Return of Phones with Replaceable Batteries

Return of Phones with Replaceable Batteries

The Rise of User-Replaceable Batteries: A Shift in Smartphone Design

Once upon a time — by which we mean the ’90s and early 2000s — if you wanted to swap out your phone’s battery for a new one, all you had to do was slide the back casing open and pop the battery out. The rise of sleek but impenetrable smartphones largely saw an end to user-replaceable batteries. But now, in the mid-2020s, the tide could be turning once again.

Two separate pieces of right-to-repair legislation working their way through the European Union institutions — one of which was passed by the European Parliament at the end of June — could force phone manufacturers to make significant changes to the way they design phones. Once they come into force, expected to be in 2025 and 2027 respectively, they will put in place regulations that compel makers of phones and other small devices, like portable game consoles, to allow people to replace the batteries themselves.

As a smartphone owner, you’ll likely be familiar with the specific frustrations batteries pose — namely the drop-off in maximum capacity over time and the inability to cheaply and easily do anything to fix it. If you were able to switch the battery out, you could well end up keeping your phone for a prolonged period. Battery degradation is a major reason for considering an upgrade, according to CCS Insight Chief Analyst Ben Wood.

Increasingly, phone manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, and HMD, which makes Nokia phones, are trying to make their devices more easily repairable at home. Since the start of this year, HMD has introduced two phones in which the batteries can be quickly replaced by the owner, although it does require an iFixit toolkit to do so. Repairing smartphones has largely been a specialist job. But with more power to fix devices, the hope is that you’ll be less likely to discard them in favor of newer models, reducing the overall amount of electronic waste that comes from broken or aging products.

“By empowering consumers with the ability to replace a worn-out battery themselves, it means that they can keep hold of their device for longer,” said Lars Silberbauer, chief marketing officer at HMD, which welcomed the EU’s proposals on user-replaceable batteries. “It also makes repairing a smartphone more affordable.”

But abiding by the new rules is going to mean having to solve some tricky engineering challenges for companies aiming to comply. One phone-maker, Fairphone, has pioneered making phones with fully user-replaceable batteries, and it’s no easy feat.

To understand the challenges and benefits of making a device with a replaceable battery, let’s turn to Fairphone, a company that already makes such phones. According to Miquel Ballester, Fairphone’s head of product development and one of its founders, there’s nothing novel about being able to replace a phone’s battery. Instead, it’s a choice that manufacturers have made as phones have trended thinner and thinner. While battery capacities have improved over the years, the basic chemistry that causes them to degrade over time has not.

Fairphone isn’t just a phone-maker. Its mission is to challenge the electronics industry to create devices that are longer-lasting and easier to repair. All of the phones the company has made are modular, so they can be taken apart and put back together by anyone. Even someone with little experience of electronics can do it.

But making a phone this way comes with compromises. Having a fully integrated battery that’s glued into a smartphone creates a stable connection between the power module and the other components. A replaceable battery can’t boast the same level of stability, meaning that the connection is more likely to be interrupted if the phone is dropped or if a speck of dust finds its way onto the connector.

Dust and water can also be a problem for modular phones. The Fairphone 4, which just arrived in the US, is the company’s first device to come with a waterproof rating of IP54. While this is lower than most top-end models, Ballester believes it’s less of an issue since most people replace their phones due to issues with the battery, software, or a smashed screen, rather than getting wet.

Replaceable batteries also require bulkier housing to match the robustness and reliability of glued-in batteries. This means that phone-makers have to opt for lower-capacity batteries, resulting in potentially chunkier phones with less battery life. However, according to Ballester, the Fairphone 4 still provides enough juice in one charge to last a full day, just not extending to one and a half or two days like flagship models.

The obvious benefit of having a replaceable battery is that if your existing one is causing issues and not lasting the full day, you can swap it out for a new one. However, this relies on those same exact batteries still being available several years after you’ve first bought your phone. Spare batteries can’t sit idle on shelves waiting to be used, as they will also degrade over time. Persuading suppliers to keep making battery replacements can be a challenge. But if replaceable batteries became the norm for phone-makers, they would be much easier to get hold of.

On the other end of the phone’s lifecycle, having a replaceable battery is hugely beneficial in the recycling process. Integrated cobalt in batteries is often not recycled, resulting in the loss of valuable materials. However, if batteries are replaceable, they can be easily extracted from the phones and recycled separately. Increasing the number of replaceable batteries being recycled would help boost cobalt recycling volume and reduce waste.

Future phone manufacturers considering devices with replaceable batteries will need to make compromises, but with cross-industry efforts, there are significant opportunities to overcome the hurdles that Fairphone is already facing. By doing so, they may contribute to longer-lasting phones and ease the pressure on the planet in the process.