Unfortunately, Battery Life Dictates When It's Time for Our Gadgets to Die

If only we could replace them

  • Most gadgets die not because they break, but because the batteries wear out. 
  • Batteries typically last only a few years. 
  • Legislation could force companies to disclose battery life at the point of sale.
Opened iPhone showing its internal battery

Tyler Lastovich / Unsplash

Imagine if, instead of throwing your AirPods away after a few years, you could change the batteries and keep using them for much, much longer.

Almost all of our gadgets run on batteries. We love the convenience of not having to plug things in or being about to use them anywhere. Headphones, speakers, smartphones, even drum machines and synthesizers, they're all untethered from the wall. But this convenience is often why our gadgets die after just a few years. Shouldn't the law step in and change this?

"When it comes to batteries, most gadget users are not looking for a long-term solution. They want something that is easy to use and does not require too much maintenance," Oberon Copeland, tech writer, owner, and CEO of the Very Informed website, told Lifewire via email. "This is one of the reasons why many gadgets come with sealed, non-replaceable batteries."

All Batteries Die

The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in everything from wireless earbuds to laptops have a lifespan. Every time you use and recharge a battery, its capacity diminishes slightly. Depending on your usage, this can reduce useful battery life to a few years. For small items like AirPods and especially smartwatches that might see a full drain/recharge cycle every day, the total life can be very short.

And once the batteries in your AirPods are so weak that they can’t get you through a commute, you have only one real option—replace them. 

Materials-wise, this is obviously a waste, but AirPods are so tiny compared to everything else we throw into the trash that this isn’t really the biggest problem. Typically, manufacturing and shipping are responsible for the majority of the lifetime carbon emissions of any gadget. 

And, of course, the fact that you have to spend another $179-$249 for a new pair of AirPods every few years. 

Planned Obsolescence

The Washington Post's Geoffrey A. Fowler and Linda Chong calculated the "hidden death dates" of 14 electronic products, from Fitbits to MacBooks to VR headsets to, yes, AirPods, and concluded that most of them are "designed to die" with the remainder designed to be repaired.

tablet drawing showing a depleted battery

Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

And that last point is an important one. Even when a laptop or phone is designed to have its battery replaced, it’s deemed a repair that needs to be carried out by a qualified technician and not a simple swap to be done by the user. You can, of course, attempt it yourself, and if you use the excellent repair guides, replacement parts, and tools from iFixit, you’ll almost certainly succeed. 

Batteries are often shaped to fit the tiny spaces inside a device and glued into place. If you want to include a user-swappable battery, it needs to be in one block and requires space for the connections, the hatch, and so on. This can lead to larger devices with shorter battery life.

Forced Disclosure

In France, the French Repairability Index requires some categories of electronic devices to display a repairability score. The European Parliament is also working on an EU-wide version

Ideally, this index would include an estimate of the battery life of every product. If you were about to drop $250 on a pair of wireless earbuds, and right there next to the buy button, you saw that they would only last a couple of years, then maybe you’d think twice about adding them to your cart. 

When it comes to batteries, most gadget users are not looking for a long-term solution.

"After three years of use, my second-generation model is starting to need more frequent charging. It is time to replace it. But, though I enjoy having it in my life, I am struggling with the implications of going through products worth hundreds of dollars every few years," writes Nick Heer on his Pixel Envy blog

It's even possible to replace the batteries in AirPods. If you send your dead units to PodSwap, the company will send you a reconditioned pair in return for $50 per pair. They then use their engineering magic to replace the batteries in your old units and clean them up, ready to send to the next customer. 

If a third-party company can do this, then Apple certainly could. And if companies are forced to disclose the designed "death date" of gadgets at point of sale, then–perhaps–they'll be motivated to do something about it.

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