EPEAT finds thin laptops, including Macbook Air, meet its standard

The results are in from a weeks-long investigation by the environmental standards group

An investigation of ultrathin laptops, including Apple's latest Macbook Air, has found they do conform to the EPEAT (Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) environmental standard. The investigation, which covered five laptops made by four companies, was started after Apple said in July it was withdrawing from the voluntary certification then reversed its position after an outcry from its customers.

The Cupertino-based computer maker never explained its initial reason for wanting to drop out of EPEAT, but the move came shortly after it refreshed its Macbook Air laptops. At the time there was considerable speculation Apple's decision was because the new laptops didn't conform to aspects of the EPEAT standard related to disassembly, upgrade and replacement of components.

As a result of the verification process, details of which were announced on Friday, no products have been removed from the EPEAT registry, said Sarah O'Brien, director of outreach and communications for EPEAT.

The organization's verification process began with an attempt to clarify ambiguous wording in a couple of parts of its requirements, which are based on the IEEE 1680.1 environmental assessment standard for personal computers.

One of the issues in question was EPEAT section 4.4.2.1, which in part required that "the product is upgradeable with commonly available tools."

In determining what that meant, EPEAT decided that an upgrade doesn't necessarily require access to the inside of the computer.

"Products containing externally accessible ports such as a high performance serial bus or a USB are capable of being upgraded by adding a hard disk, DVD, floppy drive, memory and cards, and therefore conform to this criterion," EPEAT's product verification committee said in a clarification to the rule.

A "commonly available tool" was determined to be one that can be "purchased by any individual or business without restrictions and is readily available for purchase on the open market."

A second issue requiring clarification was the definition of the "ease and safety" disassembly requirement in two other parts of the EPEAT regulations. The committee decided that was something that had to be demonstrated rather than explained in the text of the document.

The verification process started wide but soon narrowed.

"In reviewing, we found a large number of products with clear disassembly instructions, then we looked at the uni-body group," said O'Brien. "There was a high risk of non-compliance."

Unibody refers to a new form of laptop manufacture in which the body of the computer is formed from a single piece of metal or plastic. The method makes the computers more compact, but has the possibility of making them more difficult to take apart and recycle.

So EPEAT decided to focus its attention on unibody laptops and selected five computers from Apple, Lenovo, Samsung and Toshiba.

Disassembly instructions were solicited from the manufacturers, the laptops were bought on the open market, and they were sent to an electronics test laboratory that would do the tests.

"They found they could disassemble all the laptops in at most 20 minutes and remove batteries in at most 3 minutes," said O'Brien. "The recommendation was that all five [laptops] be found in compliance."

Batteries had been a focus of the initial speculation on Apple. Early attempts to disassemble Macbook Air laptops revealed the batteries were glued into space rather that mounted -- something that would enable the company to save a little internal space -- and that was thought to fall afoul of EPEAT standards.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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