Could Asus’ Q-Latch Be the Future of Repairable Computers?

What do you think?

Key Takeaways

  • Asus’ Q-Latch makes replacing SSDs simple.
  • Phones are too tightly packed to allow for similar innovations.
  • Modern computers are almost entirely non-repairable by their owners.
Asus Q-Latch in use.
Asus

Asus’ new user-installable SSD bay doesn’t use tiny machine screws to hold it in place; it uses a simple plastic latch that secures the drive with an easy quarter-turn. Why aren’t all installations like this?

The Q-Latch looks more like a widget you’d find in an IKEA furniture kit than a way to install an NVMe drive. The little internal drives, which are little more than a bunch of chips on a bare circuit board, are usually secured using tiny screws. The Q-Latch is nothing more than a rotating plastic latch on a metal shaft. It comes as standard in Asus’ latest AI motherboards, but could it point the way to more repairable gadgets?

"The screw that holds down SSDs often gets stripped or goes missing when recyclers pull them out, so it could alleviate those issues," John Bumstead, Apple laptop refurbisher and artist, told Lifewire via direct message.

"On the other hand, I can see the latch breaking off when people who don’t know what it is use force on it, so if it’s broken off then what? The screw might be more reliable."

Like IKEA, but for Computers

To install a stick of NVMe SSD storage, you just place one end into the waiting slot on the PC’s circuit board, then push the other end down so that the stick is parallel with that circuit board. Usually, you already would have removed the tiny screw, and would be trying to rescue it from whatever nook or cranny it had lodged itself in when you dropped it.

"In the end, it comes down to control and convenience, for the manufacturer, not for us, the users."

With the Q-Latch, you just push the end of the NVMe stick into place, and twist the latch through 90 degrees to lock everything in place. It couldn’t really be any simpler.

So why aren’t more user-installable parts this easy? And what about the various assemblies inside phones? Surely a more modular approach would make it easier for companies like Apple to quickly swap out oft-broken parts like screens? 

The answer is money, and space.

Glue

If you open up a modern smartphone, you’ll find a lot of glue inside. Glue is great for assembling small electronic devices, because it is easy and quick to apply, and it doesn’t require fiddly tools. It also can be a structural component, if used right.

But glue is a terrible choice if you ever need to open up a device to repair it. One compromise is a kind of glue that breaks when stretched. Apple uses this to hold in some batteries, but if you want to do this repair yourself, you’ll need to procure some glue to complete it. 

Making a phone more repairable is expensive, in terms of assembly, but also in terms of space. Every last millimeter inside a smartphone is used, preferable for adding extra batteries. Making parts removable wastes this space.

If asked, many people might say they prefer a repairable phone. But when it comes to buying one, they probably will opt for the thinnest, or maybe the cheapest.

Computer Space

The inside of a computer is much less space-constrained. Apple’s latest M1 Macs have precisely zero user-replaceable parts inside, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

The current M1-based Mac mini has so much spare space inside that there’s no excuse not to make it possible to at least add some extra SSD storage, like Asus with its bays for NVMe cards.

And, in fact, plenty of parts have, historically, been easy to swap. Old iMacs have user-upgradeable RAM, which is accessed through a hatch on the bottom edge.

Old sticks are ejected by pulling on a plastic ribbon, and new sticks slot into place. And the old G5 Power Mac had latches that would flip 90 degrees, like the Q-Latch, to hold internal hard drives in place. 

G5 Mac with latch to hold internal drives.
iFixIt

In the end, it comes down to control and convenience, for the manufacturer, not for us, the users. If even standard machine screws are too much for Apple, it seems unlikely that it would adopt a standard fixing if it took up more space.

Apple likes to control every aspect of its devices, and that includes the freedom to switch up its production methods. And screws, however fiddly they may be, are more or less standard. "I buy 100-packs of those screws for MacBooks," says Bumstead. "They are proprietary, but you can get them cheap."

Could other PC makers standardize on internal fixings? Sure, but what would be their advantage? Right now, Asus has its Q-Latch, which might prove to be a competitive advantage.

Other PC makers might follow suit, with their own subtly different, lawsuit-avoiding designs, but will they all agree on a standard? Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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