BlackBerry battery packs
Source: CrackBerry

These days almost every phone, tablet, laptop, power bank, and other gadget with a rechargeable battery inside is a sealed unit that's not meant to be opened and tinkered with. No matter the company, the shift away from battery packs that a typical user could easily replace was largely completed several years ago. But new legislation from the European Union stands poised to change that with a mandate to that portable battery-powered devices must be designed "in such a way that consumers can themselves easily remove and replace" the battery.

In addition to the replaceable batteries requirement, the law requires carbon footprint labels and supply chain reports for electric vehicles with battery packs larger than 2kWh and sets increasing targets for recyclability and recycled content inclusion. Many of the provisions, including the replaceable batteries, are set to go into effect by the end of 2026.

The EU hasn't been shy about pushing manufacturers to adopt certain changes. In 2022 the body required that all mobile phones, tablets, and cameras use USB-C for a charging port, which is expected to result in the first USB-C iPhone later this year — finally sunsetting the long-standing and limited Lightning port.

The EU's already requiring USB-C ports by 2024, and now "easily" replaceable batteries by 2026.

But this mandate for replaceable batteries is very different. Apple swapping to a different port (something they were almost certainly planning to do eventually) is relatively trivial in comparison, and this decision will have an impact on a wide swath of companies. While a small portion of users still clamor for replaceable batteries so they can swap them out on the go to get back up to 100% charge in a minute, the removable backs and battery packs of days past have fallen out of favor in preference for sealed designs.

Modern smartphones tend to feature incredibly intricate designs with very tight tolerances that call for experienced operators to service their internal components. Batteries are often glued or taped into place in a compartment that's barely big enough for them to fit — a lesson that Samsung learned the hard way with the exploding Galaxy Note 7.

An internally sealed battery pack means the phone is also far easier to effectively waterproof, with slim gaskets around the components. They can have fragile ribbon connectors to the rest of the phone, because they're not expected to be removed or replaced on a regular basis. Components can be layered and stacked in ways that can make servicing difficult, but allow for the device to be as compact as possible. And by ditching the hard plastic shell of the old replaceable battery packs these cells can eek out minor increases in physical size while not making the phone larger, allowing for more battery capacity. The recent advent of foldable phones adds a new complication, as they have more moving parts and often have a separate battery on either side of the device.

Device manufacturers have compensated for the lack of easily replaceable batteries by including wireless charging and fast charging. So while you might not be able to just swap in another battery and get on your way, making it simpler and faster to charge has lessened the inconvenience.

Nokia Ifixit Repairing Press
Source: HMD Global

But that does little for the longevity of the phone, which is the EU's real concern. In fact, the heat generated by wireless charging and fast charging degrades the battery's chemistry and reduces the overall lifespan of the phone, meaning a replacement may be necessary sooner. And that's what the EU is actually targeting, not swapping out batteries on the go. Their goal is to allow customers to easily extend the life of their gadgets after years of use, thus reducing waste when a user feels like their only option is to trash their current phone and buy a new one when their battery stops keeping up with expectations. While many phones do have batteries that are technically replaceable, it's not an easy process and it's often easiest to take it to a shop that has the equipment and expertise to do it.

The law calls for batteries to be easy to remove and replace, but doesn't appear to specify what it means by "easily". I honestly would not expect for the old days of BlackBerry, Nokia, Palm, and Samsung phones where you could just pop off the back panel and swap out the battery pack without any tools to make a strong return. There will be some manufacturers that take that route and there will be customers that appreciate the flexibility that provides, but devices that comply with this EU law will probably be more like the Nokia G22 in that they're designed to be serviced with some basic tools that you can purchase alongside the replaceable components.

It'll be a few years before these regulations take effect and it'll be interesting to see what form they take in product design. It's definitely something we'll be watching with interest.

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