More and more gadgets seem to be coming out with sealed-in batteries these days. Apple started this dubious trend with their Macbook Air.

Not being an Apple fan, this had not really bothered me personally until recently when I discovered (a) I kinda sorta could like the Kindle, and (b) it has a sealed-in battery. Boo bloody hoo!

Why? For better aesthetics? To reduce manufacturing costs? Are they the main reasons? Or is there more to it?

It doesn’t matter how long lasting the sealed-in battery is – there is no way a rechargeable battery will outlive the useful lifespan of a phone or laptop with current technology. This is the reason why batteries always come with the shortest warranty period relative to the laptop.

Let’s be real here. The average phone or laptop can easily remain perfectly serviceable for most people for 3 to 5 years. The main reason we churn through these gadgets faster than that is fashion. We simply don’t need the latest multi-core processors or gobs of RAM and storage to write the odd email, do some Facebook or watch Justin Beiber on YouTube. We buy the next new shiny for the sake of keeping up with the trend.

But I digress. Here’s my beef with the sealed-in battery design approach:

  1. It encourages the disposable mentality. Good for the manufacturer but bad for the planet. The fashion/want-driven product churn increases the amount of complex waste (that which cannot be easily broken down and re-used and recycled). All the green certifications must ring hollow against the volume of upgrade throwaways.

  2. It creates a new market for “emergency power packs.” We see these in convenience stores and petrol stations. These are essentially disposable pre-charged battery packs with the appropriate circuitry to deliver some emergency juice to your gadget. Great idea, for a need that should not have existed.

    Due to this one design decision to entomb the battery, we are now forced to design, manufacture, pack, ship, and ultimately disposed of a more complex item that is the emergency power pack. Here's a selection from Google:

    These are retail products which entails more complex and fancy packaging than a mere spare part. Some even come with built-in inverters to deliver AC output! All these need to be shipped with different adaptors to fit different gadgets (and most of these adaptors will be simply thrown away.)

    Sure, some of these power packs are rechargeable. But this fact then entails the manufacturing and shipping of a whole new power adaptor, one that is unlikely to be compatible with our gadget or other brands of power packs. More stuff, more waste.

  3. Even when we choose to use the gadget beyond the lifespan of the initial battery (instead of buying a whole new gadget), we still end up unnecessarily consuming more resources.

    To replace a dead battery means transporting the entire gadget back to the store; which then transports it to some central factory, and then all the way back again. The shipping cost surely must be higher than that for a relatively smaller and lighter spare battery!

    Of course, the manufacturer’s hope is that we will simply buy a brand new one instead.

    And while the battery is being replaced, we are left without the use of the gadget for days/weeks. Perhaps most people either do not rely on these gadgets to any real extent, or they have many previous versions lying around the house as backup…

  4. It artificially shortens the lifespan of the product. In essence this is a new form of built-in obsolescence. Even if everything is working perfectly, the battery is most likely to be the first thing to fail.

    In the old days, when we no longer find a gadget fashionable to be seen with, we could recycle it to the needy people in developing countries. The difficult-to-replace, sealed-in batteries just make it that much harder to reuse these gadgets! It increases the likelihood of having otherwise perfectly working gadgets consigned to landfill. What a dreadful shame!

The bottom line: Should we as conscientious consumers afford to support such design decisions? What drives us to buy these less sustainable designs when alternatives are available? Do we really have a choice?

As for me, I will hold off buying the Kindle for now.

(I don’t own any Apple products. My laptops and phones all have user-upgradeable parts and generally last me 3 to 5 years; and I travel with 1-2 spare batteries.)