Second generation Apple AirPods with wireless charging indicator
Todd Haselton | CNBC
When AirPods first launched in 2016, they were a miracle of miniaturization.
To get rid of cables and go wireless, Apple packed several chips, microphones, and speakers into each headphone, weighing around 4 grams. Without a wire, the earbuds are powered by a tiny cylindrical battery that has about 1% the capacity of an iPhone battery.
But lithium-ion batteries, such as those used by AirPods, wear out with increasing use.
Some owners have found that after a few years, used AirPods only last an hour or so before they need to be charged – a big drop from the four to five hours of battery life they got when they were new. Since every AirPod is so small and packed so tightly in its case, it is almost impossible to swap out the old battery for a new one. Most people give up and just buy a new pair.
The limited lifespan of AirPods is exactly the kind of problem the right-to-repair movement is trying to fix. Repair shops and lobbyists who support repair reform want lawmakers to introduce a variety of rules, including improved access to manuals and official parts, and consumer protection around warranties.
One of their main demands, however, is that companies develop products with the repair in mind, rather than packaging devices with unlabeled parts and gluing them together with glue, forcing users to take them apart with a knife.
That desire puts repair advocates at odds with hardware companies like Apple, whose business models rely 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 could hang on to their old phones for longer instead of upgrading them. Apple also bills its customers for repairs and extended warranties.
“We develop our products to last in order to minimize the need for repairs,” wrote Apple in an environmental report earlier this year. “But when a repair is required, our customers should have easy access to safe and reliable repair services to get their product back up and running as quickly as possible.”
The right-to-repair movement is gaining momentum
Policy makers in recent years have begun to work more closely with advocates of the right to repair. Most states have introduced state-level bills, but electronics companies have opposed it and none have been passed.
In May, the Federal Trade Commission released a 56-page report on repair restrictions, in which it concluded that repair restrictions “have drawn consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or replace products before the end of their useful life” – the very issue that is being addressed Users bump with their AirPods.
The Biden government on Friday instructed the FTC to enact new regulations aimed at restricting manufacturers’ ability to impede independent or self-performed repairs under a comprehensive enforcement ordinance. New repair rules have not yet been worked out.
“Tech and other companies impose restrictions on in-house and third-party repairs, making repairs more costly and time-consuming by, for example, restricting the sale of parts, diagnostic and repair tools,” the White House wrote on a fact sheet about the order on Friday a link to a story about repairing Apple products. Apple declined to comment on the White House executive order.
The FTC hasn’t said what it intends to do, but proponents of repairs want some major policy changes, as outlined in their May report. They want companies to be required to provide official replacement parts. They want access to tools that could make repairs easier without having to redesign the tools or parts themselves. And ultimately, they want products with a longer lifespan.
Apple isn’t the only company affected by these guidelines. Much of the current pressure is on medical device and tractor manufacturers. But given Apple’s ubiquity, it has become a figurehead for repairs, especially because it promotes its environmental efforts as a corporate asset.
Apple has launched a program called the Independent Repair Program, which gives repair shops the ability to complete a certification process and contract with Apple to get access to authentic Apple parts, tools, and manuals.
Apple has also cut the price of battery swaps for iPhones, and newer models have been developed to make replacing a battery or a cracked screen easier, according to iFixit. In addition, Apple has a large network of stores and authorized repair facilities compared to other consumer electronics companies.
Still, it remains difficult to repair many Apple products at home or as a business without contact with Apple.
The only company to replace AirPods batteries
iFixit, a company that provides disassembly instructions and sells replacement parts for devices, gives AirPods models a score of zero out of 10 for repairability. According to iFixit, repairing these earbuds includes soldering, heat guns, and cutting through glue – that is, if replacement battery parts are available at all. In the end, a budding do-it-yourselfer would have to reassemble the four-gram computer.
Apple is offering a “battery service” for AirPods for $ 49 per earbud. But functionally, Apple just gives you a replacement pair and recycles the old earbuds. It’s not a repair, it’s a replacement. And it’s expensive. AirPods originally cost $ 159, so opting for battery service is more than half the price of a new pair.
According to a CounterPoint research estimate, Apple sold approximately 72.8 million AirPods units in 2020, meaning tens of millions of consumers will face the same lack of choice in the years to come.
Replacement AirPods from PodSwap
PodSwap is a Miami company founded by Emma Stritzinger and Emily Alpert to “keep AirPods out of the landfill”. You are not affiliated with Apple.
They believe they are the only company doing AirPod battery replacements, even though other companies are “refurbishing” old AirPods, the founders told CNBC. The company was founded after the founders themselves saw AirPods become extinct and thought upgrading or replacing them would be wasteful and impractical.
I recently replaced a pair of AirPods that only charged 45 minutes – too short to make a call. I paid $ 59 on PodSwap’s Shopify site and received a replacement pair of AirPods with new batteries a few days later. It wasn’t my old AirPods, it was a different set that had the batteries changed.
Along with these new pods, PodSwap includes a box and a return label. It wants your old AirPods back. It then cleans and disinfects the old couple, putting in new batteries, and sending them to the next person who wants to change the battery in their old AirPods.
PodSwap faces many challenges, however, which shows why repair advocates want new rules. Alpert said the AirPod’s design makes it difficult for repair shops or businesses like yours to do many battery changes. PodSwap’s process uses both robotics and manual labor, the founders said.
“The process was developed through trial and error and a large number of units were ‘sacrificed’ and eventually recycled. One of the major challenges we faced was overcoming the uniqueness of this product. Each AirPod is assembled with slight differences, which makes disassembly complicated, ”said Alpert.
PodSwap includes a box for returning old AirPods.
PodSwap plans to soon offer service for the AirPods Pro, a newer model that costs $ 249 and surprisingly runs on a standard button battery.
But the AirPods Pro have many of the same issues as the first model – tight tolerances, potential damage if disassembled, missing replacement parts, and a design that suggests the product was always meant to be for a limited time.
“We found that the AirPods Pro batteries are more difficult to replace,” said Alpert. “The ergonomic design and the tight, irreconcilable tolerances make repeated battery changes with high efficiency an extraordinary challenge.”
PodSwap wasn’t entirely smooth for me – I received a combination of “first generation” and “second generation” AirPods. They caused my iPhone to send error messages, but I emailed PodSwap and a day or two later I got a second replacement set that worked.
After that, I sent back my first replacement set and my old AirPods. The AirPods I received look and work like new.
I plan to try and get another four years out of them.