Geek On The Hill

Cell Phone Manufacturers: The Newest Racketeers

I just ordered another LG V20 phone. I don’t actually need it at the moment, but I bought it anyway. It will either be a replacement for my current one if I break it somehow, or it will go to the next person on my account who needs a new phone.

The reason I ordered a V20 for which I don’t have a present need is simple: It’s the last high-end smartphone to have a user-replaceable battery. I refuse to pay more than $50.00 for any phone whose battery can’t be easily replaced by the user. The fact that literally no new high-end smartphones have user-replaceable batteries is a racket worthy of a RICO indictment — and I refuse to have anything to do with it.

A well-made mobile phone that is housed in a decent hard-shell case and is reasonably cared for should last indefinitely. Certainly it should obsolesce before it “wears out,” for lack of a better term. There are no moving parts and nothing to wear out except for one part: the battery. Most cell phones use lithium-ion batteries, and depending how often you charge them, you can expect to get between 18 months and two years out of them before they no longer hold a sufficient charge to get you through a day.

Why Cell Phone Batteries Wear Out

Without getting too technical (which I have a tendency to do), lithium-ion batteries are basically sandwiches consisting of an anode (the negative electrode) usually made of porous carbon as one slice, a cathode (the positive electrode) made of some lithium oxide or another as the other slice, with an electrolyte (some form of lithium salt in a gel-like, non-aqueous solution) in the middle. The anode and cathode could be considered slices of bread, and the electrolyte whatever is in between them.

While the battery is being charged, the cathode releases lithium ions that are caught and stored by the anode. When the battery is being used, the anode releases those lithium ions back to the cathode. In a perfect world, this could happen indefinitely, and the battery would last forever, happily swapping lithium ions back and forth, like tennis balls, in perpetuity.

In the real world, not so much.

What happens in the real world is that every charge – discharge cycle takes a toll on both the anode and the cathode. Grossly oversimplified, the irregularities on the surface of the anode that allow it to catch and hold electrons erode, and the surface of the cathode becomes encrusted with a matrix of lithium salt that acts as an insulator. The net result is that every single time a Li-ion battery is charged and discharged, it loses a little bit of its storage capacity.

What this boils down to in real-life use is that assuming daily charges most days and twice-daily charges on some days, a cell phone battery will lose between 20 and 30 percent of its storage capacity every year. If it’s charged more frequently, then it will lose even more. Consequently, the average cell phone battery will only last between 18 months and two years before it no longer holds enough charge to power the phone for a sufficient amount of time to be useful.

Why Non-Removable Phone Batteries are a Form of Racketeering

Because the rest of a well cared-for phone can last indefinitely, the common-sense solution to the battery degradation problem is to make the batteries replaceable. If you buy a phone with a replaceable battery, you’ll just need to buy a new battery every 18 months to two years, not an expensive new phone. A phone with a replaceable battery will only need to be replaced when when it obsolesces, when you break it somehow, or when you get tired of it.

That’s good new for you, as the user and consumer.

For the manufacturer, not so much.

The problem for mobile phone manufacturers is that technology advances that actually make a noticeable difference to users have slowed in recent years. In terms of their essential capabilities, the high-end phones of five years ago aren’t all that different from the ones being sold today. Most of the advances of the past few years are more gimmickry than anything else. In terms of a phone’s essential functionality in terms of talking, texting, and running most apps, not much has changed.

What this means is that most users who bought high-end phones a few years ago — and who have managed not to run them over with their cars, drop them in the toilet, or otherwise physically damage them — don’t actually need to lay out as much as a thousand bucks a pop to replace them with the latest and greatest phones. In terms of their essential functionality, their “old” phones aren’t all that different from the new ones; and when protected by a good hard-shell case, they can last a very long time.

The racketeers of the mobile phone manufacturing industry have responded to the decreased need for consumers to replace phones for functionality reasons with a new take on the time-dishonored tactic of planned obsolescence: They’ve taken the one part of a phone that actually does inevitably wear out, and sealed it into the phone in such a way that it’s no longer easily replaced. That forces consumers to either pay someone to replace the battery, which is becoming increasingly difficult and expensive in newer phone designs; or to buy a new phone.

In short, the manufacturers are deliberately designing very-expensive phones in such a way that they will be useless in 18 to 24 months.

It’s a racket worthy of a RICO indictment.

The Environmental Crime of Non-Removable Phone Batteries

To make matters worse, cell phones contain all kinds of heavy metals and other toxins. An individual phone may not contain enough toxic material to make any appreciable difference to the environment; but the sheer number of phones that are manufactured and disposed of every year makes for a potentially devastating effect on the environment in terms of the materials and energy used to manufacture them, the pollutants created during the manufacturing process, and the environment costs of disposing of them.

When the environmental issues are considered, it’s not an exaggeration to say that intentionally and deliberately designing cell phones to become useless in two years or less is a crime bordering on Eco-terrorism.

Is There Ever Justification for Non-Removable Batteries?

Yes, there is one: To make a phone truly waterproof. Not “splash-resistant,” which can be accomplished with a simple rubberized seal; but really, truly waterproof.

Cell phone manufacturers frequently cite the need for protection against water as the justification for making the batteries non-replaceable. The only problem is that in almost all cases, it’s nonsense.

Very few phones marketed as being “water-resistant” or “splash-resistant” come anywhere near meeting the Ingress Protection (IP) standards of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). In order for a phone to qualify as being waterproof enough for the most common water hazards an average user’s phone might face (for example, being dropped into a swimming pool), it would have to be independently tested against IP standards x1 through x8. (The “x” refers to the phone’s dust-resistance rating, which is also part of the IP standards.)

Almost no phones meet the x8 standard, and very few meet the x7 standard (immersion at one meter for 30 minutes). Manufacturers who seal the batteries into phones that don’t meet the standards, but who claim that they’re doing it to make the phones “water-resistant,” are frauds and racketeers. Period.

I’m a libertarian sort of guy and am no friend of unnecessary regulations. But if I had my way, all phones sold in the United States would have to have replaceable batteries unless they were tested against and found to meet IP standards x1 through x8. Phones that don’t meet those standards simply are not waterproof according to accepted industry standards; and phones that aren’t waterproof don’t need to have their batteries sealed inside of them.

By the way, I believe that the claim that a phone can’t be made waterproof without permanently sealing the battery inside of it is nonsense, anyway. My GoPro camera has a removable battery, and it’s spent more time in-use under water than out of it. It accomplishes that with a simple rubber seal that probably costs pennies to produce. I fail to understand why the same method couldn’t be used to make a phone waterproof.

For my part, I refuse to be part of the non-removable battery racket. I will never pay more than $50.00 for a phone with a non-replaceable battery. If you can’t replace the battery, then the phone is disposable; and only a moron would pay a thousand bucks for a disposable phone.

Unless the mobile phone industry wises up and starts producing phones with replaceable batteries again (or is forced to do so by the government and/or consumer pressure), I’ll just keep on buying LG V20’s and replacement batteries for them for as long as the phones keep working.



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