Why is this post even needed?
The overwhelming majority of us smartphone owners keep our mobile devices for more than a year. The problem with reviewers is that basically their cycle looks like this: a phone is announced, the phone is hyped up, there are a lot of leaks, then the actual phone is presented. For a few weeks, the reviewers get to play around with it and then the phone is released. For a week or two, there is some major news coverage as reviews come out and if there are any big flaws. After that though, coverage mostly declines. There are a few websites that do try to address this issue, for example PocketNow has a series they call “After the Buzz” (see here for example in the Samsung Note 4) that looks at how devices age, which is quite admirable. That is however the exception to the rule.
One of the consequences of this is that there tends to be a bias towards reviewers, who will focus on the “first impression” more than anything else. What will not be scrutinized as closely is how well the phone ages and how great it is in terms of long-term ownership. There are often problems that can only be discovered after a few months of ownership. This in turn reflects how manufacturers design, to maximize a good first impression, to impress reviewers, and to make a device look good on store displays.
There seems to be a growing trend within the mobile phone industry of them getting rid of removable batteries, SD cards, and in some cases other features. I would have to argue that this is a triumph of form over function, of marketing over substance, and ultimately, quite bad for us as consumers. This is a problem as phones which are designed in this manner age less well. Online, I have often noticed that there are apologists for phones without removable batteries who seem to portray this feature as “outdated” or “crazy” because nobody (or nobody in their view) uses them. I think that this is a function of consumerism and getting people to act against their own interests. It often tends to lead to flame wars, trolls, and similar online attacks.
One prominent example is Samsung, which was one of the last holdouts when it came to removable batteries, and a company that advertised once about the benefits of removable batteries. Samsung has decided on its Galaxy S6 and Note 5 series to make expandable storage and user removable batteries features not available. I am unhappy with Samsung’s decision to get rid of the removable battery off of its Note line for the Note 5. Initially, I had expected that the Galaxy line would be more “mainstream” appealing (read: form over function), while the more function-oriented Note 5 would have retained the removable battery. I was disappointed. The problem is the appeal of the phone. I think Samsung has totally miscalculated the typical Note buyer, who is not just in it for a larger screen (which I would argue is the main draw of the phone), but better battery life as well.
There does seem to be a certain mentality of “planned obsolescence” with the way smartphones are built these days. Let me explain:
- They are not very durable. A “function first phone” would be more resilient to damage. There are a few smartphones designed in this manner, but typically they are not flagship devices. Interestingly enough, a notable exception to that rule is the Samsung Galaxy Sx Active series, which is typically exclusively available in the US, and it is not much more durable than the more mainstream Galaxy line. I am particularly annoyed by the usage of glass backs as they are very brittle and can shatter on even a drop of 1 metre.
- In an attempt to encourage cloud services or to maximize margins, the versions with more storage than the base are charged vastly higher prices than the stock version, and certainly much higher than the cost of NAND. To add insult to injury, there is no removable storage.
- There seems to be a lot of bloatware and custom skins on the phones. Many of these custom skins tend to lag very badly and they add software that worsens the problem. I have often wondered if this is deliberately done to slow down the phone in the hopes of winning future sales. With Android phone margins on the decline, I imagine that many phone companies (falsely) think that this will somehow distinguish their phones. I suppose it does, just not in a good way. Android has reached the point where that is simply not necessary and when adding such skins, the phone is simply being slowed down.
- Another more malicious problem is that often this bloatware can either track you, compromise your security, or is there in a manner that someone can profit off of your personal data.
- Most phone manufacturers do not provide timely updates. This is partly because of 2, meaning it would be easier to provide faster updates with stock Android. I suppose this is because after you buy a phone, what is in your best interest is totally at odds with what is in the manufacturer’s best interests. The manufacturer does not “want” to update in the hopes of using that against you to sell you a newer phone. I suppose this is something that Apple (which I am not too fond of) deserves some credit for.
- Perhaps more alarmingly than feature updates, this means that your phone does not always get security updates (or worse not all!) and this can mean huge problems. Android seems to share the same problem with Windows that it was built for widespread adoption, rather than security first.
- Of course, finally, the batteries are not removable.
