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iPhone Batterygate: The environmental cost of the smartphone explosion

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Apple has been caught with its pants down in what many have suspected all along: that it is slowing down its older iPhones right around the time a new model is released.

It doesn’t appear Apple is doing this to intentionally create planned obsolescence, but will definitely be interpreted as such by the general populace.

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Lithium Polymer batteries used in Apple’s mobile devices are wear items, and their performance degrades with time. There is no battery chemistry or other technology currently available at a reasonable cost factor that would prevent this from happening. The battery tech is what it is.

In order to provide a consistent battery experience over the lifetime of the device, Apple has inserted code in its iOS — which appears to have been present for well over a year — that slows the A-series SoC clock cycles when it detects battery performance degradation so that CPU speed is traded off for increased battery life.

With regular use, a LiPo battery should last two years. So if you buy an iPhone around the time of launch, within 18 months, you will start to experience slowness, especially if you’ve upgraded to newer and more demanding versions of the OS that need the full clock cycles of the device to perform adequately.

This raises a larger question — why not simply have a smartphone with a battery pack that can be replaced?

Certainly, we had these during the early days of Android phones as well as with BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices, and there are a few — but not many — Android devices on the market that still have field replaceable batteries, such as the 5th generation Moto G (which, incidentally, is on sale right now at Amazon and a great buy for $200).

The simple answer is that iPhones (and virtually all the new Androids which have copied Apple’s overall industrial design) are slim, sexy devices. They use glue and heat seals to put them together. You basically have to pry it apart with specialized tools and you have to be extremely experienced in servicing microelectronics not to destroy the thing in the process.

So to swap a battery out, it requires a skilled technician. It’s essentially impossible to repair.

In fact, most iPhone batteries in the store are never actually “swapped” or devices “repaired”. If your phone is under AppleCare, or if the company elects in or out of warranty to fix your phone at an Apple Store, in most cases, they simply replace your phone. It’s happened to me a few times over the years.

Your old phone is sent back to a huge service center in Asia, where they recondition it with a new battery and it gets recirculated into the channel for resale. Or if the components cannot be reclaimed, the phone is recycled for its raw materials — or disposed of entirely.

Apple is now working on installing robots in its partner stores to do display replacements in order to avoid sending phones back to their spawning grounds.

That’s only how Apple itself does things, which has some responsibility for its equipment if you turn it into a retail store or your carrier store. There’s millions of broken iPhones (and yes, Androids) which come through third party channels that are simply just sent to the junk pile.

And the amount of e-waste that is generated yearly by discarded smartphones and other electronic devices is utterly massive. And the piles just keep getting bigger.

iPhones (and Samsung Galaxy phones) are now made largely of glass, so they are extremely fragile and sensitive to drop damage. The glass can eventually be reclaimed, but they aren’t cheap to fix because all of their components are tightly integrated, such as the display, which on the newest models fuses the digitizer, the display matrix, and the glass into a single component.

I am a huge proponent of the right of end-users to repair and perform simple maintenance on their devices.

And I feel it is unconscionable that device manufacturers have seen to it in recent years that there really are no authorized repair centers left, either, so there is no third-party repair channel for many types of electronic devices.

They want you to send it back to the original manufacturer and repair it at an outrageous cost, or they want it to end up as junk so you buy a new one. More often than not, you’re going to end up junking it.

With batteries being the primary wear item (USB-C on newer Androids have eliminated most of the durability issues with the horrid Micro-B charging connector) there is no reason why a smartphone, with proper considerations as to overall design and ability to tear down, cannot last for three to five years.

Yes, some extra bulk will almost certainly be added as a result of such changes. But we need to look past the basic aesthetics and more about how we as human beings play into the health of our planet and what kind of place we want to leave for our children and grandchildren.

First, glass is a stupid material to make a smartphone out of. Sure, it looks great in promotional material but in reality, if you don’t put one of the newer iPhones in a case, you’re pretty much going to destroy the thing on the first drop.

And on a $1000 iPhone X, you sure as heck don’t want to do that. Get a case, dumbass.

Also: Decoding OtterBox and LifeProof cases for iPhone X

We should really be making phones out of metal. I’ve recently had a chance to play extensively with Huawei’s latest inexpensive globally unlocked 4G smartphone — the Honor 7X which retails for $200 — and it is an incredibly durable as well as capable device for the money.

It has corner shock protection built into the metal casing and you can basically drop the thing from six feet onto solid concrete all day long, and pretty much the worst thing you are going to do is scratch the paint off.

Even if it falls flat on the front, you won’t crack the full HD+ screen because it has a raised bezel. You’d have to take a direct hit to the front to crack the glass, which would be a rather unusual scenario.

I typically put cases on anything, but on that phone, you probably only need a thin skin to protect the paint. If you have a careless teenager that is notorious for wrecking devices, this is an ideal phone to give them — or make them earn.

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There’s no reason why this thing cannot last three to five years. But we know the battery will severely degrade long before that.

Unfortunately, this device is also put together with glue. So it is more likely to end up as a disposable. And if the trend is to drive the prices of smartphones down to where the Huawei 7X is, we’re going to see a lot more people upgrade their devices every year. That’s a lot more e-waste.

We really need to go back to devices that are screwed together so that the battery can be swapped by anyone with a micro tool set — not just a phone repair tech — or some type of old-school hatch that slides off to reveal a standardized removable 3000 mAh battery.

Also: The 10 ‘Prime Directives’ of repairing and upgrading tech

I realize of course this is likely going to create uglier phones. But let’s look at the bigger picture — an ugly, unlivable planet is much, much worse.

However, I have full confidence that the manufacturers can put their heads together and figure out how to build designs that are not just attractive but are also serviceable.

And yes, ultralight laptop and tablet OEMs, I’m talking to you. Yes you, Microsoft!

Maybe Apple won’t do this, but certainly, I think a company like Huawei can, and so can the other Chinese and Taiwanese giants like ZTE, HTC, Oppo (OnePlus) and Xiaomi. And maybe Samsung should also reconsider the stupidity of making phones out of glass as well.

LG seems to have the right idea with its super-sexy all-metal, mil-spec V30. No swappable battery though. Sigh.

Yes I know it’s not easy to make a wireless charging phone with a metal casing. Then let’s look at high-impact polycarbonates for those or some type of case interface connection that allows the coils to be part of the secondary (sacrificial) plastic enclosure and still permit high-speed charging.

Put your heads together, OEMs, and figure it out.

I want us to stop treating our electronic possessions like disposable garbage, and I want the manufacturers to stop enabling us. No, you don’t all have to copy Apple. I’m giving you permission to be environmentally conscious. That’s way cooler than having a fruit logo.

Do you want phones with user-replaceable batteries again? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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