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Five year update pledges don't mean much without removable batteries
Most major smartphone brands today tout long-term update pledges in some capacity, though they’re usually restricted to high-end devices. Samsung is undoubtedly the leader in this regard, offering four OS updates and five years of security patches for its phones, but other players aren’t too shabby either with three OS updates and four years of patches.
It’s a far cry from the early years of the modern smartphone era when even a single OS update wasn’t guaranteed. These pledges reflect people’s recent shift towards holding on to smartphones for longer than the standard two-year upgrade cycle. But a long update pledge doesn’t mean much if an integral hardware concern isn’t addressed first.
We’re not talking about performance, as even today’s budget phones offer a respectable level of horsepower that should carry them through several years. Instead, we’re talking about removable batteries being abandoned in favor of fixed designs.
Your battery will die before your software becomes obsolete
Apple was one of the first brands to adopt a fixed battery, starting with the original iPhone. This forced users to visit a repair store or undertake a potentially risky DIY approach if they wanted to swap out their iPhone’s battery.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the grand majority of today’s Android smartphones have non-removable batteries. There are exceptions like the FairPhone 4, Samsung Galaxy Xcover series, and Nokia C21, but these devices are very few and very far between. You can forget about full-blown flagship phones packing a removable battery today.
It’s a stark contrast to the period from the late 2000s to the mid-2010s, when smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S5, Samsung Galaxy Note 3, LG G4, LG V20, and Motorola Atrix offered removable batteries. All you had to do was simply pop off the phone’s rear cover with your bare hands (no screwdriver needed) and then take out the old battery.
One upside to that approach is that you can quickly switch to a fully charged battery if your current one is low and you don’t have a charger or power bank on hand. However, a removable battery is particularly important because battery degradation is the main hardware issue standing in the way of longer-term smartphone usage today.
Battery degradation is the main hardware obstacle to longer, multi-year smartphone usage today.
Modern fast-charging phones are typically designed to maintain 80% battery health after 800 charging cycles (equivalent to just over two years of usage). That’s akin to a 5,000mAh battery turning into a 4,000mAh battery over time, or a 4,000mAh battery slowly turning into a 3,200mAh battery.
There are exceptions in this regard though, as Oppo and OnePlus say their recent 150W charging solution allows phone batteries to maintain 80% battery health after 1,600 charging cycles (over four years of usage). That’s an excellent way to address the root issue that is battery degradation in the first place, but these two companies are indeed the exception. Most OEMs are still touting the 80%/800 cycle figure for their high-end fast-charging solutions.
Many of today's flagships will see a notable decline in battery health after the two-year mark, long before updates stop coming.
These figures are concerning because people are keeping their phones for longer than two years, and have been doing so since the late 2010s. In fact, a 2021 survey by Hyla found that the average age of a phone that was handed in as part of a trade-in program was 3.32 years. In other words, even if your high-end phone is getting four years of OS or security updates, you’ll likely feel its age thanks to shorter battery life.
In fact, our own Bogdan Petrovan has a three-year-old Huawei Mate 20 Pro and recently noted that charging-induced battery degradation was extremely noticeable now. He specifically said that he used to get two days of juice out of the phone but now only gets around a day of endurance. As someone who had the same phone and switched to a new daily driver earlier this year, the difference in battery life after three years was indeed night and day.
Going to the repair store for a battery replacement might not be an issue for many who have phones with non-removable batteries, but it’s one more hurdle in the way of making sure phones last as long as possible. And while replacements may be fast and easy in some markets, they’re a lot more time-consuming and complicated if you don’t live near a repair store, let alone an official one. That’s the case for remote and lower-income areas where, paradoxically, people are more likely to keep their phones longer.
Companies talk about being eco-conscious but fail to address the biggest reason their phones end up in a landfill.
It’s also hypocritical that companies have dropped bundled chargers and talk a big game about reducing their environmental impact by switching to eco-conscious materials and packaging, but fail to address one of the biggest reasons why modern phones end up in a landfill in the first place.
Removable batteries aren’t a silver bullet
There are a few reasons why OEMs started switching to a fixed battery many years ago. For one, a non-removable battery means the entire phone can be glued shut, which obviously offers easier and better ingress protection. In saying so, we’ve previously seen water-resistant phones with removable batteries (e.g. Galaxy Xcover 6 Pro), so it’s not impossible.
Going for a fixed battery design also means manufacturers are free to try out more eclectic battery shapes to deliver greater capacity. They can get more creative with their internal battery layouts, resulting in more space for other components. We’ve also seen some companies like OnePlus offer phones with fixed dual battery designs to facilitate faster charging.
How important is a removable battery to you?
So it’s not like manufacturers aren’t taking advantage of fixed battery designs. But the removable route is still important for those who want to hold on to their phones for way more than two years.
Enduring hardware to match enduring software
The trend of lengthy update pledges — whether voluntary or forced by the EU — is undoubtedly great news for the industry, as it addresses one hurdle in the way of long-term smartphone usage. But software means nothing if a phone only lasts a few hours on a charge, and it’s time for manufacturers to address the biggest hardware-related reason for people letting go of old phones.
Short of slowing battery degradation, a return to removable batteries would go a long way to ensuring that as many phones as possible are kept out of the garbage dump. But even offering free/extremely cheap battery replacements would be a start.