None of these are present for the consumer benefit and many of these can hurt you in some way. In the scope of this article though, only the battery will be focused on. I will address many of these in later articles and possible solutions.
Limitations of existing phone batteries
The problem with the battery not being removable is quite obvious for phone users who have the phone for more than six months or a year. Lithium ion batteries have a limited number of charges and lose their maximum capacity with time. Over their life, you will get a steady decline in the maximum capacity that is usable within a battery.
There are methods to maximize to life expectancy of the battery in terms of how you charge them, such as partial charges (phones are best at 40-50%) and to not let it completely drain out. However, in the long run, the battery will die no matter what you do. This is a function of internal corrosion, the ions getting trapped, and general degradation of the battery’s systems. That in turn reminds me, you cannot leave a battery aside for a few years and then expect it to have 100% capacity even if you have never used the battery. If you know you are going to not use the battery for a while, then your best bet would be to take the battery, charge it to 50%, and then put it aside. Store it in a cool place to minimize any chemical reactions. Note though that lithium ion batteries lose their capacity even if you do not use them!
I should also note that the percentage of battery left you have on your phone is not always accurate. The reason why is because the percentage indicator can only tell the voltage of the battery in question. Lithium ion cell voltage does not always drop in a linear fashion so the percentage in turn is not going to be accurate. There are applications that you can install to calibrate batteries (or at least they claim to, I’m not sure if these actually work). It is actually mostly guess work. The best way is to every now and then charge to maximum and completely drain the battery (don’t do this often as remember, completely discharging isn’t good for the battery life).
The other big problem here is that of course, not all manufacturers give their phones batteries that can sustain heavy usage during a day, as many of us have discovered to our great chagrin the hard way! Plus, if you go outside in the sunlight, you are going to want to turn your screen brightness up, which worsens this problem.
We may see some advances in battery technology in the future in terms of charging capacity and perhaps lifespan of the battery, but unless there are major advances, most of these limitations will remain.
Why do you want a removable battery then?
Well, to begin with, as you can see, the battery loses its capacity over time. Even if your battery can last you a day of heavy use, will it do so after a year or two? If you don’t upgrade every year, then an extended battery is much cheaper. I suppose a case could be made that if you upgrade every year and can last a day on a charge, then it may not be as needed, but for those of us who do not, it is not an option.
It is true that non-removable batteries can be changed, but it is much harder to do so. Here is an example, the Samsung Galaxy S6 by iFixIt. Another example, the Samsung Note 5 being taken apart. You would need a heat-gun to reach the back and to get the back cover off. This seems like a time consuming process. Alternatively, if you do not have the time or technical skill to do that, you will have to pay someone else to do that for you. Not only does that cost money, but it also means that you must go over to drop it off and perhaps be without a phone for a while. A removable battery is simply easier in that regard.
Manufacturers in general are aware of these issues, and they have responded with “fast charging”. The problem with the fast charging is that first, the rate of the charging causes the battery to degrade even further! The second is that it presumes you have a charging device nearby, which you may not always when you need it the most. From my experiences, batteries have a tendency to die when you need them the most.
What about if even at full capacity on day 1, the battery does not last all day? As smartphones have updated, we have seen incremental improvements to screen power consumption, SOC power consumption, and more efficient components in general, but for many, the phone may not still last a day. Well, there are extended batteries. This is an example of the Note 4 version by Hyperion. The advantage of this extended Hyperion batteries is that it is a single cell (versus the ZeroLemon ones which are often Tri-Cell, although their Note 2 extended battery was good). The Tri-Cell batteries can give errors in reading capacity (it does on the Galaxy Note 4 for example), although a partial fix is available. All in all, I recommend carefully doing research when buying extended batteries and buying ideally single celled versions. Interestingly enough, a check on the XDA forums recommends the Note 4 Zerolemon case with the Hyperion extended battery as a compromise.
Also, if you do not like extended batteries, you can easily flip out the battery with a spare. Buy a second battery. There are plenty of good third party vendors that make some very high quality batteries, so long as you avoid the fake low capacity ones. Just charge a spare and then if you turn off the phone when your battery runs low and put in the spare. Personally I think the big extended batteries are more convenient as you don’t have to reboot, even if they are thicker.
