Autopsy On AirPods: What To Do When Your Apple Headphones Die

"Sorry, we can't help you," they told me at the Apple store. My AirPods were dying just after 15 minutes of use. A small battery-powered alert had begun to sound in the wireless headphones.

The employee said there were many people like me, with their USD 159 AirPods purchased between 2016 and 2017 whose battery can no longer hold. But although Apple promises "battery technical service," the store had no way to fix my AirPods. They didn't even have a way to try them.

So, we have a problem: AirPods are comfortable and convenient headphones that have attracted tens of millions of customers. But each of these white sticks contains a rechargeable battery that advances towards its obsolescence in a period not exceeding two years. Apple's plan to deal with this problem is simply to sell us new headphones.

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When that day arrives for your AirPods, the only option will be to ask Apple for a new discounted pair, so you should know your code.

Until not long ago, headphones were among the most universal and longest lasting electronic devices. We must not allow Apple to turn them into something expensive and disposable. This will damage our wallets – in addition to the Environment.

Apple does not argue that its lithium batteries are spent: "All rechargeable categories have a limited life and eventually need to receive technical service or be recycled," says the company on its website. In fact, battery replacement is a common practice for phones and laptops. In 2018, Apple stores were flooded when the company offered to replace batteries in older iPhones for only USD 29.

But in the case of the AirPods, Apple has been much less solicitous. First, because there is no way to determine the state of the battery, nor is information about the life expectancy of the batteries. "The airPods are made to be long lasting," said spokeswoman Lori Lodes, without providing further details.

In my case, its useful life was 34 months, in others they stopped working in just 18 months.

The day the battery of your AirPods finally runs out, chances are that not even Apple employees know very well what to do. In three different stores, personally and through their website, they told me that I had to buy the replacement for USD 138, almost the value of new ones. But I remembered that Apple had told me that it would replace the spent batteries for USD 49. That was, in fact, what I wrote in my article at the time published in the Washington Post, along with my AirPods recommendation.

After weeks of round trip with Apple, I finally got the following answers:

Anyway, USD 98 for a new battery for the AirPods, is still a lot of money. Especially since Apple replaces the battery of an iPhone for only USD 49, or the battery of an Apple Watch for only USd 79.

What makes AirPods so different? This is because Apple's "battery service" for AirPods is actually a code to throw it away. Apple is not repairing AirPods, it is just replacing the headphones and recycling the old ones.

To understand why, I performed an autopsy on a very dear couple. Inside, I discovered that the design of AirPods makes them inevitably obsolete.

What can be so difficult to replace the AirPods battery? As I do not usually do CSI on devices, I consulted several experts who do.

Kyle Wiens, executive director of iFixit, a repair website, offers instructions on how to disassemble electronic products and sells spare parts. The first time Wiens tried to open an AirPod, it was cut and bled. The battery burned in a cloud of smoke over his computer. The AirPods should never have opened, Wiens warned me.

But I wanted to see it for myself. With Wiens as a witness and supervising the process, I started the operation by opening the silver cap at the end of the headset. One might think that unscrewing it would open, but it is not so simple. It is attached to the soft end, and I could not take it off even after carefully heating the AirPod to loosen the glue. That meant I had to cut, and to take care of my fingers, Wiens lent me a special vibrating knife that cut plastic.

Once inside the AirPod, I found so much glue that I couldn't even take out the now visible battery with tweezers. So I cut very carefully along the edges of the AirPod stick, and there yes, finally, I could see the drums, resembling a large spaghetti noodle.

I had avoided spilling blood, but after the last cut my AirPod was now disassembled into too many pieces. Wiens had tried this five times, and that was why he had rated the device's reparability as zero over ten. "There is no way to remove the battery without destroying the headset at the same time," he explained.

Greenwashing is in fashion

Now, the cause of death in my AirPods was clear: a bad product design.

Earlier this year, the Vice website defined the AirPods as a “tragedy.” I see them as a symptom of Apple's concern for thin products. It's the technological world version of skinny models in fashion , where Apple sets the trend and other manufacturers feel the pressure to follow.

Excessive thinness is not healthy for electronic devices either. Apple's desire to continue cutting millimeters of the designs has resulted in MacBook keyboards that fail, iPads that catch fire in recycling centers and now millions of AirPods that will probably end up in the trash.

Sealing electronic components with glue instead of screws and latches can make the devices lighter and more resistant to moisture and dust. But excellent headphones do not have to be impenetrable. iFixit found a way to open Samsung's USD 129 Galaxy Buds so replacement batteries can be placed like a watch. Samsung does not officially offer this repair option, but iFixit sells a pair of replacement batteries for just USD 29.

The disposable design of Apple AirPods is expensive for us, in addition to causing permanent damage to our Environment. However, this is not how Apple talks about it.

"Apple products are designed with the environment in mind," said Lodes, Apple's spokeswoman. "Everything from the materials we select to the road to recycling is designed to leave the world better than how we found it."

How are AirPods designed with the environment in mind? Well, because they can be taken to Apple for recycling. "We work closely with our recyclers and also support recyclers outside our supply chain," Lodes said.

This is like saying that your recyclable paper cup of morning coffee is good for the environment because you always throw it in the trash. AirPods are worse than that: they are small and there is not much material that can be recycled from them. A large amount of energy, water and materials go directly to the AirPods manufacturing process.

The golden rule to help the Earth is to produce less new things. Electronics companies can do that by making their products last, but also making it possible for them to be repaired; Everything is almost impossible with the AirPods.

In the 2017 Greenpeace Guide for greener electronic products, Apple earned an overall “B-” rating, due to its commitment to use renewable energy and efforts to create a closed-circuit supply chain. But the environmental group gave Apple a "D" rating in the product life extension category, because "it has consciously made it harder for users to repair their devices or replace their batteries to continue being used."

Apple is not the only technology company guilty of driving consumption against repair. Amazon's new USD 130 headphones called Echo Buds cannot be repaired either. Before this trend continues, let us agree on a common sense rule suggested by Wiens. “The life of an expensive device that requires many resources should not be limited to the life of one of its components. You wouldn't buy an electric toothbrush that you couldn't replace the brush. Or a car with the tires attached. ”

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