Design Con 2015

The non-user-replaceable battery: a consumer electronics travesty

-November 27, 2012

As long-time Brian's Brain readers may recall, I'm a big fan of the subscription music concept. Rental access to a few million tracks' worth of content, for the same monthly price as a single (discounted) audio CD? Sign me up! As such, although mine is a mostly Apple hardware household, my portable music players have long been Microsoft Zune-branded devices. However, since I work from home, I don't spend much time listening to my music library in the car. And when I'm in a vehicle, I'm mostly streaming Pandora through an iPhone nowadays.

A few years ago, I dispensed with headphones stuck in my ears while running, in favor of tuning into ambient sounds (including, unfortunately, my labored breathing). And I'm not traveling as much (either for business or pleasure) as I used to, either. This all means that my Zune players spend an increasing percentage of their total time ensconced in my satchel, with their batteries slowly discharging in spite of non-use. And so it was that, a few weeks ago, I pulled my Zune 80 (which I use to store the music I own; a Zune HD handles my subscription content) out of the bag and found it completely dead.



At first, I didn't think that the playback setback was a big deal; after all, it had happened several times before. I plugged the Zune 80 into its AC adapter and left it to recharge overnight. The next morning, I unplugged it and ... it was still dead. So I hit up Google and found out that I wasn't alone. Apparently a too-deep discharge, in particular with a battery that's already experienced a decent number of recharge cycles, results in an unrecoverable dead-battery outcome.

At that point I gritted my teeth, because were the Zune 80 to have had a user-accessible battery compartment, fixing the issue would be a simple matter of sliding off the lid, popping out the dead cell, popping in a replacement, and continuing on. But of course the Zune 80's battery is embedded. This is, as long-time readers may recall, a longstanding beef of mine (and yes, the date is right ... I wrote that particular premier piece in the thematic series more than a decade ago).

So I jumped on Ebay and ordered a replacement battery, which came with a set of "tools." That last word is in quotes because the first time I tried to use the supposed spudgers (which ended up being made of flimsy plastic), they disintegrated. I was using them in an attempt to pry open the outer case, one of the first disassembly steps documented on iFixit's website. In order to fully grok the prose that follows, you really need to appreciate the complexity of the teardown that I was tasked with undertaking. So please hit up and absorb the above iFixit link. I'll wait ...

Prying open the outer case was challenging enough; I made do with a few jeweler's screwdrivers (which scratched the heck out of the outer case in the process). But first, of course, there were the T4 torx screws; how many folks have appropriate screwdrivers lying around? Next, there was an abundance of silver tape to peel back, along with a flimsy connector to disengage. Then more T4 torx screws, along with other obstacles. And finally the coup de grâce ... four flimsy soldered wires. Again, I'll ask ... how many folks have soldering irons lying around, at all, far from those of an appropriate wattage? And of those folks that do, how many actually know how to use them?

Although I could continue to act like some sort of modern-day Don Quixote tilting at windmills and demanding that consumer electronics companies use removable batteries, I've largely given up on this particular mission. Innumerable portable electronics products (from laptops to tablets to smartphones and other devices, although curiously not standalone cameras) now employ embedded batteries, with their manufacturers claiming that the units are slimmer, smaller, lighter in weight, longer in battery life and lower priced as a result.

The truth of the matter, of course, is the guaranteed obsolescence strategy built into the embedded design approach. After enough recharge cycles and/or a lengthy enough AC tether, the battery fails and most folks subsequently toss the widget and buy another one (an option that's not available in my particular case, since the Zune 80 is no longer in production ... for now, I've made due with an 80GB iPod classic). But for those few folks who dare to repair versus replace, why can't Microsoft (and Apple, and pretty much every CE manufacturer) make the battery-to-system board tether a connector versus several tenuous solder points? And why can't the process of getting to the battery in the first place be made more straightforward, too?

My buddies at iFixit rate gear they tear down based on its repairability score, and a disappointingly high percentage of the hardware ends up with a disappointingly low rating. The situation doesn't need to be this way. CE manufacturers, the next step is yours.

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