Another problem is that not everyone goes to places where they can get easy access to phone chargers. Although a solar cell charger that is waterproof is not a bad idea, again, that can be bulky to carry. For such people, a non-removable battery makes extended batteries impossible. You could carry an external power pack (and there are even cases with extended batteries built in), but that makes the whole point of “thin” non-removable battery phones moot because now the end user must carry a large battery pack.
There is also the matter of no hard reset. Phones do sometimes freeze and require a “battery pull” to hard reset. You can hit the power button, but in practice, from my experiences, that is not always a reliable option. If you find yourself in that situation, a battery pull may be your only option. That option is not possible of course with a removable battery.
Finally, in terms of aesthetics, you always have the choice of replacing the back cover with a removable battery. That is useful when your back cover gets scratched and damaged over time (which they do, sometimes even with a case). That is simply inevitable – the phone is taken everywhere, so it will sustain wear and tear.
What do you gain as a consumer from non-removable batteries?
We consumers do gain a “thinner” device, perhaps one that is somewhat lighter in mass as well. That isn’t much of an advantage to be honest, when you factor in that it is only 1-2mm and that is not a huge advantage in my opinion. A phone, if say, ~150mm x ~75mm (about 6 inches long and 3 inches wide) is 7 or 8 mm thick instead of say, 10mm thick, I really do not see that as being a huge advantage.
There are other drawbacks to having a thin phone. Although it is possible to have a larger capacity battery in a thinner package, the problem is that the phone gets hotter as well. With so many components tightly bunched together, the phone will be more prone to overheating. The TDP of SOCs has gone up as the demands for applications have gone up as well. Although most phones these days are more efficient in that they try to “burst” their SOC for short periods, if you do have applications that need the extra power, you will very likely get to a point where the SOC throttles.
In theory, a non-removable battery should be advantageous for durability. If the inside is completely sealed, then that should make it easier to make the phone resistant, but apart from the Galaxy S6 Active (and there are more durable phones out there that do have removable batteries), there have been few attempts to demonstrate this. Kyocera, a brand well known for its durable phones is a good example though. An example is the Kyocera DuraScout, which has a non-removable battery and is a very durable phone. It is water resistant, dust resistant, has a sapphire screen that makes it scratch resistant, and I believe the phone has some drop resistant features as well. Being sealed does give it an advantage in this case, as it should allow for better protection of the internal components, preventing water and dust from entering.
Although in my searches, I have not been able to find a tear down of the Kyocera DuraScout, I would not be surprised to learn if the batteries inside were indeed user replaceable, although only after a lengthy tear down (needed to protect the insides from water and dust). All in all there is the potential for a more durable phone by making it sealed, but it has never been realized in the overwhelming majority of consumer devices and remains a niche role. Watches too have been water resistant for quite some time (although of course the interior of a watch is considerably smaller), and the batteries are removable if typically with a few screws taken off.
That being said, there are still some very durable phones with removable batteries (see the Caterpillar CAT S50 as an example). I’d love to see a higher end phone built around this concept of durability, but that is another post. Perhaps the best compromise then would be an extended battery phone that is very durable, phablet sized, and with very high end components. The design would call for two variants, one with a removable battery, much like the Cat Phone design or if maximum durability design is desired, than a phone with no removable battery, essentially a higher end Kyocera DuraScout with top notch components and an extended battery. Both designs would be thick, heavy, and to most reviewers, quite “ugly”, but a fine example of function over form. They would be the ultimate practical phones.
Not only does the non-removable battery lead to problems, but the glass back is also not durable. The risk of the glass back cracking when you have an unfortunate accident is very high. So you are forced to use a case, which makes the whole “premium” materials and thin design pointless. I think that this is a result of the fact that phones are made for reviewers and not users. When they talk of “build quality”, they are typically referring to the materials that the vendor has decided to use. Metal too has the problem of it being easy to scratch (not a very hard material, even if titanium backs were used). In that regard, I cannot consider a solid back to be much of a “gain”. Contrast this with a phone with a removable battery where replacing the back cover is an option.
