The days of removable batteries in devices are long gone, right? If a reported new law in Europe takes shape, they could make a serious comeback. A Dutch financial newspaper reports the European Union (EU) wants to establish a new regulation that would “force electronics manufacturers to facilitate easier battery replacements.”
It’s been years since flagship phones and laptops came with easily removable batteries, especially from companies like Apple. Have tech companies pulled the wool over our eyes? Or do people not care as much about removable batteries as the EU thinks?
Why batteries are stuck in place
If you buy a phone today, chances are you can’t easily remove the battery yourself. If you really want to try it out, it’ll require dozens of steps, including the removal of delicate pieces like the screen and the logic board. It’s not for the faint of heart.
For iPhones, that’s been the case since day one. Flagship Android phones and laptops have followed suit. Because batteries are often the first components to fail, that puts an unnecessary expiration date on these expensive devices. Apple’s even admitted to slowing down processors to not kill the batteries on older phones so quickly.
That’s why proponents of right to repair laws celebrated the news of the reported EU regulation. I spoke to an iFixit teardown engineer, Taylor Dixon, who was optimistic about the new regulation, and explained that (most) reasons cited to justify non-removable batteries don’t hold up to scrutiny.
Testing the claims
Dixon is skeptical of any claim that user removable batteries were replaced to make phones better. “There is some truth to that,” he told me, “but I think they are really just looking for an easy out.” He went on to say that for each claim, there are examples where the opposite it is true.
For example, while batteries can help with structural rigidity, Dixon doesn’t see that as the reason, making the point that the adhesives applied to phones are often easily removed. Waterproofing doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, either. Dixon notes that phones like the Galaxy S5 had removable batteries and IP ratings nearly equivalent to the phones we have today.
It’s tricky to discount a battery’s impact on making phones thinner. Even Dixon admits locked-down phones have advantages over modular ones in thickness.
“In some cases, using adhesive to hold components in place uses less space than using screws or clips,” he explained. He also said user-replaceable batteries are protected by a hard shell to prevent mishandling. “That shell could take up space that could otherwise be removed for the phone to be thinner, or for the battery to have more capacity.”
I think they are really just looking for an easy out.
However, Dixon was quick to find examples of products that didn’t need to compromise modularity for thin design. The Surface Laptop is such an example. It was completely glued shut in previous generations, but is now easier to service.
“Now, the keyboard assembly is held in place with screws and magnets and, if I remember correctly, they were able to make that change without adding significantly to any of the laptop’s dimensions,” said Dixon.
People who buy the Surface Laptop 3 can upgrade the storage, a feature MacBooks have lacked for years. Dixon points out that newer MacBooks Air batteries are actually less locked-down than they used to be, despite being thinner. Models from before 2017 used a thick, protective liner around battery, while the new ones just use screws.
“I think in general, internal space is not as precious inside laptops, which usually means manufacturers are more open putting liners or shells on the batteries inside of them, which in turn means they can screw or clip them into place rather than use gobs of adhesive,” Dixon said. “The MacBook Pro just seems to be the insane exception to that rule, wherein form has taken precedence over function.”
From Dixon’s perspective, locked-down designs lacking removable batteries, and other components, are hard to justify.Why, then, are they everywhere you look?
Do people want user-replaceable batteries?
Phones like the LG G5 were marketed on easily replaceable components. Despite that, consumers bought devices like the Apple iPhone, which make servicing difficult. Given the choice between a device with a user-replaceable battery, and one that’s locked away, consumers took the second option. Today, most Android phones have followed the iPhone’s lead and don’t have user-replaceable batteries.
I took a poll, asking people if an easily replaceable battery was a major factor when buying a phone. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority wouldn’t buy a phone just for a replaceable battery.
DT’s computing editor, @lalarsen11 wants to know how much do you care that a phone doesn’t have an easily replaceable battery?
— Digital Trends (@DigitalTrends) February 28, 2020
Maybe we’ve all fallen for Apple’s marketing schemes. Maybe we could’ve had super-thin, sturdy phones with replaceable batteries all along. We believed the explanation that Apple provided because its phones thin and waterproof, and that’s what we wanted at the time.
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