Apple AirPod batteries are nearly impossible to replace, demonstrating the need for right-to-repair reform

Apple AirPod batteries are nearly impossible to replace, demonstrating the need for right-to-repair reform

When the AirPods were first released in 2016, they were a marvel of miniaturization.

To eliminate cables and go wireless, Apple has inserted several chips, microphones and speakers into each headset, which weighs around 4 grams. Without a cable, the headset is powered by a tiny cylindrical battery that has about 1% of the battery capacity of an iPhone.

But lithium-ion batteries, such as those used by AirPods, wear out the more they are used.

Some owners have noted that, after a few years, used AirPods will eventually only last an hour or so before needing to be recharged, a big downfall from the four to five hour battery life they have when new. Because each AirPod is so small and so tight in its bay, it’s nearly impossible to replace the old battery with a new one. Most people give up and just buy a new pair.

The limited lifespan of the AirPods is exactly the kind of problem the “right to repair” movement wants to solve. Repair shops and lobbyists who support repair reform want lawmakers to implement a number of rules, including greater access to manuals and official parts, and consumer protection around warranties.

But one of their most important demands is that companies design products with repair in mind, instead of packing gadgets with unlabeled parts and gluing them together with glue, forcing users to use a knife to take them apart.

This desire sets proponents of repair at odds with hardware companies like Apple, whose business models depend on customers switching to the latest model every few years. When Apple offered low-cost iPhone battery repairs a few years ago, it hurt sales as consumers were able to hang on to their old phones for longer instead of upgrading. Apple also charges customers for repairs and extended warranties.

“We design our products for durability to minimize the need for repairs,” Apple wrote in an environmental report earlier this year. “But in the event that a repair is needed, we believe our customers should have convenient access to safe and reliable repair services to get their product up and running as quickly as possible.”

The right to redress movement is taking hold

In recent years, policymakers have begun to engage more closely with advocates of the right to redress. State-level laws were introduced in most states, but electronics companies lobbied them and none were passed.

In May, the Federal Trade Commission released a 56-page report on repair restrictions, concluding that repair restrictions have “directed consumers to manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful life” – exactly the problem users find themselves in with their AirPods.

The Biden administration on Friday ordered the FTC to write new regulations aimed at limiting manufacturers’ ability to obstruct independent or do-it-yourself repairs as part of a radical executive order. No new repair rules have yet been drawn up.

“Technology and other companies impose restrictions on their own and third-party repairs, making repairs more expensive and time-consuming, for example by limiting the distribution of parts, diagnostic and repair tools,” wrote the White House. in an ordering fact sheet on Friday, with a link to a story about repairing Apple products. Apple declined to comment on the White House executive order.

The FTC has not said what it intends to do, but advocates of the repair want some key policy changes, as detailed in its May report. They want companies to be required to make official spare parts available. They want access to tools that could make repairs easier without decoding the tools or parts themselves. And ultimately, they want products to be designed with a longer lifespan.

Apple isn’t the only company that would be affected by these policies. Much of the recent pressure is on medical device companies and tractor manufacturers. But given Apple’s ubiquity, it has become a manifesto for repair, mostly because it promotes its environmental efforts as a corporate value.

Apple has launched a program called the “Independent Repair Program” which gives repair shops the ability to initiate a certification process and contract with Apple to gain access to genuine Apple parts, tools and manuals.

Apple has also reduced the price of iPhone battery replacement, and recent models have been designed to make it easier to replace a broken battery or screen, according to iFixit. Additionally, compared to other consumer electronics companies, Apple has a large existing network of licensed repair shops and repair shops.

However, many Apple products remain difficult to repair at home or as a business without any contact with Apple.

The only AirPods battery replacement company

iFixit, a company that provides teardown instructions and sells spare parts for gadgets, gives AirPods models a zero out of 10 rating for repairability. According to iFixit, repairing these earbuds involves soldering, hot air guns, and glue cutting – that is, if replacement battery parts are also available. Eventually, an aspiring home repairman would have to put the four-gram computer back together.

Apple provides “battery service” for AirPods, at a cost of $ 49 per headset. But functionally, Apple simply offers you a replacement pair and the old earbuds are recycled. It is not a repair, it is a replacement. And it’s expensive. AirPods originally cost $ 159, so opting for battery service costs more than half the price of a new pair.

Apple sold about 72.8 million AirPods units in 2020, according to an estimate by a CounterPoint research, so tens of millions of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the coming years.

PodSwap is a Miami-based company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert that aims to keep AirPods “off the landfill”. They are not associated with Apple.

They believe they are the only company that does battery replacement for AirPods, although other companies “refurbish” older AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was formed after the founders experienced the death of the AirPods and thought upgrading or replacing them would be wasteful and impractical.

I recently replaced a pair of AirPods that only held a charge for 45 minutes, too short to complete a phone call. I paid $ 59 on PodSwap’s Shopify site, and a few days later I got a pair of replacement AirPods with fresh batteries. They weren’t my old AirPods, they were another set with replaced batteries.

Along with those new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. He wants your old AirPods back. He then cleans and sanitizes the old pair, inserts new batteries, and sends them to the next person who wants to change the battery in his old AirPods.

But PodSwap faces many challenges that show why repair advocates want new rules. Alpert said the AirPod’s design makes it difficult for repair shops or businesses like theirs to perform many battery replacements. PodSwap’s process uses both robotics and manual labor, the founders said.

“The process was developed through trial and error and a large number of units were ‘sacrificed’ and ultimately recycled. One of the main challenges we faced was to overcome the uniqueness of this product. Each AirPod is assembled with slight differences, which creates disassembly complexity, ”Alpert said.

PodSwap plans to offer a service for the AirPods Pro soon, a newer model that costs $ 249 and, surprisingly, is powered by a full-sized coin cell battery.

But the AirPods Pro have many of the same problems as the first model: tight tolerances, potential damage during disassembly, a lack of replacement parts, and a design that suggests the product has always been designed to last a limited time.

“We found the AirPods Pro batteries to be more difficult to replace,” Alpert said. “The ergonomic design and tight, ruthless tolerances make it exceptionally difficult to replace batteries repeatedly, with a high degree of efficiency.”

PodSwap wasn’t quite perfect for me: I was sent a combination of “first generation” and “second generation” AirPods. They caused my iPhone to send error messages, but I emailed PodSwap and a day or two later I got a second replacement set, which worked.

Next, I sent in my first replacement set and my old AirPods. The AirPods I received look and work like new.

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