Thinner MacBooks make bigger battery problems

Thinner MacBooks make bigger battery problems

When it comes to batteries, Apple could do a better job. Batteries wear out. They stop holding a charge. What's worse, sometimes they fail dramatically. They swell up, distort. That's what recently happened to my wife's four-year-old white MacBook. Now the MacBook is physically damaged because of it.

She noticed the trackpad was getting harder and harder to push over time. It's something she brought to the attention of the Geniuses at the local Apple retail store back in 2012, when the AppleCare extended warranty was still in effect. They replaced some parts, but not the battery.

So she lived with it. In the past few weeks, it went from bad to worse. The trackpad actually separated from the MacBook, at least partly. It popped up from the bottom to stand at an angle from the keyboard and wrist rest area. (At about the same time, the MacBook started reporting a "Service Battery" error. No kidding, really?)

The battery underneath was starting to degrade. And as it's gotten worse, the lithium-ion rechargeable battery has swollen like a balloon. I queried Twitter yesterday and was deluged by anecdotes of people who had swollen laptop batteries; some even shared pictures. It's happened to me before, as well.

This isn't specific to Apple products. It's well documented problem with batteries of all types. Almost everyone has seen a disposable battery leak at some point or another.

The sad fact is that battery technology is woefully behind the industries that depend on it. Which is one of the reason so much of the volume of the interior of your electronic devices is dedicated to the battery.

If rechargeable battery technology developed at the same pace as the circuitry inside your Macintosh or your iPhone, you'd have watch battery-sized power packs that lasted for weeks - batteries that wouldn't have to worry about seeing explode in slow motion, like this one.

We're still in the process of getting the battery replaced and the case fixed, but it's gotten me thinking: Apple really screwed us over a few years ago when they got rid of removable laptop batteries. And don't get me started on the iPhone and iPad.

Once upon a time not too long ago Apple made laptop computers with removable batteries. In fact, for years, every Mac laptop that I used or serviced as an IT guy had a removable battery that could be replaced.

But somewhere along the way, Apple elected to eschew user accessibility in favor of thinness. The result is that Apple's laptop designs are wafer-thin, lightweight and elegant, but they're also difficult to work on unless you have specialized tools. And when parts inside fail, they can fail spectacularly, at least in the case of the battery. Apple (rightly) considers your device's battery to be a wearable part, not covered under your warranty. But when it fails, it shouldn't make the case burst at the seams.

This limits battery replacement to a very limited set of Apple's customers: only those folks who are able to get the tools needed and work with the small components, understanding how Apple's hardware is put together. For everyone else, it's a trip to the Apple Store or wherever they get their devices repaired. And that usually means dropping them off or setting aside an hour or two to take care of it. That's a lot less convenient than just ordering a replacement battery from Amazon and popping it in.

That's great for Apple service providers. It's a guaranteed revenue stream, because most folks don't want anything to do with the inside of their computers. But it's a fundamentally more expensive and more involved process than just buying a new battery, which is what you were able to do with the MacBook up until 2008.

Just like most of the parts inside the Mac, Apple sources batteries from third parties, rather than making them itself. I'm certain that Apple is pushing on its suppliers all the time to improve their manufacturing processes and technology. But the way batteries work right now is the problem.

Bonnie's laptop is four years old. I'm sure battery technology has progressed since 2010, but it gives me serious pause about what sort of shape my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro is going to be in come 2016.

Tim Cook talks a good game about Apple's disruptive ideas and its commitment to the trust of its customers. Apple could put its money where its mouth is on that last point by conceding that batteries in its laptops, at the very least, should be a bit more user-serviceable than they are now.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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Thinner MacBooks make bigger battery problems

49 Comments

My new 27” Haswell i7 iMac is super thin too... and without a DVD burner. I agree with your rant, Peter.

Here's the only problem I see with this:
If your MacBook is out of warranty, and the battery swells, damaging the MacBook itself, who pays for the repair? I'm kind of thinking Apple should include the repair in the price of a battery replacement. Or at the very least, MacBooks should include a battery swelling sensor that tells me to replace the battery before it does damage.

