Why I will never again buy a smartphone with a sealed battery

It's true that I've been objective in the past - I wrote a long and detailed article here, pointing out the pros and cons of sealed vs replaceable batteries in smartphones. I was honestly trying to see both points of view, despite my own feelings on the matter.

However, enough is enough. I realise that most tech commentators, supplied with far more loan/review phones than me and never getting to the point with any device where it's 'old', have been very vocal about 'sealed batteries being the way of the future' and that I should get used to it. The argument is usually along the lines that 200 million iPhone sales prove that Apple's 'sealed' designs are right. But just because the other appealing factors of the iPhone make it desirable doesn't mean that Apple are right about batteries.

But yes, Apple started the rot. And now we have the HTC One X and One S, the Nokia X7 and E7, the Lumia 800/900/920 and even (horror) the LG-made Nexus 4 all coming with 'sealed' batteries, Apple-style. It's a crime, it really is.

Funnily enough, the iPhone's battery isn't impossible to extract and replace if you're handy with the right screwdriver (see link below!) Though it'll void your warranty, of course. But some of these other models are just about impossible for the end user to think about opening.

So why am I making such a big deal over this? Personal experience, that's why. Let me take just two examples:
  • My Nokia E7. Great communicator, great keyboard, rather let down by a slow processor and quirky software. Sealed battery and a nightmare to get at. One day it simply refused to work. I tried every keypress and sequence, to no avail. What was needed was to remove the battery for a minute and then stick it back in again. Failing that, stick in a new battery. None of which was possible, since Nokia sealed the E7 battery in tighter than a seized car wheel nut. I ended up sending the E7 away for Nokia to (ahem) reseat the battery and send it back. Two weeks without the phone for something that should have taken 30 seconds on another device.
  • Another Nokia (nothing against the company, I just happen to have quite a few Nokias!), the Lumia 800, with the 'fabula' design. Curves everywhere, feels 'fabulous' in the hand, alright. But the device doesn't work anymore. As Monty Python would have said, it's an ex-phone. The battery life started getting worse and worse, to the point where it would only last a few hours. "Put in a new battery", I hear you cry. No can do - again, the design precludes any user access to the battery whatsoever. I guess it's off to the Nokia Care point.... again. In contrast, my Lumia 710, with proper battery compartment, is working like a champ, I've even started using a larger capacity cell in the bay, so the device's battery life has gone up! Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, sealed battery advocates....

Add in a variety of household gadgets over the last five years which are all sitting in landfill somewhere now because their sealed batteries failed and couldn't be revived. It's a waste. A criminal waste.

One my main arguments for not going for a sealed battery design has been that capacity will decrease over time and that with a replaceable battery design, you simply buy a new cell after a year or two and you're good to go. The counter argument is that if you look after a phone and don't discharge its battery too far and too often, then the battery will last the lifetime of the phone. Which is fair enough, but the reality is that almost all phones get abused at one point or another. And so they end up with significantly less capacity well before the typical phone contract is up.

More importantly though, there's the troubleshooting element that I ran into above. Call me a cynic, but no phone, no mobile OS is perfect and something will at some point go wrong. It always has, and the number one weapon in any phone user's armoury is to pull the battery. Ah. "What do you mean, I can't take the battery out?!" Most devices have a kill sequence, usually pressing and holding the power button for more than 12 seconds, or similar. Oops. Still nothing? We're screwed then.

I do appreciate that manufacturers like to stop end users fiddling too much with their devices - and popping batteries in and out (sadly) now seems to be verboten, but it's a step too far in my view and my headline above applies. I simply refuse to ever spend another penny on a phone for which I can't get access to the battery easily.

Now... one caveat and a pointer to the upcoming Nexus 4....

I mentioned the iPhone above and its fans are always eager to point out that it's easy enough to change the battery yourself (and here again on the iPhone 5). Hmm.... that doesn't look trivial.... but not impossible. My old Nokia N8 was supposed to be sealed too, but that turned out to be a 45 second replacement.

Which begs the question about how user serviceable new devices like the LG-made Nexus 4 are. You'll recall that the Galaxy Nexus, its predecessor, was made by Samsung, who are fans of replaceable batteries, just as I am. The '4' claims to have a sealed battery and I was oh, so close to not ordering it. It does seem as though battery removal is possible:


Though apparently the battery is stuck in with glue and has to be prised out rather carefully. Gah!!

At which point I suppose I should tweak my headline slightly. "Why I will never again buy a smartphone with a battery which isn't user serviceable." That doesn't exactly roll off the tongue though, does it?

