to increase access to repair, including for Surface devices and Xbox consoles;
  • Expand the availability of certain parts and repair documentation beyond Microsoft's Authorized Service Provider network; and
  • Initiate new mechanisms to enable and facilitate local repair options for consumers.

The latter two were later addressed with a partnership with iFixit. The two companies announced official repairability tools for recent Surface devices, including Surface Pro 7+/8/Pro X, Surface Laptop 3 and 4, Surface Laptop Go, Surface Laptop SE, and Surface Laptop Studio. The tools are available to independent repair technicians and give consumers another low-cost way to do repairs on Microsoft products without much hassle.

Source: Oakdene Hollins (Image credit: Source: Oakdene Hollins)

Today, Microsoft has completed the first part of its October promise —a third-party study evaluating the environmental and social impacts of increased consumer repair access.

The study was published by Oakdene Hollins and given to Windows Central by Microsoft. The paper is 11 pages long and very detailed about the assessment and conclusions, which speak heavily in favor of the somewhat obvious environmental benefits of giving consumers the ability to repair PCs versus junking them.

The crux of the study's conclusions can be found below:

The study found that, compared to a device replacement scenario, all forms of repair offer significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and waste reduction benefits. It also found that enabling repair through device design, spare part offerings, and localization of repair have significant potential to reduce carbon and waste impacts. Finally, it highlighted the role that transportation logistics can play in contributing to overall GHG emissions associated with repair services. To further reduce waste and GHG emissions, Microsoft is advised to take steps to expand repair locations and capabilities across more devices and to promote mail-to repair services.

Some other key findings from the report from the press release:

  • For the seven devices studied, the study showed that repairing the product instead of device replacement can yield up to a 92% reduction in potential waste generation and GHG emissions;
  • Greater than 20% of the net sustainability benefits of repair are determined by the transportation method and logistics for delivering devices to repair facilities; and
  • "Mail-to" repair services offer the lowest GHG emissions, even over long distances, compared to other transportation methods, such as consumers driving their own vehicles to repair facilities.

The study notes that mailing devices to Authorized Service Providers (ASP) have the lowest overall GHG impact. Still, Microsoft could do even more by expanding "ASP repair locations and capabilities across more devices and promote bulk mail-to repair services when feasible." The recommendation is stated because "Currently, ASP Repair is only available to Microsoft's commercial customers, but this study supports the case for expanding ASP repair to all customers."

Expanding consumer ASPs is part of Microsoft's strategy for improved repairability.

Counterintuitively, while it may seem better for consumers to drive their devices to an authorized repair shop, the study notes that, even over short distances, "GHG emissions may increase rapidly." But having closer ASPs where "mail-to" exists "offered an order of magnitude lower GHG emissions impact even over much larger transport distances and, therefore, should be encouraged."

Surface Pro X teardown

Source: iFixit (Image credit: Source: iFixit)

That's good news, although it does make one wonder what if Microsoft didn't shutter all its official stores in 2020. But unlike Apple, Microsoft never did on-site repairs for Surfaces at those shops. Instead, it would simply exchange the product for a new one while sending out the defective product for a long-distance factory repair. Later, that device would be sold as refurbished or sometimes used in a warranty exchange. The environmental impact was likely significant, with such policies causing unnecessary waste.

Today's report also follows Apple's remarkable 79-pound rentable repair kit, which can be sent to consumer homes directly, albeit wheeled in. The environmental impact of sending 79lbs of equipment instead of mailing out a 6-ounce iPhone seems hilariously contradictory if sustainability is of concern.

Microsoft's improving repairability with Surface

Starting in 2017, Microsoft began to look at ways to improve better repairability with its Surface devices, most of which were developed for years before hitting the market. One of the first devices was the Surface Laptop 3, which allowed the keyboard deck to be removed to access the internals. Since then, Surface Pro X and Surface Pro 8 have offered easy access to the SSD compartment, while the new Surface Laptop Studio is magnitudes more serviceable than Surface Book 3.

Surface Pro X even beat out Apple's iPad in 2019 for repairability by earning 6 (out of 10) from iFixit, a substantial jump from one for Surface Pro 7. The news even caught iFixit by surprise:

It would seem that Microsoft has placed at least one foot on the repairability train—between this Pro X and the Laptop 3, we can hardly believe all the repair-focused changes they've made!

In a conversation with Jason Brown, Director, NPI Design for Repair, and Jeremy L McClain, Director, Customer Success and Experience at Microsoft, I asked about the challenges Microsoft faced in balancing Surface ID (its look, feel) with the need for the right to repair. After all, going from everything glued to relying on (hidden) screws is not trivial. The answer was straightforward: Standardized tools. Microsoft can create a set of principles around design and rely on a simplified set of tools to create a consistent experience around repairability. But the devices need to be designed from the ground up with these considerations in place while not sacrificing innovation.