I love Apple computers, but I will never buy an Apple product with a battery. I have had many and just never have had good luck with Apple batteries or chargers (specifically laptop chargers) and now with the hardware issues rising with the thinner models, I think I will just stick with the desktop models.

Buy another brand with removable batteries and move on. Every one of my Apple laptops work just find without error. Anything man creates has a potential to fail. But not trusting Apple or Cook based on your wives experience is a joke.

What's a joke is your post, (in addition to Apples stance on batteries).
Yep, we have the choice to move on - I see that. The method Apple uses I'd suggest leaves little room for heat or expansion, this would be seen as a design flaw in any other product where the battery has the potential to get hot.

I don't disagree with you as I am not a battery expert but at the same time, my point was if man builds a product it will never be perfect as there is always room for improvement. But 1,6, 50 out of x-millions of units does not suggest a design flaw. It suggests that as technology evolves, those same products will get better.

I appreciate you sound reply and not a empty rant. Refreshing.

Glad you took it that way. Sooner or later Nanny state officials will make removable batteries mandatory.

Apple laptops do not have a removable battery? Seriously? Why on Earth would anyohne buy such a laptop computer?

I know this is probably trolling - but I'll bite. Removable batteries have to include an extra casing, which takes up room. That means a bigger device and smaller batteries. In general, most consumers prefer a smaller device with a longer run time (which means more internal space devoted to batteries). Replacement batteries didn't sell all that well anyway. It used to be that having replaceable batteries had a big up side, you could swap them out when they ran down, for example, during a long plane flight. With the internal batteries lasting over 10 hours now, that's becoming less and less of an issue for most people. At any rate, it isn't just Apple, many of the "Ultrabooks" are the same way.

MacBook owner from 2009 here. Two years ago my battery wouldn't sufficiently hold a charge anymore, otherwise the entire laptop worked just fine. I was able to swap out the battery and the laptop is still as useful as it ever was.

That's a entire *two* years worth of use I was able to get out of my machine because I could swap out the battery for, what it ended up being, $50.

Non-removable batteries only add to the planned obsolescence of computer hardware. I'm hugely disappointed with Apple here.

If Apple wanted you to replace the batteries they would have an access door and would not be glued in place, so yes, bingo for planned obsolescence.

As a former Apple Store employee who occassionally worked our Genius Bar, I can tell you that iPhone batteries can be, and are easily replaced right in the store, either free (if under warranty), or for $79.00.

Contrast that with the batteries in the MBAs an the Retina MPBs, all of which have soft-cell batteries, which are glued to the top case, necessitating not only replacing the battery, but the entire top case assembly as well because removing the battery may rupture it, leaking hazardous chemicals.

The best course of action, really and truly, in every case, is just to buy the AppleCare for the device. Statistically, most people will be replacing their device within 3-4 years, and if you take your device in for a checkup prior to the end of the AppleCare expiring, and the diagnostic tools show a problem with the battery, they'll replace it for you under the warranty. In our store, the goal was always to provide the best possible customer service, and to err in the customers favor whenever we could, in order to create that "wow" experience Apple prides itself on.

Ultimately, one way or another, no matter what you buy, or who you buy it from, you're going to eventually spend more money. AppleCare is insurance, and if you think of it that way, it's an excellent value (especially on the mobile devices because it includes accidental damage). But no one forces you to buy it; it's your choice. You have to weigh the costs of the AppleCare against the costs of any potential repair you might need to have done to the computer.
I personally would classify AppleCare as a necessity on any Retina laptop, iMac, or new Mac Pro; the costs of those computers relative to the costs of the AppleCare itself make it such that the first time you need to have work done on the computer, the AppleCare will have paid for itself. I spent nearly $3500 on my new 15" MBPR, and quite happily added AppleCare to that because I knew if anything did go wrong, I'd be glad I had the foresight to get it.

So yeah, spend more money now to save more money in the long run. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

Im afraid that applies to many things nowadays. I have always done my own oil changes but I have a newer Ford F150 and the process is so complicated now that it takes me almost an hour to do what used to take me 30 minutes or less counting getting out and putting away tools! I can think of several other products I own that fall into this.