I sometimes feel alone in the phone world in some of my views on technology - though I expect there will be a few kindred spirits who are with me on this issue, at least.


alvin3486 said…
Sadly i have to say i agree with your argument. I own quite a few Nokia phones, N95, N97, N86, N900,N8 & N9. I have had a major problem with my N9 recently where it would freeze up and i have to hope that it comes back, thankfully it has so far each time. My lock screen button/ power button is now sunk in and if the phone freezes i cant power it down or up. So i have to keep this phone charged constantly, if i let the charge run out am doomed.

Personally i didnt want to purchase a new device, but with the problems on my N9, i pulled the trigger and pre ordered a lumia 920 unlocked. I am praying that i have no such problems as i have with my N9 which is just over a year old. The main point is my N9 is just 13 months old and it reflects exactly what you pointed out in this article.
Jonathan Li said…
Hi Steve I understand where you are from. However those that have swappable battery tend to be wobbly and squeaky. Galaxy line devices are exception because their battery cover snap onto the main body securely and tight however their plastic body makes them feel cheap in hand. iDevices have sealed battery but they feel premium and sollid in hand... I suppose all design come with pros and cons.
Moran Monovich said…
You are definitely right, I recently got a new battery for my Samsung galaxy s and it's as good as new, it's like getting a new phone all over again
Gary Gotham said…
This problem doesn't seem to be helped by the twin evils of batteries that expire just AFTER the 12 months guarantee and ever longer contracts. So we are shouldered with ailing phones out of warranty but still in contract. This is part of what made me take a deep breath and purchase sim free - big outlay, but cheaper in the long run on so many fronts. Still wish my SGS3 with REMOVABLE battery had received an Jelly Bean update by now though. Oh well, I can't have everything.
Daniel Davison said…
One of the best things about my galaxy s3 is I can run the battery till it's totally flat then just pop in another battery that has charged on a wall charger so I'm not stuck having to wait to recharge or constantly damage a battery by topping it up with power!
Aatif Sumar said…
Spot on Steve. People keep saying "Oh, just use an external charger or a Mophie" not realizing how much of a pain it is to continue using the phone while charging. @nerdtalker revelations about the Nexus 4 Battery are heartening, but he also noted that replacing the back cover with a 3rd party one is impossible, because a lot of different radios are housed in it. This means extended batteries like Mugen and Seido's are impossible on it. Yet, is better than a phone like the One X where you can't even remove the back.
Julie said…
Mine has (SIM-free from Amazon UK) ... although I had to use Kies to get it - which inexplicably took about an hour! Trying for an OTA update repeatedly gave me a message that the servers were busy and would handle requests in the order they were received (or words to that effect).

On the battery front, I agree (and I'm not a fan of phones without THE OPTION TO USE an external SD card either. Although there's a lot of sense behind the decision to change the memory management for a phone's internal storage (no more artificial partitioning between apps and data, which I don't have a problem with at all), Google's argument that external SD cards are too complicated for average users doesn't hold water for 2 reasons:
1. If a phone has a reasonable amount of internal storage, users don't HAVE to add a card at all ... but those who know what they're doing and want the extra storage CAN
2. By ignoring external cards, and not advocating / requiring a single consistent mount point for it, Google are actually making the problem worse. Every time a manufacturer brings out a new device with yet another different mount point, users and devs of apps which attempt to seamlessly support data on SD cards have to learn what the new one is (and in the case of devs, update their apps). Google could fix that at a stroke by specifying what external mount points should be used for any external storage (including USB on the go).
Owen said…
I guess E7 can stop itself, you just need to hold your phone's power key for about 8-10 seconds, just like what my N8 will do.
I flashing my N8 to custom firmware a lot and that trick never fails.
Matt Leech said…
Each to their own I guess. Personally I don't have a problem with sealed batteries because I change main phone frequently enough for the battery not to have degraded.

If I had a phone lock up with no way to drop out the battery I'd use Phoenix to flash it. If a simple reflash doesn't work then I'd do a 'Dead phone flash'.

@alvin3486 From where did you purchase your 'unlocked' 920?

psteve2005 said on AAWP: EE have told me they will not be releasing unlock codes for the 920 "for the forseeable future."

Completely agree. With modern smartphones unable to last a day of really heavy use, being able to pop in a replacement battery is also a necessity for me. As easy as changing the battery on the N8 is, I'm not quite ready to go down the Litchfield route of always carrying a Torx screw driver, and am much happier with the traditional Samsung way.
And, having just ordered a 64GB microSD card to easy my storage worries, I think that extendable memory is another one of the must-haves.
Peter Hughes said…
Yeah, totally agree with your comments. If it's got a sealed battery I won't buy it.
Anonymous said…
It is funny how no one realize that the main point of a sealed battery is to force you to pay insane amount of tech service or buy a new phone instead when your battery life runs out... Its just good business

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