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BLOG: Guilty pleasure: The dark side of smartphone upgrades

Robert L. Mitchell | Jan. 2, 2014
Manufacturers should make it easier to repair used phones to help prolong their lifetimes, said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Imagine that you are just about to seal the deal on a shiny new $600 laptop when the sales person tells you that the battery can't be replaced. If the unit fails, he says, you throw the laptop away. To protect yourself, you can pay $120 per year for replacement plan insurance, or after the factory warranty ends in 12 months you'll have to buy a new unit at full retail price in the event that the battery goes south.

Would you still buy it?

This is the situation I found myself in this week as I shopped for a new smartphone. My Galaxy Nexus has a replaceable battery, and over the past two years I've replaced it twice. But of the five new smartphone models I am considering, only one, the Samsung Galaxy S4, has a user replaceable battery. With the others, if the battery dies and the phone is out of warranty you buy a new phone at full retail price and just throw the old one away. You can't even send it in to the manufacturer to have one factory installed. (Yes, it's true. I double checked this with two Verizon Wireless sales people and through an online chat with sales support.) From what I've been able to find out, a typical battery lasts for about 300 to 500 charge cycles, or between 10 and 24 months.

Barbara Kyle, National Coordinator at the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, is appalled. "It's a ridiculous waste of resources to make a phone for which you can't change the battery. If anything, we need to see the manufacturers move in the opposite direction - to make it much easier to repair used phones, so we can prolong their lifetimes," she said in a recent email exchange. While taking back old phones for recycling is good, reusing old phones is a much better option, she says, and the battery issue just makes that more difficult -- especially since there's no secondary market for the replacement battery, which is usually a nonstandard, proprietary design.

I am sure that the thinking behind this design move is that people throw the phones away after two year anyway, so why not? And carriers encourage this behavior by hiding the true cost the customer is actually paying for the phone. You may only pay a penny up front for an older model, or $49 for something like the Moto X. But you're not getting a $600 phone for free. You'll pay the rest of the cost through the subsidy built into the monthly fee you pay during your two-year contract.

And now you can throw away your phone even faster

 

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