Apple makes everything non user replaceable so they can make more money for repairs. You think if they had still removable batteries people would have to run to an apple store for a new one? No they would buy one online from a 3rd party site much cheaper than apple and that scares apple so that's why they are moving more and more away from user upgradability and replacability.

"When it comes to batteries, Apple could do a better job."

Wrong! When it comes to batteries, no one does a better job than Apple. I cannot tell you how many HP and Dell laptops I have seen with failed batteries after just 1 year. Apple is the absolute best when it comes to batteries on notebooks.

Yes, most do, although more and more vendors are getting the cue from Apple that non removable batteries are more profitable.

Actually a lot of the windows computer are taking the same initiative as apple. Lenovo yoga doesn't have a replaceable battery. Only computers that do have a replaceable battery are the big heavy 15/17 inch screens (dell/hp).

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Just my two bits here, but I don't see this as an Apple problem nor their fault. Not any other tech company's fault either.

The real problem has existed for several years or more already. And that is the fact that battery technology has failed miserably to keep up with the rest of technology. And thusly, we're stuck with outdated batteries and battery tech in our newest gadgets. Maybe someone somewhere has seen or read of something the rest of have not yet, but there appears to be no new battery technology coming out any time soon so this problem seemingly will persist for the foreseeable future. Bummer.

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The thing is 4 years old... whether or not the battery causes a bulge or explodes it doesn't make a difference, the warranty is up. It's like owning a car past the warranty period and all of a sudden the window seals break and water pours in damaging the interior and all the electronics. It would have been nicer if the air conditioner broke instead and all you had to pay was for one part but instead everything got destroyed. It's the same with technology. You noticed it was bulging, pay the $120 at a reseller and get a new battery. At least in your case you had signs that something was wrong and could have done something about it. Live, learn, and be smarter next time.

I can always tell Peter's articles. Great story! I'm fine without having to deal with the battery.

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This is a silly and very misinformed article by someone who doesn't know what they re talking about.
It makes it sound like all batteries swell up etc over a year or two which is of course ridiculous. Apple has by far the least issues with this and the most advanced battery technology which they design rather than pulling something off a shelf like everyone else.
Apple screwed us by not having removable batteries? Right..get used to it because the benefits in size, weight, and battery life are more than worth it. Which is why more and more devices of all types are being designed an manufactured this way.

Lets see by not going with a non removable battery you get a very MINOR reductions in size, a very MINOR reduction in weight. It has ZERO and I repeat ZERO effect on battery life.

The big thing apple gain is it looks prettier. Apple does always choose form over function. Hell they will say screw function if it makes it look prettier.
Apple also gains a very expensive disposable product. Battery screwed guess what buy a new laptop. Compared to pay the 100ish for a new battery.

It is a bad design. They should go back to making it removable on laptops. Laptops should be expect to easily last 5 years. For good battery life still it would require a battery replacement OH wait no good.

Apples has been plauge by battery problems so I would not even say apple makes the best batteries. They choose to look pretty.

My PowerBook 3400 is coming up on 20 years old. I can still find new batteries (well, rebuilt anyway) and swap them in and out while that sucker is running.

It's also 8 tons and is a glorious 3" thick. I think I could wear it as body armor in a war. I know I dropped a guitar amp on it, and it didn't even scratch the lid.

Apple stuff was just built better in the old days. Built to last.

I don't own a MacBook, but it was just last night I was looking at MacBook repair and servicing at iFixit.com. It seems that the process to remove the batteries from a MacBook Retina takes 38 steps, where you have to remove several other components just to get at the batteries. Then, screws or clips are not good enough for Apple, the batteries have to be glued in to the case, making them even more difficult to remove.
iFixit have been fairly critical of Apple for making some of their devices so difficult and expensive to repair.
http://www.ifixit.com/Guide/MacBook+Pro+13-Inch+Retina+Display+Late+2012...

