Bad Apple: How the iPod Touch is Built to Break

Two Christmases ago, i bought an iPod Touch 2nd generation and a MacBook to pursue iOS game development.

Recently, the battery power on the iPod has been dropping dramatically. This week, it stopped charging altogether.

iPod Touch battery doesn't last past two years

i took the device to the Apple Store, where the Genius™ in the back told me that the iPod’s battery “is consumable”, and that two years is pretty much the upper limit of use that i could expect from the device.

He offered me exactly one option:

  1. Pay $69 (about a quarter of the price of the device) to swap it for a new one with a fresh battery.

All-Consuming

These two devices are the first Apple products i’ve ever purchased. i’ve been hearing for years about how user-friendly the company’s products are, and how they have a mind toward building green products (i believe their latest laptop is made from wood chips and rabbit pellets).

i can’t think of anything less user-friendly than a 21st century device which does not allow its owner to replace its battery. The battery is “consumable”, yes … but consumption implies that i can replenish the consumable, and consume it again.

i consume food on a daily basis, but once the food in my fridge runs out, i replenish it with new food – i don’t pay a quarter of the price to buy a new fridge.

Imagine a world where we were unable to replenish the power supplies in our devices. Car’s battery died? Pay a quarter of the price to trade it in for a new car. Video game controllers? After a few weeks, you need new ones. Watches? Remote controlled cars? Hearing aids? Despite it being a simple process to swap in a fresh power source, all of these devices would become defunct.

Antique chest

This is a millennia-old piece of technology which, once purchased, can last for hundreds of years. It’s built with a consumer-friendly design that enables the user to open it and get at its insides without voiding his warranty.

Green and Greed

There are two angles to this issue: green and greed.

Apple’s design decision to prevent users from being able to replace the battery is an environmental no-no. i’m sure they’ll do all sorts of wonderful things with my traded-in device (like throwing a new battery in it and selling it as refurbished, or planting it to grow an Apple tree or whatever), but because i feel like Apple is ransoming my use of the device, i have half a mind to throw my defunct iPod into the ocean, specifically aiming it at a dolphin’s face. Perhaps i’ll dip it in crude oil a few times first? Apple’s locked design of the device is environmentally unfriendly.

manatee

Apple makes me want to kick a manatee in its junk (if i could FIND its junk)

Perhaps more transparently, this is planned obsolescence at its ugliest. To specifically design a device that lasts only two years is irresponsible at best – insidious at worst. Apple knows darn well that after two years, an iPod customer will likely have made a significant temporal, financial and emotional investment in the device – purchasing iTunes apps and songs, sinking time and money into certain iOS games, and integrating the device into his lifestyle (public transit and toilet time, most notably). Squeezing another 25% of the device cost from the customer every two years is a solid way to pad company coffers.

Not a Fan

When i slide the back of my Nexus One Android phone open, there’s a replaceable battery staring back at me. When it gives up the ghost – hopefully beyond the 2-year mark – i can choose to purchase a new battery from either Google or a third party, at significantly less than 25% of the phone’s price ($10 or less on eBay – that’s 2% of the device price).

Apple has its fans, to be sure, but i’m not willing to sacrifice basic consumer control over the utility of my devices for a few shiny logos and a high-profile (yet environmentally irresponsible and ultimately consumer-hostile) brand.

UPDATE

i didn’t mention it in the original article, but things started to go South once i installed the iOS4 update for my device. Suddenly, the battery lasted one hour instead of the days of juice that it used to provide. i mentioned this to the Apple Store guy, who swore up and down that iOS4 has no effect on battery life. He actually made me feel like a bit of a fool for even bringing it up.

Enter the Internet:

So it appears that, non-replaceable battery notwithstanding, the iOS4 upgrade may have devoured whatever juice the “ancient” 2-year-old battery had left in it. i’ll pay another visit to the Apple Store tomorrow to see if i can’t get this sorted out.

ANOTHER UPDATE

Today i returned to the Apple Store, ranting and raving and foaming at the mouth. Craftily, i told the salespeople that i wanted to buy an expensive iPod Touch, but was concerned because the battery wasn’t replaceable. How long would the device last? One guy said “WELL over 2 years … possibly 4 or 5 years.” Hmm. But then a girl i spoke to said that it depends on my usage.

Me:Very well – i pay $400 for the device. How much usage does that get me, at maximum abuse? 3 months?
Her: Probably more than that, but i can’t say for sure.
Me: You can’t say for sure that i’m going to drop $400 on an iPod Touch, and it’s going to last longer than 3 months?
Her: Okay – probably longer than 3 months.
Me: How long? 6 months?
Her: i can’t say for sure.
Me: So $400 won’t even buy me 6 months with the device?
Her: It all depends.
Me: Depends on what? Don’t you have any benchmarks?

