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New Ultrabooks – Ultra Inconvenient if You Need a New Battery

August 15th, 2012
Ultrabook photo

Photo by Bigstockphoto

It’s back-to-school shopping time and for some of you, that means a new laptop. There’s one new technical specification that probably isn’t on your list of comparison metrics, but should be: replaceable batteries. Does the manufacturer allow you to replace your own battery, or will you have to ship it off to the service depot for a week, for a “repair”?

If you are shopping for the thin, light, fast laptops called “ultrabooks,” then you may want to read our new report, “Ultra-Inconvenient” before you buy.  Ultrabooks are basically the PC manufacturers’ version of the Mac Book Air.  Many new ultrabooks appeared on the scene early in 2012, with even more coming out this summer with Intel’s new ivy bridge processor.

While Apple loyalists are accustomed to having to go back to Apple for new batteries (and they have stores that do this while you wait), this will be a brand new inconvenience for most PC laptop users. That’s why we were so surprised to find that most manufacturers make absolutely no mention of this design change – not on their websites, product descriptions, or even in the detailed specs.  They also fail to mention that if you try to change the battery yourself anyway, something that’s actually quite easy to do for many of these laptops, you will void your product warranty.  Not exactly user-friendly. More like user-hostile. This will make the next laptop battery recall even more fun.

Some manufacturers still have user-changeable batteries in their ultrabooks

The designers will surely state that they made this tradeoff in order to attain the very thin profile (it must meet Intel’s thin test in order to use the trademarked term “ultrabook”).  But our report found that there are a couple of ultrabooks that still have removable batteries and still meet the thin test.

In addition to being user-hostile, this design change makes it less likely the laptop will have a “reuse” phase after the initial owner is done with it.  Because of the enormous amount of resources that go into manufacturing computers, reuse – extending the life of any computer – is far more “sustainable” than just recycling it.

Obstacle to Reuse

But anything that makes it harder (or more expensive) to repair or refurbish a product makes its reuse less likely.  [Apple’s new MacBook Pro/retina is the poster child here, with its glued-in battery.] Having to go back to the manufacturer for a battery and pay their labor costs is a reuse hurdle. For some people, it can be the point at which they decide they are ready to buy a new one, and put the old one aside. Hopefully it gets donated or sold to someone who knows where to buy third-party batteries, and who is not daunted by having to open up the laptop just to replace the battery. But we know that many people hang on to working laptops to hand them down to family or friends.  But you don’t want to give someone a dead battery laptop. So you put it aside to figure it out later….

We hope that the industry will put the metric of user replaceable batteries up higher on the design specs, both for sustainability and convenience reasons. In the meantime, they should be much more transparent about this issue on their websites so consumers don’t find out the hard way.  And they shouldn’t punish us for their design decisions by voiding our warranties just for changing our own batteries.