This is a teardown of the late 2013 MacBook Pro Retina which received a repairability rating of just 1 out of 10. Apple just don't want you to be repairing anything in their machines yourself. iFixit's mantra is "If you can't fix it, you don't own it".

http://www.ifixit.com/Teardown/MacBook+Pro+13-Inch+Retina+Display+Late+2...

Batteries don't usually last that long and if you notice things
Ward acting up you should had done something instead of bitching about it, the reason apple doesn't do removable batteries is because people are to stupid to even follow simple directions, I'm a tech in a mayor cellphone company and I see it every day hundreds of times, so if Apple doesn't put a removable battery is because of that not just "looks"

Modern batteries are terrible. I get about 22 to 23 hours of battery life on average on my phone. But I also know in a years time, this battery life will likely decrease. Thus forcing me to buy a new phone. They got us right where they want us.

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You just gave me something to take into consideration. My brother is also using a 2009 White MacBook and the trackpad pretty much only works for double clicking now. Up until now I only assumed that the trackpad needs to be replaced. However, he is also having battery problems so now I get the the feeling that if the battery gets replaced, there is a small possibly that may resolve the situation with the trackpad.

If it's a question of removable battery vs thinness, I admit that when I first saw a MBA, I was amazed at how thin it was, I would still choose removable battery any day. Although I guess this is out of the equation if you're going to be using a MacBook.

Psychologically to the average consumer, the contrast between the removable battery and the fully incased battery, make the apple products seem more complicated and specialized, it gives you a feeling like you would rather bring it straight to Apple rather than a Apple specialist because you don't want to take a chance on the job not being done right. Its clever marketing because what mercedes-benz was to cars in the 80's and 90's, Apple is to tech today, they are elegantly made luxury tech
meaning you are more likely to bring the product directly to Apple than Joe bob's Mac Shop.

Just like a German luxury car Apple has intentionally made some things more difficult, so you have to come to their shop and fork over a lot more money than you should need too. Sure you could go with domestic luxury with a lot plasticky(android) parts that are fast and comfortable but it isn't a Mercedes is it? Well sir you own a Apple, premium glass and metal, fast and thin with all the trimmings.

To answer your question, You bought a Mercedes, a product that often costs 2 or 3 times the amount of its equivilent competitor, expensive to repair, often impractical and often, you wouldn't want to own one out of warranty. These things are designed to fleece you of your cash so of course you got screwed over a bit, but you did buy a mercedes didn't you?

Great article again Peter. While I think planned obsolescence is the gravy, perhaps to achieve that cutting edge design of super thin they lose the ability to make the case and components user accessible. I haven't worked on any, but I would guess that to design something that thin and light, AND, make it user accessible would create new structural and manufacturing challenges. It is likely faster to glue a component in place than use screws and putting in an access panel might compromise the case integrity. I'm not saying that Apple can't do a better job, just that the thin you pay for is going to come with some tradeoffs...until the whole thing is made of carbon fiber and graphene.

I would love to pop the case of my iMac open and blow out the dust that I know is in there mocking me, but I haven't the tools, time or fearlessness required to service non-user-servicable components. I guess if you buy a BMW you have to be prepared to pay more for maintenance than you would for a Kia. I like my BMW, I mean Apple products, but the maintenance can be be arrhythmia inducing.

So I sit here now and wait for my dusty iMac to overheat. And as a MBA owner you have successfully made me paranoid that my track pad will pop up like a Jack-in-the-box at any moment. Thank you for that ;-)

Battery quality control can vary extremely by the same maker. They can last their listed lifetime, or go to the extreme of catching fire. Once a battery swells, did it leak, and if so, what damage was done. Most pc's have replaceable batteries. The cost can vary, but buying a new computer, or device is a whole lot more. It is time Apple stops sealing everything up, so people with the know how can work on their product. Another issue that has surfaced, iFixit wants to make a repair manual, but copyright laws are funny on this, and confusing. Does iMore's repair videos violate copyright? I say no, if you want to work on your device, and understand it violates the warranty, that is your right. Back on the story, batteries really need to catch up with technology of today, but if they last years, the powers to be will loose money, because they build them to fail so they can make more money.