Chromebooks’ built-in ‘death dates’ render many older models useless

At a lofty warehouse in East Oakland, a dozen students have spent their summer days tinkering with laptops. The teens, who are part of Oakland Unified’s tech repair internship, have fixed broken screens, faulty keyboards and tangled wiring, mending whatever they can.

But despite their technological prowess, there’s one mechanical issue the tech interns haven’t been able to crack: expired Chromebooks.

With a software death date baked into each model, older versions of these inexpensive computers are set to expire three to six years after their release. Despite having fully functioning hardware, an expired Chromebook will no longer receive the software updates it needs, blocking basic websites and applications from use.

“They’re designed to be disposable,” said Sam Berg, Oakland Unified’s computer science coordinator and designer of the district’s tech repair internship. “It’s like planned obsolescence.”

Chromebook sales soared after the start of the pandemic in 2020. More affordable than traditional laptops, the devices were seen as a way to connect students to their classes without breaking the bank — and across the country, school districts ordered them in droves.

By the end of 2020, the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) reported that global Chromebook sales were nearly 300% higher than a year earlier. And by March 2021, 90% of America’s school districts said they were providing some sort of digital learning device for every middle and high school student, according to EdWeek Research Center. Half of all districts surveyed said they used Chromebooks for all their schools. 

But three years later, thousands of those laptops have already been rendered useless. This summer, another 13 Chromebook models will hit their death dates. Next summer, 51 will follow suit.

“It’s just a real waste of both money and material,” said 17-year-old Maritsa Cortez, whose team had already recycled 451 expired Chromebooks by mid-July. That’s a fraction of the 3,851 laptops the students replaced last year when more of the district’s Chromebooks reached their death dates.

But a Google spokesman said the death dates have an important purpose: Chromebook laptops receive regular software updates — including for security — and older devices often cannot support the upgrades.

“These updates depend on many device-specific non-Google hardware and software providers that work with Google to provide the highest level of security and stability support,” said Peter Du, communications manager for ChromeOS. “For this reason, older Chrome devices cannot receive updates indefinitely to enable new OS and browser features.”

Over the next five years, Oakland Unified estimates 40,000 of its Chromebooks will expire.

“Seeing the boxes of e-waste just doesn’t feel good,” said 17-year-old Danna Avila, another intern in the Oakland Unified program.

Oakland is not alone. In Southern California, the Torrance Unified School District will lay to rest more than 20,000 Chromebooks, according to the Southern California News Group. Another district in that region, Capistrano Unified, has had to budget $4.2 million to buy new Chromebooks and pay employees to repair them next school year, the news group reported.

“We are indeed concerned about the expiration date of these devices,” Maria Garcia, the district spokesperson for San Bernardino City Unified told SCNG.

Google has made some adjustments. It began guaranteeing an eight-year shelf life for its Chromebooks in 2020. The devices Oakland Unified bought last year, for example, have a 2029 expiration date. Piedmont Unified has also purchased newer models with an 8-year life cycle.

But the lifespan of older models, the ones schools and education nonprofits scrambled to buy for distance learning in the early months of the pandemic, hasn’t changed. Sander Kushen, a consumer advocate at CALPIRG, said expiration dates mean the clock starts running when the laptop is made, not when it is purchased. And because of that, any laptop model minted before 2020 is on a downward trajectory. Those using refurbished Chromebooks — or those who bought an older model, even if it’s fresh off the shelf — will see their devices’ lifespans dwindle even faster, oftentimes without the user realizing it.

Doubling the life of the devices sold across California in 2020 alone could save the state’s schools $225 million, according to CALPIRG, and nationwide, that number would rise to $1.8 billion.

Although districts can’t fix the expiration date, many work hard to get their money’s worth out of their Chromebooks. This year, the Oakland students have repaired more than 1,300 damaged laptops. Last year, that number was close to 4,000. But even so, they’re facing an upward climb. In a recent analysis, CALPIRG found that Chromebooks are harder to repair than other laptops, mostly due to a lack of spare, affordable and compatible parts, and that one-third of replaceable keyboard options cost around $90 — almost half the $200 cost of a laptop.

“Currently, schools need to purchase parts from third parties or scavenge from broken machines. This scarcity can contribute to the high price for parts, making repair uneconomical,” stated CALPIRG in a recent report.

Tired of seeing so much go to waste, some have tried to find other solutions. San Ramon Valley Unified collects and replaces laptops every five years, using the older models for administrative tasks until they need to be recycled, said Spokeswoman Ilana Israel Samuels. At Piedmont Unified, Superintendent Jennifer Hawn said the district uses older models as loaners during repairs, or shifts them to programs that only require light technology use. The district also harvests parts from older models in partnership with parent clubs before selling the unusable laptops as e-waste.

Kimathi Bradford, a 16-year-old Oakland tech repair intern, has looked into whether there was a way to replace the outdated Chromebook software with a non-Google brand, but it ended up being a lot of work, Kimathi said, and the open-source replacement wasn’t up to par.

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