When it comes to repairing, Microsoft tells me that displays are usually the top "failure modes," followed by keyboards when it comes to laptops. Batteries rarely break, but, long-term, they are often at the point of failure as they degrade over time. Being able to replace those batteries, especially after the warranty has expired, is one area where Microsoft is focused on in preventing Surfaces from ending up in landfills. The same goes for displays, which can break many years later even without early Q&A failure.

For Microsoft, there's a double focus on repair and extending device longevity.

Microsoft also noted that on-site repair, especially for schools, is critical for controlling costs. This concept was crucial to something Surface Laptop SE, which can be completely torn apart with just a couple of tools.

Of course, not all devices are created equal. While Surface Laptop Studio is much easier to work on than Surface Book 3, something like Surface Duo 2 is more complicated. Microsoft notes that when it comes to design, it still needs to balance safety with design/innovation while also attempting to make it repairable. That said, Microsoft did tell me that devices going forward are all being designed with repairability in mind meaning there will be "zero regression" between generations.

Overall, Microsoft is taking ambitious steps to make Surface (and Xbox) easier to repair than ever. While more progress is needed, and only newer Surfaces will benefit, at least your Surface Pro 8 now stands a better chance of living a second life instead of being recycled somewhere. Whatever your views are on the environment, we can all agree that easier repairs are a better consumer experience.

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics, watched people sleep (for medical purposes!), and ran the projectors at movie theaters because it was fun.