By that point, the “Genius” at the back was calling my name. As a (fake) new customer, though, i don’t think i would have made a purchase with such a non-committal answer. At least lie to me, lady. You’re in sales, after all.

i went in hollering and carrying on and telling them that the iOS4 upgrade had destroyed my battery. One Genius had to step in and, in his smoothest “i’m a very very cool dude who works at the Apple Store and check out my awesome tattoos but they’re too obscure for you to understand” voice, he asked me to calm down. Said that iOS4, while very hard on the battery and probably a bad idea for iPod Touch owners to install, had nothing to do with my device’s battery dying. Completely unrelated.

i asked him how an ill-advised upgrade that destroyed battery life could possibly be unrelated to a battery-destroying issue. He said it was pure coincidence that my battery happened to die after i upgraded. i reiterated that after i installed the iOS4 upgrade, my battery life began to rapidly decline over a period of two weeks, going from holding a charge for days, to holding a charge for an hour. He said that when the batteries degrade, they do so very quickly. i called bullshit.

They gave me options. A battery replacement was $99. The other guy jumped in and said they don’t actually replace the battery – they give me a new device, and that would cost me $89. Both numbers were a chunk higher than the $69 mystery figure the “Genius” had offered me one day earlier. i felt like i was playing The Price is Right.

The other “Genius” offered to wipe my device and install iOS 4.1 on it. “Genius” #2 told me that any time i used wifi on the device, i’d have to shut it down by putting the iPod into airplane mode before i pushed the Sleep button. There was still no option to disable the “always-on” wifi problem that iOS4 introduced.

“Genius” #2 also mumbled something to his colleague about there being a software bug on the recharge screen when it showed one red stick, which mine did. Funny – it was the first i was hearing of it.

So i told the guy to go ahead with the reset. He wiped the device, and upgraded to iOS 4.1. Suddenly, the device started to hold a charge. i went home and plugged it in, charging it fully. It took much longer to charge this time, instead of the half hour it took when it was suffering from iOS 4.0. Wifi is off. The battery is draining at a normal, pre- iOS4 rate.

Apparently, iOS4 is not an issue for older iPod Touch devices until Pope Steve says it is. Until then, ranting and raving and demanding satisfactory service in the face of a conflicting and ever-changing customer service response is the only way. You need to be a modern-day Galileo to convince Apple that the universe does not revolve around their company.

But now that my months-old Pocket Frogs saved game file is lost forever, there’s very little compelling me to use my iPod in the near future, charged battery or otherwise.

STILL ANOTHER UPDATE

The HTC-made Google Nexus One phone that i lauded in the original post – the one with the replaceable battery – stopped charging a few months after the warranty expired.

16 thoughts on “Bad Apple: How the iPod Touch is Built to Break

  1. Brent

    First open up the iPod Touch, use a #00 philips to undo the two screws at the base. An Xacto knife into the edge of the glass and frame at the bottom should be enough to pry the glass out gently. There’s ton’s of YouTube videos showing this procedure. This should be enough to give you access to the battery.

    Looks like its running a 3.7V 900mAh LiPo battery. Replace it with an identical version. In Toronto I buy mine from Creatron on College & Spadina.

    No its not as simple as a Nexus One, but its better to do it this way than pay Apple’s engorged fees. And with a device this old it probably isn’t under warranty anymore anyways.

    Another option is to run a MintyBoost and power the device off of rechargable AAs, bypassing the onboard battery. I’ve also got mine running off of a solar cell for trickle charging.

    Reply
      1. Ryan Henson Creighton

        Ah – no. Never mind. A MintyBoost tin just locks into the charge port and provides power. The battery of the device still needs to function (mine doesn’t – even when plugged directly into the wall. The device will not boot.)

        Reply
  2. Ted Avery

    The largest reason for this is a thinner design and increased battery life, not just to gouge customers as you may think. The Macbook line has gone the same way because as soon as you remove all the plastic and the latches that need to be built around a removable battery, you can then fit in a larger battery with higher capacity. That’s the same reasoning the iPhone 4 has the antenna built on the outside of the phone. And while this backfired on them a bit with the whole “antennagate” thing, it’s why the iPhone 4 has the best in class battery life, and why the latest iPod Touch is unbelievably thin.

    A removable battery is just another one of the tradeoffs in control vs design/integration that separate the Apple and Android fans apart.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Hogwash, Ted. i’m not comparing the iPod to the Nexus One – i’m comparing the iPod to every other electronic device on the planet that has a consumer-replaceable battery. But if you must compare, let’s look at the Nexus One, with its removable battery, and the iPhone, with its non-removable battery. (This comparison is better, because both are phones, both have a camera, etc. It’s apples to apples.)

      The Nexus One is 2mm thicker than the iPhone. The iPhone boasts slightly better battery life than the Nexus one (if you can trust any manufacturer’s stats about battery life). So yes, on paper, the iPhone has a thinner design and a longer battery life. But i’m not so concerned about battery life as i am device life. The differences in battery capability are minor, and the 2mm is negligible. But building a device to last for – who knows? – ten, twenty years with battery changes, vs. two years before it has to be recycled, is far more responsible.

