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 drop wires and go wireless, Apple packed several chips, microphones and speakers into each headphone that weighs approx. 4 grams. Without a cord, the earplug gets its power from a small cylindrical battery that has approx. 1
But lithium-ion batteries, like those used by AirPods, wear out the more they are used.
Some owners have noticed that after a few years, used AirPods only last an hour or so before they need to be recharged – 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 in 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. Workshops and lobbyists who support repair reform want lawmakers to implement a set of rules, including increased access to manuals and official parts and consumer protection around warranties.
But one of their most important requests is that companies design products for repair instead of packing gadgets with unmarked parts and gluing them together with glue, forcing users to use a knife to disassemble them.
This desire puts repair lawyers at odds with hardware companies like Apple, whose business models depend on customers upgrading to the latest model every 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 instead of upgrading. Apple also charges 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 our customers need convenient access to safe and reliable repair services to get their product back on track as quickly as possible.”
The right to repair wins steam
Politicians have begun to engage more closely with lawyers for the right to repair in recent years. Government bills have been introduced in a majority of states, but electronics companies have lobbied against them and none have passed.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission published a 56-page report on repair restrictions, concluding that repair restrictions have “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or replaced products before the end of their service life” – exactly the problem users run with their AirPods .
The Biden administration on Friday ordered the FTC to write new rules aimed at limiting manufacturers’ ability to hamper independent or do-it-yourself repairs as part of a comprehensive executive order. New repair rules have not yet been drawn up.
“Tech and other companies impose self- and third-party repairs, making repairs more expensive 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, which links to a story about repairing Apple products. Apple declined to comment on the White House executive order.
The FTC has not said what it plans to do, but advocates for repairs want a few important policy changes, as outlined in the May report. They want companies to make official spare parts available. They want access to tools that can make repairs easier without reverse engineering the tool or the parts themselves. And ultimately, they want products to be designed with longer life.
Apple is not the only company that will be affected by these policies. A large part of the recent pressure is on medical equipment companies and tractor manufacturers. But given Apple’s ubiquitousness, it has become a poster child for repair, especially because it promotes its environmental efforts as a business value.
Apple has launched a program, which it calls the “Independent Repair Program,” which allows workshops to enter into a certification process and contract with Apple to access authentic Apple parts, tools, and manuals.
Apple has also reduced the cost of replacing batteries for iPhones, and the latest models are designed to make it easier to replace a battery or a cracked screen, according to iFixit. Plus, compared to other consumer electronics companies, Apple has a large existing network of stores and authorized repair shops.
Still, many Apple products are still challenging to repair at home or as a business without contact with Apple.
The only AirPods replacement company
iFixit, a company that provides disassembly instructions and sells gadget parts, gives AirPods models a score of zero out of 10 for repairability. According to iFixit, repairing these earplugs involves soldering, hot air guns and cutting glue – that is, if replacement battery parts are available at all. Eventually, an aspiring home repairman will have to put the four-gram computer back together.
Apple provides “battery service” for AirPods at a cost of $ 49 per. Earplugs. But functionally, Apple just gives you a pair of replacements, 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 units by 2020, according to a CounterPoint research estimate, so tens of thousands of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the coming years.
Replacing AirPods from PodSwap
PodSwap is a Miami company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert, which 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 “renovating” old AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was formed after the founders themselves experienced the death of AirPods 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 website and a few days later received a replacement pair of AirPods with new batteries. They were not my old AirPods, they were another set where their batteries were replaced.
Along with the new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. It will have your old AirPods back. Then cleans and cleans the old pair, puts in 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 replacements. PodSwap’s 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 assembled with small differences, which creates complexity in disassembly “Said Alpert.
PodSwap includes a box for sending old AirPods back.
PodSwap plans to offer service on AirPods Pro soon, a newer model that costs $ 249 and, surprisingly, is powered by a standard-size coin-cell battery.
But the AirPods Pro has many of the same problems as the first model – tight tolerances, potential damage while disassembling, lack of spare parts and a design that suggests the product was always designed to last for a limited time.
“We’ve found that AirPods Pro’s batteries are harder to replace,” Alpert said. “The ergonomic design and the tight forgiving tolerances make it unusually challenging to replace the batteries repeatedly with a high degree of efficiency.”
PodSwap was not entirely without problems for me – I was sent a combination of “first generation” and “second generation” AirPods. They got my iPhone sending error messages, but I sent an email to PodSwap, and a day or two later I got another replacement set that worked.
Then I sent my first replacement kit and my old AirPods back. The AirPods I received look and function like new.
I plan to try to get another four years out of them.