Tech

Microsoft is taking big strides to make Surface devices easier to repair

Key Points
  • The Surface Laptop 3, which came out in October, is easier to repair than its predecessor devices.
  • Microsoft only gets 5% of revenue from devices, but it's been investing to introduce new types of Surface devices, including a two-screened laptop that runs a forthcoming version of Windows.
  • Microsoft has worked on a way to measure how easy is for people to repair Surface devices.
Satya Nadella, chief executive officer of Microsoft Corp., speaks during the unveiling of the Surface Pro 3 at an event in New York on May 20, 2014.
Jin Lee | Bloomberg | Getty

At Microsoft's annual hardware event in October, product chief Panos Panay wanted to show the audience just how easy it is to repair the company's new laptop. Pacing the stage while holding a Surface Laptop 3, Panay lifted the keyboard case right off the device, revealing removable storage and internal parts held together with simple magnets instead of unwieldy adhesive.

The audience cheered. It was a big moment for Microsoft, whose Surface devices have been panned for years for being difficult for consumers and service providers to fix, relative to rival devices from Dell and HP.

"Being able to repair and service a product without at all impacting any of the beauty of that, and the elegance, is critical," Panay told the crowd of Microsoft enthusiasts and employees.

Microsoft, the world's biggest software maker and second-most valuable publicly traded U.S. company, only gets 5% of revenue from devices. But the company has been busy reinvigorating the line with new chip options and new devices, like the two-screened Surface Neo that will run a forthcoming variant of Windows.

When people spend $1,000 on a laptop, the price of a Surface Laptop 3, they'd generally prefer to keep their maintenance costs down. That's been a weakness for Microsoft, whose two prior Surface laptops both received "repairability scores" of zero out of 10 from iFixit, a company that sells repair equipment and rips apart gadgets to reveal their guts. The Surface Pro detachable tablets were given scores of one and two over the years by iFixit, and the Surface Pro 7 tablet, announced in October, received a one.

Weeks after the October unveiling of the Laptop Surface 3, iFixit recognized what Panay was showing off, coming out with a score of five. A month later, iFixit gave the Surface Pro X tablet, featuring a Qualcomm chip, a six and said it was "cautiously optimistic" about the device "since ripping into the Surface Laptop 3." It was the highest score yet for a Microsoft-branded desktop, laptop or tablet.

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Kyle Wiens, iFixit's CEO, told CNBC that the improvements are an about-face for Microsoft.

"I've got to give them props for figuring out how to accomplish that level of repairability without sacrificing the design," Wiens said.

While HP and Dell have seen scores of nine and 10, Apple is on the other end of the spectrum, making it notoriously difficult for customers to pop open its MacBooks and iPads and make repairs. In giving the iPad 7 a score of two last year, iFixit said, "battery and logic board replacements are particularly obnoxious."

Microsoft has been considering ways to make its gadgets more friendly to fixes since at least 2018, when Panay referenced the need to improve in that area in the company's sustainability report.

"Looking forward, we must continue to push our sustainability efforts even further, focusing on advancing the modularity, repairability, and recyclability of our products, increasing our suppliers' energy efficiency, and committing to a holistic approach to address social and environmental issues," Panay wrote. Five times the report mentioned "repairability," a word that wasn't used even once the prior year.

Microsoft went even further last year, disclosing in its sustainability report that it planned to come up with a "repairability metric" for Surface products. The company said it hit 80% of its objective for fiscal 2019.

'Don't try that, OK?'

"We are working with our industry partners to provide repair options that ensure the quality of repairs" while protecting consumer privacy and security and focusing on safety, a Microsoft spokesperson told CNBC in an email, declining to comment specifically on the new metric.

Still, Microsoft isn't recommending that customers try these repairs at home, but rather take their devices to authorized service providers. If they repair or upgrade their hard drive themselves, "Microsoft's limited warranty will not cover any damage that may occur to your equipment or Surface device," the spokesperson said.

The company is also working to "increase convenience for our customers," the spokesperson said, aiming to "roll out a global network of authorized service providers."

At the hardware event late last year, Panay urged customers not to play Mr. Fixit.

"Don't try that, OK? Don't do that," Panay said. "Don't call me or send me the tweet that says, 'I tried to rip the top off and now it's broken and it's your fault.'"

WATCH: Microsoft unveils Surface Neo two-screened laptop, due to be released in 2020

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Microsoft unveils Surface Neo two-screened laptop, for 2020 release