Image: MacBook Pro 17-inch laptop
Apple's latest 17-inch MacBook Pro laptop has unibody construction and a non-removable battery, which lends to its sleek size and design.
updated 3/12/2009 8:59:42 AM ET 2009-03-12T12:59:42

Apple’s MacBook Air and latest 17-inch MacBook Pro laptop have non-removable batteries. Asus, maker of the popular Eee netbook computers, plans to follow suit with its 1008HA model, due out mid-year in the United States.

Is it the start of a trend? While what Apple does — from its iPod to iPhone —spawns many tech knockoffs, the idea of a manufacturer — and a manufacturer only — being able to replace a notebook battery is one that may be hard for many consumers to accept, especially for a computer like the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,799.

“A non-replaceable battery … adds a sense of limited life to the whole product,” wrote “ChrisC” on a recent discussion board about Asus’ new netbook, an ultraportable laptop.

“I may buy a ‘normal’ laptop and never need to change the battery … but there is a strange sort of comfort in having the option,” he said.

That option is a good one to have when many users already feel they have so little control over the tech in their lives.

Better battery technology
Yet, with better battery technology, replacing a battery may not be necessary. That’s what Apple is counting on with its recently released MacBook Pro, just under an inch thick and weighing 6.6 pounds, extremely light for a laptop with a 17-inch screen.

The computer, unlike its sibling, the three-pound MacBook Air, uses a lithium-polymer battery and power-saving technology that promises up to eight hours on a single charge, Apple says. In contrast, the MacBook Air can get 4.5 hours on a single charge.

The MacBook Pro’s battery can be recharged up to 1,000 times, the company says — about twice the number of times standard lithium ion batteries can be recharged over their lifetimes.

Even so, if the battery does fail — and battery failure does happen — “it means you really can’t carry a second battery, you can’t have that opportunity in terms of some other way to get power to your laptop,” said Stephen Baker, primary hardware analyst for the NPD Group.

With the MacBook Pro, Apple says customers can bring their machines to Apple’s retail stores for same-day battery replacement, or send their laptops to the company and get them back within three to four business days after shipping. If the battery is within its one-year warranty, it’s free; if not, it costs $179 to replace.

“It’s an inconvenience to the consumer, there’s no question about that,” said Baker. “But the tradeoff is the consumer gets something thin and light and really sleek and well-designed. There are other consumers who will say this isn’t a tradeoff I’m willing to make.”

iPhone, iPod batteries non-removable
Apple’s iPhone and iPod also have non-removable batteries, something that’s been controversial with some consumers.

“The iPhone, in particular, is angering some users,” said Isidor Buchmann, founder and CEO of Cadex Electronics, which makes battery analyzers and chargers.

The iPhone’s battery is “barely large enough, even when new, to last through the day when used heavily,” he said. “Apple achieves lower manufacturing costs and more space for the battery by having it non-removable. This is offset by expensive service when a replacement is needed.”

Apple charges $79, plus $6.95 for shipping, for a replacement iPhone battery if it is beyond the one-year warranty.

The “durability” of the MacBook Pro’s new battery remains to be seen, Buchmann said.

Apple did not respond to an inquiry about the MacBook Pro’s battery, but on its Web site, touts its features, including a chip in the battery that “talks” to each of the battery’s cells “to determine their precise condition.”

By taking away the “infrastructure” needed to house a removable battery — including doors and various mechanisms — that leaves room for a larger, non-removable battery, Apple says on its site.

The company has faced lawsuits in the past over the iPhone and iPod’s non-removable batteries. Last fall, a Chicago judge dismissed a suit by an iPhone user, saying that the iPhone’s packaging clearly states the battery may eventually need to be replaced.

In 2005, the company settled class-action suits filed over iPods sold between 2001, when the first version was released, and May 31, 2004. The lawsuits said that Apple claimed the iPod’s battery would last for the lifetime of the device. No such claims are made anymore.

Pros and cons
“There are lots of reasons to go with a non-removable battery: smaller or more efficient packaging, you can’t lose ‘em when you drop your device, and it’s easier to seal the device if you don’t have a removable door for the battery,” said David Chamberlain, principal analyst for In-Stat research firm.

“On the other hand, it’s a lot easier to wait for a replacement battery to come in the mail than to box the whole PC up and ship it away.”

Some users also like to have a second battery on hand for their laptops, particularly for long flights, or if they’re in areas where outlets aren’t readily available.

When the MacBook Air came out last year, Michael Horowitz, author of the “Defensive Computing” column, now for Computerworld, then for CNET, said it had one “killer feature, the non-removable battery. Killer as in deal-killer.”

“There are times when a laptop computer gets so screwed up that the only way to reset it is to remove the battery,” he wrote.

Baker of the NPD Group said that many mobile computer users aren’t all that mobile, and often use a laptop in a stationary place at home or the office. That can help save on battery life itself, and be less of an issue with a non-removable battery, he said.

“Most consumers don’t go on three-day business trips, and if the laptop’s moving, it’s often just moving from one room to the next,” he said. “It doesn’t move that far and is always near a plug.”

Chamberlain notes that laptops with non-removable batteries are not only “sleek, skinny, smooth,” but are also “more impervious to dust, moisture and other factors if you’re going to use them in tough environments like outdoors, or in vehicles.”

Trying to improve battery life
Laptop battery life itself has “gotten better, but not tremendously so,” said Baker. The use of more energy-efficient components, such as a solid-state drive vs. a hard drive, in laptops, for example, helps.

Last fall, HP said its HP EliteBook 6930p achieved a 24-hour battery life on a single charge, and Dell unveiled several new models that have a battery run time of 19 hours.

MIT Professor Gerbrand Ceder and graduate student Byoungwoo Kang are working with the material in lithium-ion batteries so that the time it takes to recharge such batteries would be seconds instead of hours.

In an interview with Alan Boyle, science editor, Kang said the technology being developed would be well-suited for the bigger batteries used in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, but may also work with smaller products, such as laptops and cell phones.

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