Second generation Apple AirPods with wireless charging indicator
Todd Haselton | CNBC
When AirPods were first released in 2016, they were a marvel of miniaturization.
To connect wires and go wireless, Apple packed several chips, microphones and speakers in each headphone, which weighs about 4 grams. Without a cord, the earplug gets its power from a small cylindrical battery that has about 1
But lithium-ion batteries, such as those used by AirPods, wear out the more they are used.
Some owners have noticed that used AirPods after a few years will eventually last only an hour or so before they need to be charged – a major decline from the four to five hours of battery life they have when they are new. Because each AirPod is so small and so tightly packed into the housing, it is almost impossible to replace the old battery with a new one. Most people give up and just buy a new pair.
The limited life of AirPods is exactly the kind of problem that the “right to repair” movement will solve. Repair shops and lobbyists who support repair reform want lawmakers to implement a set of rules, including increased access to manuals and official sections and consumer protection around warranties.
But one of their most important requests is that companies design products for repair, instead of packing equipment with unmarked parts and sticking them together with glue, forcing users to use a knife to take them apart.
This desire puts repair lawyers at odds with hardware companies like Apple, whose business models depend on customers upgrading to the latest model for a few years. When Apple offered cheap iPhone battery repairs a few years ago, it hurt sales as consumers were able to hang on to their old phones longer instead of upgrading. Apple also requires customers for repairs and extended warranties.
“We design our products for durability to minimize the need for repair,” Apple wrote in an environmental report earlier this year. “But in the event that a repair is needed, we believe that our customers should have convenient access to safe and reliable repair services to get the product back on track as quickly as possible.”
The right to repair movement gets steam
Political decision-makers have begun to engage more closely with lawyers for the right to reparation in recent years. Bills at the state level have been introduced in a majority of the states, but electronics companies are lobbying against them and no one has passed.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission released a 56-page report on repair restrictions, concluding that repair restrictions have “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their life” – exactly the problem users face with AirPods.
The Biden administration on Friday ordered the FTC to write new regulations aimed at limiting manufacturers’ ability to inhibit independent or do-it-yourself repairs as part of a comprehensive order. New repair rules have not yet been drawn up.
“Tech and other companies are imposing restrictions on self- and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming, for example by limiting the distribution of parts, diagnostics and repair tools,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet on Friday’s order, linking to a story about fixing Apple products. Apple declined to comment on the White House order.
The FTC has not said what they plan to do, but repair lawyers want some important policy changes, as described in the May report. They want companies to be required to make official spare parts available. They want access to tools that can make repairs easier without having to reverse-engineer the tools or parts themselves. And finally, they want the products to be designed with a longer lifespan.
Apple is not the only company that will be affected by this policy. Much of the recent pressure is on medical equipment companies and tractor manufacturers. But given Apple’s ubiquitous, it has become a poster child for repair, especially because it promotes environmental efforts as a business value.
Apple has launched a program called the “Independent Repair Program” that gives repair shops the opportunity to enter into a certification process and contract with Apple to access authentic Apple parts, tools and manuals.
Apple has also reduced the price of battery replacement for iPhones, and recent models are designed to make it easier to replace a battery or a cracked screen, according to iFixit. In addition, Apple has a large existing network of stores and authorized repair shops, compared to other consumer electronics companies.
Still, many Apple products are still challenging to repair at home or as a business without contact with Apple.
The only AirPods battery
iFixit, a company that provides disassembly instructions and sells spare parts for gadgets, gives the AirPods models a score of zero out of 10 for repairability. According to iFixit, repair of these earplugs involves soldering, hot air guns and cutting through glue – that is, if replacement battery parts are even available. Finally, a future home repairman had to put the four gram computer back together.
Apple offers “battery service” for AirPods, at a price of $ 49 per earplug. But functionally, Apple simply gives you a replacement pair, and the old earplugs are recycled. It’s not a repair, it’s a replacement. And it’s expensive. AirPods originally cost $ 159, so choosing battery service costs more than half the price of a new pair.
Apple sold about 72.8 million AirPods in 2020, according to a CounterPoint research estimate, so tens of millions of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the coming years.
Replacement of AirPods from PodSwap
PodSwap is a Miami company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert that aims to keep AirPods “out of the dump.” They are not affiliated with Apple.
They believe they are the only company replacing AirPod batteries, even though other companies are “refurbishing” old AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was formed after the founders experienced the death of AirPods themselves and thought that upgrading or replacing them would be a waste and impractical.
I recently replaced a pair of AirPods that only held a charge for 45 minutes – too short to complete a phone call. I paid $ 59 on the PodSwaps Shopify site and a few days later got a replacement pair of AirPods with new batteries. They were not my old AirPods, they were another set that had their batteries replaced.
Along with the new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. It wants your old AirPods back. Then the old couple cleans and cleans, inserts new batteries and sends them out to the next person who wants to change the battery in their old AirPods.
But PodSwap faces many challenges that show why repair lawyers want new rules. Alpert said the design of the AirPod makes it challenging for garages or companies like theirs to make many battery changes. The PodSwaps process uses both robotics and manual work, the founders said.
The process was developed through trial and error, and a large number of devices were “sacrificed” and eventually recycled. A major challenge we faced was to overcome the uniqueness of this product. Each AirPod is composed of small differences, which creates complexity in disassembly., “said Alpert.
PodSwap includes a box for sending old AirPods back.
PodSwap plans to soon offer service to AirPods Pro, a newer model that costs $ 249 and, surprisingly, is powered by a standard-size coin-operated battery.
But the AirPods Pro has many of the same problems as the first model – tight tolerances, potential damage while taking them apart, lack of spare parts and a design that suggests that the product was always designed to last for a limited time.
“We have found that AirPods Pro batteries are more difficult to replace,” said Alpert. “The ergonomic design and the tight unforgivable tolerances make it extraordinarily challenging to change batteries repeatedly, with high efficiency.”
PodSwap was not completely seamless for me – I was sent a combination of “first generation” and “second generation” AirPods. They got the iPhone to send error messages, but I sent an email to PodSwap and a day or two later I got a new replacement set, which worked.
After that, I sent back my first replacement kit and my old AirPods. The AirPods I got look and work like new.
I plan to try to get another four years out of them.