Our analysis of 14 popular consumer devices found that most of them can be out of action within 3 to 4 years due to irreplaceable batteries. Here’s how we’re getting the tech industry to design products that last longer – and do less harm to the environment.
Is this how technology works? No, this is how tech companies make more money from you.
We users want electronics that are easy to use, beautiful – and also last a long time. So in my search for ways to make the technology work better for us, I tried to figure out when 14 of my devices would die. I discovered that most of them can fade within three to four years. Half of it is designed to be discarded. You can see all the details in my tool cemetery.
Having to keep buying upgrades and replacements is annoying and bad for our budgets. Even worse, it is a hidden contributor to our environmental crisis. But I have some ideas about how to change that by forcing the tech industry to get clean.
Here’s a dirty little secret about the tech industry: “Almost every device these days has a battery that’s going to run out, and it’s a built-in death watch,” says Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair community iFixit. Today, there are batteries in everything from a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. They are consumable products, such as printer ink or tires.
But buying gear with batteries sealed inside is a bit like buying a car where you can’t change tires. We just don’t realize we’re doing it, or how it’s contributing to our climate crisis and sustainability.
Devices do not consume as much energy as airplanes and cars, but the damage they do comes from their manufacture and disposal. Making new devices requires mining raw materials such as cobalt, often at great human cost. Disposing of old appliances is expensive and leads to dangerous battery fires in trucks and recycling centers.
According to Apple, of all the carbon emissions its products add to the Earth over their lifetime, only 70 percent come from manufacturing. This means that every time you buy a new device like a laptop, you add hundreds of pounds of carbon to the sky before you even turn it on.
We users want electronics that are easy to use, beautiful – and also last a long time.
But even if you want to buy long-lasting devices, it is often impossible to know when a product will run out of battery. Of course, devices fail for many reasons, but empty batteries are the death clock built into them.
That’s why I spent six weeks pushing some of the world’s largest companies to find these basic facts about some of our favorite tools:
- First, how many recharges — or “cycles” — can a product battery take until its capacity drops to 80 percent? “After that, they are defined as dead,” explains Bas Flipsen, a lecturer in industrial design engineering at Delft University of Technology, because the amplitude begins to drop sharply.
- Second, when that inevitable day comes, what, if anything, can the consumer do to replace their battery?
Nearly half of the companies I contacted — including Sony, Dyson, Logitech, Google-owned Fitbit, Amazon, Therabody, and Samsung-owned JBL — declined to answer or ignored my specific questions.
None of this should be a secret.
Is this a “planned obsolescence”?
How did we end up with disposable gadgets? Let’s go back 20 years to the iPod.
The Apple Pocket Music Player shook the world by putting a thousand songs in our pockets. But it was made differently from other portable devices of the era: it had a rechargeable battery and was sealed inside.
Less than 18 months later, owners started noticing that their iPods could no longer handle much charge—and the hassles of replacing the battery kept most people from even trying. iPods were so desirable that many of us bought a new one. I still have a dead person in the drawer.
It inspired one of the great feats of guerrilla hardware activism: Casey Neistat, now a popular YouTube user, was so frustrated with dead iPod batteries that he videotaped himself painting a warning sign on the ubiquitous Apple billboards about the iPod’s death watch.
However, Apple has continued to manufacture devices with rechargeable batteries sealed inside, including its most influential product of all time, the iPhone. And whatever Apple does, other companies follow.
“We’re part of the problem, because when we buy a short-lived product, we’re sending manufacturers a signal that it’s OK to make short-lived products,” says Wiens of iFixit.
How big is this grand scheme to get us to keep spending money? There is a term for that: planned obsolescence.
I haven’t seen much evidence of smokey rooms where technology managers hatch ways to make products fail. But disposable electronics are the product of planning. Marketers have had huge success luring us with products that are either ultra-thin or water-resistant, both of which are easy to do with glued or soldered batteries. “This is the simplest, fastest and most economical solution,” says engineer Flipsen.