      Reply
      1. Ted Avery

        Compare the iPod with whatever you want. My comment didn’t directly compare it with anything, that wasn’t the point. The point is that it is a design-oriented decision. In the end you’ve said you are more concerned about device life than battery life, that you’d sooner live with a thicker device and shorter battery life so you could easily replace your battery on the chance it dies down the road. Those are your priorities, but Apple has made many a fan out of their industrial design, making their devices thinner and last longer. My friend as well as my father in law are sporting the first generation iPod Touches with no problem, and my 1.5 year old 3GS which gets discharged and recharged daily is still doing fine, so that makes it especially unimportant to me. I am just stating that it is a different set of values, neither are “hogwash” even if you think your stance is the “correct” one.

        Reply
        1. Ryan Henson Creighton

          It’s hogwash to suggest that Apple designers and fungineers are purely motivated by fastidious design choices, like they’re all a bunch of dudes in black turtlenecks sitting on Bauhaus sofas drinking specialty coffee and listening to beat poetry while they figure this stuff out. Apple is a business, and if they can take control away from their users to put themselves in a more favourable financial position, it looks like they’ll do it.

          Read my update regarding the iOS4 upgrade. i would really like to believe that Apple just didn’t properly test iOS4 with their older iPods. But the possibility exists that the upgrade purposely targets and destroys older devices, so that customers will pay the 25% fee and upgrade to devices that Apple will have an easier time managing and supporting.

          Reply
  3. Gabe

    I had a similar experience. I received an iPod Touch 1G free when I bought my laptop three years ago. One year of relatively heavy usage later, and it went kaput. A great device to use, but this is definitely an issue.

    Reply
  4. Matthew Hughes

    [quote]It’s hogwash to suggest that Apple designers and fungineers are purely motivated by fastidious design choices, like they’re all a bunch of dudes in black turtlenecks sitting on Bauhaus sofas drinking specialty coffee and listening to beat poetry while they figure this stuff out. Apple is a business, and if they can take control away from their users to put themselves in a more favourable financial position, it looks like they’ll do it.[/quote]

    That bit there made my evening/early morning? Night. Right. Anyhow, I am suffering from the same problem with my iTouch and probably not unlike you Ryan, I am depending on these Apple devices not for their sleek and cool user design but rather as debug devices for testing out products (Unity Contracts?) on.

    It is immensely irritating to me, because as a software developer I don’t care about the design of the device I am using and would rather use a brick with a spot for 2-3 AA batteries (3.7V at 900 mAh is lamesauce, 1 AA NiMh battery is typically in the range of 1800 to 2100 mAh)

    Honestly, I am already half-considering how difficult it would be to mount the innards of my iTouch in a Radioshack project case with a AA rack, except it would not be an accurate measure of the end user’s battery life (not like us Game Devs worry about that too much to begin with I suppose)

    Reply
  5. Rob Anderson

    I have been a fan of MAC products for years but I too feel the frustration of the seemingly built in 2 year life span of MAC products. This isn’t isolated to just them but pretty much all devices in some way or another. The battery issue IS a huge problem but one that doesn’t seem to be affecting their bottom line. So based on the consumer world we live in, unless it affects lives or profit nothing will get done…

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Of course, running your iPod from an electric car battery might make it a little less pocket-friendly.

      Reply
  6. jay dee

    So you go off on a hardware rant, even though the problem was software. You complain about the software, even though “Lord Steve” himself said that the 4.1 update would fix the 2ndgen/3gs IOS4 issues. You also never upgraded to 4.1 even though it’s been out for a month? It’s understandable you were upset, but this blog post just makes you sound like an ass.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      For one thing, i am an ass. If i ever tried to sound like anything otherwise, forgive me.

      Secondly, the software glitch in 4.0 caused my battery life to shorten to the point where there was one red stick left on the battery screen. From that point, a software glitch on the one red stick screen prevented me from even charging the device. i could not communicate with it through iTunes, and could therefore not install iOS 4.1, no matter how wonderful and delicious it was.

      Beyond the software problems, my battery life (while better than it was) is still largely tapped out. Four hundred dollars for a device with a two year lifespan is the worst return on gadget investment i’ve ever seen, and it’s exacerbated by the fact that i can’t fix that problem like a proper consumer.

      Reply
  7. Neptronix

    Apple is terrible.
    My girlfriend went through a macbook charger in a year. The cheap aluminum wire near the plug just frayed and ripped apart. A replacement would be $80 which is rediculous. She found a Chinese knockoff for $20, but that failed too ( internal electronics problem), HOWEVER…

    The Chinese version came with a quality copper wire and a strong adapter connector.
    I soldered the Chinese adapter end on to her original macbook adapter block and it has worked good for her ever since. Copper wires don’t fray !!!

    So Apple is selling you an inferior product at 4x ( or more ) the cost of what it actually takes to manufacture the damn thing. They are designing it to fail ( frail aluminum wire ) so you have to fork over later..

    Seen more instances of this, but just one example.
    Screw ’em.

    Reply

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