In other words, there isn’t much that consumers really gain from a non-removable battery. In theory there may be some benefit, but it is always relegated to a niche role.
The Hardcore Audience, a potential market?
In the case of Samsung, there might be an opportunity now for another Android manufacturer to step in and take much of the Note owner’s former audience.
On Pocketnow, there was an article discussing whether or not there would be room for a new manufacturer to occupy the hole now left by Samsung. The question is how large this market is for hardcore users. I would hesitate to guess that it is fairly large. On every mobile phone forum, there is typically a large audience that comments negatively about the fact that Samsung has removed the battery and storage. Bear in mind, hardcore users are also the ones that advice their friends and family on what to buy from their personal experiences.
I think that if there is a niche for such a phone, especially considering that there are other, much smaller niches out there. What would such a phone look like?
- Phablet sized (so large display, almost as large as a small tablet)
- Stock AOSP Android (CyanogenMod is an alternative)
- Thicker phone for good battery life
- Specs should be top tier (top end SOC, a high end camera with a good lens, and ideally a top end OLED display, although IPS could also do)
- Given that this is an international phone, it would want to support as many bands as possible (pentaband at the minimum if not more, and various different bands of LTE as well)
- Expandable storage
- Potentially a pen similar to the Wacom pens used in the Galaxy Note series
- This phone could be durable like Kyocera or the Caterpillar phones
- Last, but not least, a removable battery
I would guess that there would be an audience for such a device. It wouldn’t be a huge mainstream audience, but enough perhaps to break even. Perhaps even Samsung itself might want to look into this market and exploit it.
The other consideration is that the smartphone market is peaking because they have become “good enough”. Next year’s smartphone is not much better than the previous year’s device. That is a function of us reaching the point where technologies in many cases cannot get much better (some are predicting the end of Moore’s Law due to the exponentially rising costs of semiconductor fabs and the ever increasing technical difficulties for example). The market itself is stagnant. In some ways, we are seeing the trends that occurred on the desktop and laptop market repeat themselves on mobile. If that is the case, then the battle for the remaining market share of even niche markets should see some pretty intense competition, while the margins of all manufacturers (with the possible exception of Apple), goes down.
Summary of Pros and Cons
Pros of non-removable batteries
- Device can be thinner
- Although rarely realized, a device can be in theory, more durable
Cons of non-removable batteries
- Batteries lose their capacity over time, making them harder to replace
- Promotes a “throwaway” attitude towards phones
- Cannot carry spare batteries in case your battery dies or extended batteries
We consumers have very little to gain from a non-removable a battery. I suppose only those that keep their mobile devices for a year should believe that not having a removable battery is desirable and even then, it’s questionable.
- There are very few benefits for consumers for non-removable batteries.
- It is essentially planned obsolescence, while trying through marketing (and succeeding in some cases) to deceive customers that this is good for them.
- Lithium ion batteries lose their charge over time and even if it does have good battery life on day one, it will fade.
- It is expensive and time consuming to remove a battery in a phone where the batteries are non-removable to replace it with a new one.
- Removable batteries allow for flexibility in that you can carry a spare or an extended battery.
- The “advantages” of thinness are weighed against the fact that such a phone often has a glass back that needs a case or the risk of such a back being scratched.
- There may be a niche market for another manufacturer to step in to make high-end phones that have removable batteries, expandable storage, and are durable.
For that reason, I think that it would be best if these thin non-removable batteries go away in all devices. I know I am dreaming, but in the case of phones such as the Note series, with a higher percentage of “practical” oriented customers, if the sales are poor enough, perhaps Samsung will change.I would love to see a completely modular phone such as Project Ara succeed as well. At the very least though, for the “hardcore” or “enthusiast” audience, I would argue that there is a niche to be tapped. I hope that at some point, someone does try to tap this niche.
I think that we need to change culturally. Quality should stand for good specs, but also a durable phone, and a very module phone that can be upgraded. Sadly, these days, appearances, advertising, and fashion seem to sell. Electronics are sold like clothing in many ways. Until large numbers of customers vote with their feet, the status quo is not going to change.
I hope that this post was informative for you and that if you did not agree with me, that you see my perspective. I would love to hear your feedback in the comments below.