A dead battery shouldn’t be a dead end—the ugly downside of slim device design

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iFixIt’s carli observes that there’s a major downside to the fad of ultraslim form factors and packaging seamlessness; you often can’t replace a device’s battery yourself since it’s nearly impossible to tear apart or open up.

carli says, and I strongly agree, that it runs counter to common sense to own a battery-powered device that doesn’t allow you to replace the batteries quickly and easily—and that goes for computers, tablets, smartphones and lesser devices. We do ourselves no favors by settling for expensive electronics with batteries that can’t be removed and replaced. carli notes that these products might look great, but when it comes to batteries, recycling, and reuse, there are big problems.

dead battery ipad

One is that strong adhesive is the growing trend in slim electronics, with the consequence being batteries are that much more difficult to recover and replace, even for tech professionals. As a result, many people confronted with a lifeless battery opt to toss out the device and move on. carli cites EPA estimates that 2.37 million tons of electronic products were eligible for end-of-life management in 2009, and of these products, only 25% were collected for recycling, the other three-quarters becoming part of the e-waste stream of some 400 million electronic units discarded annually.

Last year, iFixit gave the 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display a repairability score of 1 out of 10—its lowest ever. iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens called it “the least repairable laptop we’ve taken apart,” arguing that consumers should choose the hackable, fixable non-Retina MacBook Pro over its sleeker-and-shinier-but-locked-down stablemate. Later in 2012, the 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina Display received a a slightly less disastrous 2 out of 10 repairability score.

dead battery macbook pro

Wiens concedes that on some level, the proponents of locked-down devices have a point; if something breaks, most computer owners won’t grab a screwdriver, but rather take the machine to a specialist (who likely won’t be able to fix it if its one of the new ultraslim, semi-sealed devices), or just pony up to replace it with a faster one.

Wiens argues that sending your difficult-to-repair computer off to a trained technician certainly doesn’t protect you from the consequences of difficult-to-repair hardware, noting that about a third of computers break by the fourth year, and that AppleCare doesn’t cover accidental damage, and only lasts up to three years in any case. Less or unrepairable designs guarantee that fixing stuff will be more expensive and complicated no matter who does it.

However, Wiens contends that an even bigger point is that the future of the planet depends on the quality of our electronic devices and how long they last, and that the way we’re doing it now hurts people and permanently damages the environment, citing the devastating environmental and social impacts of hardware manufacturing and disposal. He says he’s visited electronics scrapyards in Ghana where children burn electronics to mine them for raw materials, and has spent a lot of time studying the aftermarket of the consumer electronics industry, where repair, reuse, and material recovery happen, noting that, “There’s no such thing as a completely green cell phone or computer.” He points out that only a small fraction of electronics produced are recycled, usually ham-fistedly.

In Wiens’ vision, an ideal world would be one in which technicians would continue to repair, salvage, and refurbish old hardware that would move on from owner to owner rather than being thrown in the trash, which is why he’s eager to promote hardware that lasts and call out products that don’t. “Its critically important that we fix things when they break,” he maintains, urging consumers to demand products that aren’t just light and thin, but can also stand the test of time, because our future depends on it.

Wiens’ colleague carli notes notes that in a perfect world we would have devices designed from scratch to support battery replacement and that are sold with clear instructions on how to replace the dead battery (or ideally any broken part). This could radically cut down on the volume of electronic products choking our landfills, accounting for as much as 40% of the lead found there.

The fundamental problem is philosophical, or, viewed more cynically, a business strategy affecting how electronics products are imagined and designed. To wit: planned obsolescence. carli contends that if you own an electronic device, its battery should be yours to change—whether its an alarm clock, an e-reader, or an iPad—and that consumers should have the right to access information that will make their electronic gadgets more efficient and economical. And although corporations of course prefer us to purchase new items to replace our electronics every year, it’s simply not ethical or financially viable to ditch our stuff when the newer model debuts.

Blackberry Z10

An impractical ideal? No way. My late 13″ 2008 Unibody MacBook has an identical form factor to the current 13″ non-Retina MacBook Pro, and it has a user-replaceable battery, unlike its Pro-designated successor models, with which battery replacement requires a major teardown. In a more cutting edge context, the BlackBerry Z10 is a modern, slim device with a battery that’s simple to remove and replace—an object lesson to its competitors, notably the iPhone.

It’s time electronic device consumers read the riot act to Apple and other slimness-obsessed device manufacturers on this issue, demanding devices designed with disassembly and ease of repair or upgrading in mind. carli notes that the Germans are out in front in addressing this issue, with the President of the German Federal Environment Agency publicly backing a ban on built-in batteries.

Read [The Serious Downside to Slim Design]

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  • john werneken

    Beyond planned obsolescence is obsolescent design…if anything turns out to be less than wonderful, get another design and another device. Few things have been designed to facilitate repair, not for ages anyway.

    But some things ARE designed to be reliable. Over-heating portable electronic contraptions are NOT amongst those that are designed with long-term use in mind.

  • Charles W. Moore

    thanks for the comment.

    I have two 2000 Pismo PowerBooks in daily service for production work. They’ve been upgraded with faster processors and larger HDDs, more RAM, and 8x DVD-burner optical drives.

    They are simple to upgrade or repair. one has needed a replacement screen and videi inverter board. That’s been it for repairs in 13 years. None of the upgrades or the screen replacement took more than half an hour, and were easy DIY tasks.

    That’s lasting value.