  • Who would have thought? 🙃
  • Duuuuuuuuhhhh Microsoft, Of course right to repair is better for the planet. There isn't a single instance in the history of forever when repairing something over replacing it hasn't been better for the planet. Whichever dim-witted jobsworth department commissioned this "research" has shone a light on how much money Microsoft has to throw at stupid projects. How many additional cars, bikes, fridges, microwaves, radios, air-conditioning units, hoovers, hair dryers, lamps, washing machines, power tools, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, etc, etc, etc, etc would be piled up in landfills if we didn't (or in the case of big tech, couldn't) repair them. "druuughhh, we shuuuud do a shhhtudy to see if shlurrrgh... Fixin a fing is betterer than frowing it away fluuurghhhshlobberr" Christ, Microsoft, you're better than this.
  • I also expect better from our readers, tbh. It's like you read two paragraphs and decided to share with us your half-informed opinion. Microsoft's goal for the independent study was to "determine new mechanisms to increase access to repair." While the obvious point about repairing (vs trashing) the product is known, what was unknown (or at least, not quantified) was whether mailing a device in for repair was better or worse for the environment versus people driving to a repair center themselves. That data helps drive longer-term decisions on where to put support and making "mail-to" service the preferred method of interaction.
  • Honestly, Daniel, I've been a fan of the company and their products for many years, but a study like this holds no merit, and only serves to highlight what every tech firm has known for years. They should have been building devices that could be fixed at home or locally from day one, but made the money driven choice to put share price and bonus schemes before environmental impact. The air we breath and the water we drink is a little bit dirtier today becuase of their money first decisions. They knew this stuff when the first kin/lumia/surface/xbox rolled off the production line decades ago. They did not need a report to tell them they were damaging the planet.
  • Most of your seem to be missing the point. It's a statement. That Microsoft was willing to openly commission this study and report, make it public, include it in a publicly released commitment to sustainability is a big deal. Will they get their over night? No. But a company like MS moving in that direction, puts pressure on other companies (like Apple and Tesla) to do the same
  • Correct, moreover, it was promised to investors as one of the steps they're taking for right to repair. The report was supposed to be delivered no later than May 1.
  • "Microsoft's goal for the independent study was to 'determine new mechanisms to increase access to repair." Daniel, it seems like you're omitting the part he was mocking. As the article acknowledged, the first goal was to "Complete a third-party study evaluating the environmental and social impacts associated with increasing consumer access to repair AND determine new mechanisms to increase access to repair." I think he was mocking the the first part about doing a study to find out whether repairing stuff helps the environment, which as you acknowledge, is kind of obvious. I don't think anyone is disputing that the second part is a good idea, although I don't speak for him.
  • I enjoyed it though.
  • Ever heard of a lightbulb. Should you try to replace the filament? Consumer goods break and you throw them away. Is a $1000 computer you have used for three years worthy of repair? What could you get for this 3-year-old computer? $300? The PC is repairable. I have 6 or 7 obsolete systems in my basement. Should I have upgraded my first desktop every three years for the last 30 years? I used to do that. Then I ran the numbers. It was cheaper to buy a new PC than spend the time and money on parts to upgrade my system. E-waste is a thing. But not a big thing. We can talk about recycling Maybe you have an extra 2 hours a week to fix stupid stuff. Most people do not know how to fix a computer and have better things to do with their time. This is such a stupid story. And a poorly executed study. What is the social impact when I replace a part on my Surface computer? Social impact? Finally, the artical quotes from the study "... have significant potential to reduce carbon and waste impacts." The key word is potential. Obamacare had the potential to lower Heathcare costs. Remember "you can keep your plan. You can keep your doctor"? Human nature is what you hope to model in this type of study. Obamacare drove up the cost of healthcare in the US. Why? Because he tried to legislate a complex system subject to constant change. Do you really think millions of laptops, tablets and smart phones will be repaired by consumers?
  • "Do you really think millions of laptops, tablets and smart phones will be repaired by consumers?"
    Your point and everything else seems primarily irrelevant since it's an option up to the consumer at all times. If they want to repair, there are now options to do that. If they don't, they don't and buy a new computer. Why are you against customer choice? That said, I feel you're pretty out of touch with regular consumers. Replacing old batteries in Surfaces is a hot topic on help forums and reddit. Moreover, your point again is mostly moot since there is active legislation on right-to-repair and forcing companies to make this stuff easier in Europe and in the US. This stuff is happening, whatever your narrow opinion of it is. Microsoft is simply getting ahead on the issue before they are forced to. You make no mention of this.
    "Most people do not know how to fix a computer and have better things to do with their time."
    Nowhere in the story does this mention customers fixing their own computers themselves. It's about ASPs, third-party authorized service providers, aka local repair shops, who now have the tools (and directions) on how to disassemble and repair a Surface PC. Previously, only Microsoft (factory repair) could fix Surfaces, not ASPs. You also missed the point that this study and initiative was brought by shareholders to Microsoft as a demand for them to take action/respond to the growing right-to-repair movement. This study was promised to investors for May 1 and you just completely ignore this fact. Finally, you focus a lot on consumers, but, again, you miss the bigger point that repairing PCs is something that enterprise and education markets are demanding, both of which are big customers of Surface devices. So, after your reading your thoughts, I can't say I think you have made any valid points. I also feel you don't quite understand this topic as much as you think you do.
  • Fair points about consumers taking the device to the repair shop and large organizations fixing their own inventory of surface devices. Yes, I did not consider a market developing to handle repairs if the devices were easy to repair. I don't care much for government legislation to force free market solutions. Usually, government solutions create more problems than they solve. I also think shareholder initiatives are usually grandstanding by a few shareholders.
  • I agree on the legislation part a lot. I think MS's hope here is to nip this in the bud (plus, it's the right thing to do for consumers, even if few ever exercise that right). I believe the EU here is a more significant threat to legislation than the US (see the current moves on iPhone charging), but we'll see what happens. Microsoft is quite savvy here, IMO. I mean, they too prefer self-regulation over government, but if there is going to be legislation, they want to set the example of how it should be done. Brad Smith (and Microsoft's DC PR arm) is excellent at talking about face recognition, AI, etc. in this regard. It prefers to set the boundaries and agenda on the topic before gov't can. Microsoft prefers to be the model for how this stuff should work so that if gov't has to get involved, it can use MS as an example and set legislation appropriately (instead of letting legislators wing it, and, likely overreach and complicate things). What we're seeing is Microsoft going through steps, transparently, so it can look like a model citizen. It's a PR move, for sure, but a good one that does actually benefit consumers.
  • DDN123, I think you're off base here. Yes, very few would want to solder new transistors onto onto our old CPU. But many people would rather replace the battery in their phone than spend $1k on a new smart phone, assuming it's not overly difficult. And the manufacturers are making simple repairs like that unnecessarily difficult. Good for Microsoft for shining a light on the issue. I was happy to read the article.
  • Wonder if the folks with 7th gen cpu's also have the right to repair. Seeing as they can't upgrade without TPM2. Oh wait, their devices aren't broken.
  • "Oh wait, their devices aren't broken."
    I like it when commenters answer their own questions. Good job!
  • Rear accessibility is what's going to have the most impact. As long as they rely on gluing the screen to the chassis, with no other access points (beyond the welcome swappable SSD slot), calling the Surface Pro ANY kind of repairable is kind of a joke. I would be fine to hand back some of the thinness of the Pro family to avoid the pricey, complex repair processes. Something that allows the rear to open without separating the screen is THE solution to repairability. I always think of the Galaxy S5 (obviously a phone, not a tablet), where they gave you a removable back that allowed a battery swap while retaining IP67 certification. Batteries are always the primary concern for wear items, but resolving that issue is still too high-risk for most to attempt their own replacement. That's what needs addressed most.
  • "Rear accessibility is what's going to have the most impact. As long as they rely on gluing the screen to the chassis, with no other access points (beyond the welcome swappable SSD slot), calling the Surface Pro ANY kind of repairable is kind of a joke."
    Sorry, I have to disagree. The tools released by Microsoft and iFixit (Surface Display Debonding Tool; $59.99 / Surface Display Bonding Frame; $29.99) let ASPs easily separate the display from the chassis when glued together. Yes, the adhesive needs to be used to reseal it, but the point is they do not have to be sent to the factory for repair as ASPs can now replace displays even when glued. Right now, this isn't about making it easier for a customer to do repairs themselves (at home), but rather not having to junk the device and, instead, go to a local, preferred ASP to fix/replace components. They did that. If you crack your Pro X, Pro 7+, or Pro 8's display (or need the battery replaced), you can have a Microsoft ASP replace it right now. That's a big step forward than a Surface Pro 6, which doesn't qualify.