He says other designs are possible. For example, the cool GoPro action cameras have user-removable batteries — and you can take the cameras swimming. Samsung Galaxy Buds have batteries that are relatively easy to insert and remove. A company called Framework makes a great laptop with modular, upgradeable parts that’s still the same weight as a MacBook Air.
Apple has cleaned up its business in some ways. While the batteries on iPhones are still sealed inside, today you can get Apple to replace one for $69. Apple laptops, which also have airtight but serviceable batteries, provide a very useful way to see how many charge cycles you’ve burned. (Go to About This Mac > System Report > Power and then you’ll see the Cycle Count number. Most Macs are designed for 1,000.)
But the $179 AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product in years, show that longevity remains a serious concern. If you show up at the Apple Store and your AirPod batteries are dead, they will only sell you new ones. (Apple wouldn’t comment when I asked why.)
Unfortunately, I’ve found that many other devices are also designed to become trash. Not only is the battery in my Philips Sonicare toothbrush replaceable – it’s so hard-mounted on the inside that the manual says you have to take a hammer to it just to throw it away (because batteries can cause garbage fires). “The battery is tightly placed, in a waterproof handle, to ensure safety, durability, longevity, and robust performance,” says Phillips.
Many manufacturers describe their recycling programs as a sign of their environmental commitments. Amazon, for example, does not offer battery replacement service for Fire tablets out of warranty, although it does offer customers a 20 percent discount on a new Fire tablet if they send in their old device.
But recycling is not the solution it might seem. Recyclers can recover only a small portion of the critical raw materials that go into an old machine. “You can’t simply take apart a truck full of old smartphones to make a truck full of new smartphones,” says Wiens.
Much of the industry has to do with the idea that we will continue to upgrade. “These companies have built their business models on the basis of replacement rates that are faster than consumers want,” says Ugo Valori, co-director of the UK-based Restart Project, which advocates for salvageable electronics. “They are finding it really hard to see a future in which they can thrive. while responding to the challenges that the planet and consumers put before them.”
The best thing for us and the environment is to stick with the devices longer. For that to happen, we’ll need information.
So let’s revive Nystat’s radical act of transparency and demand to know when tools are designed to die. If companies don’t clean up on their own, ask for a label on the shelf that lists how many battery recharges and how much it costs to replace the battery. The FTC already has the ability to require other labels on products – why not apply to batteries?
We can also draw inspiration from France, which started in 2021 requiring some product categories to include a repairability score, rated from 1 to 10. You can’t miss it when shopping. And there are already signs that it is pushing companies to change the way they design their products – because they now have to compete for longevity as well as price and other features.
In the United States, we are soon ready to enact laws that give consumers the right to repair products. It could mean that even if the battery is sealed inside a product, its manufacturer has to sell replacements and share instructions on how to fix it.
However, some environmental activists argue that we cannot leave it up to tech companies to make the design decisions that are critical to the planet. Jean-Pierre Schweizer, chief policy officer at the European Environment Office, a network of environmental organizations, is part of a group trying to get European lawmakers to ban non-replaceable batteries. “End users and independent operators should be able to replace batteries with commonly available tools,” he says.
According to Schweitzer, ordering only smartphones and tablets for user-replaceable batteries would save European consumers $20 billion and reduce the industry’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent in 2030 alone.
But the devil is in the details: Should we completely ban sticky batteries — or any batteries that require special tools to remove? Some workers in the tech industry were backing away from their need for an exemption for products designed to work in “wet conditions.” But this excuse can be applied to any mobile device.
We also have to weigh our responsibility in the face of the environmental crisis. As a professional tool guy, I totally understand the allure of upgrades.
But we must resist a marketing machine that makes the annual cycle of product updates look like anything other than blunt consumerism. The truth is that upgrades often offer very few new features. One of the classic stories lies in the slogan “Best iPhone Ever”. Did anyone expect it to be worse than last year’s model?
We need to change our relationship with technology. Not so long ago, people used to assemble radios and computers at home, so they knew how they worked – and how to keep them working for a long time. Nowadays, it seems forbidden to open a computer just to see what’s inside.
It is a good thing that technology is now more accessible. But if you simply can’t replace the battery with something you own, is it really yours?