Earlier this week, the Dutch newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad published a scoop (via Business Insider) that sent ripples through the tech industry: the European Union is drafting legislation that would legally require tech companies to make products with batteries that users could easily replace on their own.
According to the leaked legislation, vendors who make smartphones, tablets, and wireless earphones will need to redesign those products to make all batteries user-removable and replaceable. The legislation is supposed to be announced to the public next month in order to hear from stakeholders, and it follows a recent EU impact assessment arguing that all smartphones must have a common charging standard (for example, USB-C).
If passed, the legislation would require everyone from Apple to Samsung to fundamentally redesign all the phones they currently make–not to mention tablets and wireless earbuds like the AirPods. (While there were once plenty of smartphones with removable batteries, 2007’s original iPhone began a trend toward sealed batteries that eventually led to removable-battery designers becoming neatly extinct.) Both initiatives are aimed at reducing e-waste, but while a common charging standard makes more sense from a technical and design perspective, mandating all devices have user-replaceable batteries is a horrible idea.
It would make gadgets way bulkier
The immediate impact the legislation that devices must have user-replaceable batteries would have is on product design. We’re used to our tech products being thin and sleek. That sexiness of today’s products is possible because tech companies are constantly refining a device’s components to be more compact. That compactness allows more components to be packed into the same space–more sensors, larger thermal systems to dispel heat, and, yes, larger batteries.
Contrary to what you commonly hear on online message boards, non-user-replaceable user batteries aren’t a conspiracy concocted by Samsung and Apple to pad their bottom lines through the supposedly lucrative battery-replacement market. Rather, non-user-replaceable batteries have a massive impact on creating devices that are much smaller and thinner than they otherwise would be with user-replaceable batteries.
This is because user-replaceable batteries by their very nature need to be easily removable. And in order for an interior component to be easily removable, a device needs to have additional hinges, switches, or just plain space so it can be opened up without much effort or special tools needed. Those requirements mean user-replaceable batteries necessitate that devices are thicker and heavier–or other components are jettisoned to make room for the bigger user-replaceable battery mechanisms.
Love how sleek your Samsung Galaxy S10 is or how small Apple’s AirPods Pro are? If future versions of those devices are required to have user-replaceable batteries, they’re going to get bulky.
It would hurt battery life
Of course, device makers could make devices with user-replaceable batteries and keep them the same size as today. However, if they were to do that, the batteries themselves would need to be smaller to fit into the same space non-user-replaceable batteries are glued into today.
That means devices that sport user-replaceable batteries could keep the same sleek designs they have now, but since the batteries are smaller, their battery lives would be shorter, too. In other words, you can’t have today’s sleek designs and the same long battery life with user-replaceable batteries. You need to pick one or the other.
Bye-bye, water resistance
Water- and dust-resistance are common features on flagship phones today. That’s achievable in part because today’s phones have few openings–a charging port, speaker grills, and perhaps a headphone jack, at most.
Those three tiny openings are relatively easy to seal off from water and dust. However, if you have a removable backplate so you can swap out a battery, it requires an opening almost as large as the device itself. Larger openings that take up more surface area are harder to protect against dust and water, so phones mandated to have user-replaceable batteries would likely see their dust- and water-resistance jettisoned.
Or course, this could be overcome by placing more robust rubber sealants or guards around the lining of the removable backplate, but then again, you’re looking at thicker, bulkier designs.
It’s just not necessary anymore
But the final reason why removable batteries are a terrible idea is also the simplest: user-replaceable batteries just aren’t needed anymore–not to keep your device going all day long, anyway. Back in 2007 when the iPhone was introduced, the case for removable batteries was much easier to make because the average smartphone got about 9 to 11 hours of battery life on a single charge.
But in 2020, most flagships boast “all-day” battery life of 20 to 36 hours. On a typical day, average users aren’t going to swap out their smartphone’s battery to keep their device going.
And in those cases when they do need to top off their batteries, battery cases and external batteries are common accessories, and public charging ports are ubiquitous.
In the end, while user-replaceable batteries would make repairs less cumbersome, the trade-offs in design, battery life, and features are probably too great for most users to swallow. And if the goal of user-replaceable batteries is to reduce e-waste, which is noble, the EU could instead mandate that all major smartphone and device manufacturers offer free e-waste recycling initiatives to their customers—as Apple already does.