Apple AirPods' poor design hurts our wallets, and the environment

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"Sorry, we can't help you," said the Apple store Genius. My AirPods were dying. After just 15 minutes of use, the wireless headphones I use daily chirp a sad little battery-depleted alert. I came to Apple to get them repaired. The employee said there were lots of people like me, with AirPods purchased in 2016 and 2017 that now can't hold a charge. But even though Apple promises "battery service," the store had no way to fix my AirPods. It didn't even have a way to test them.

Cupertino, we have a problem: AirPods are comfortable and convenient headphones that have attracted tens of millions of customers. But each one of those white sticks contains a rechargeable battery marching toward an untimely death in as little as two years. Apple's plan to deal with that reality is just to sell us new ear buds. When your AirPods' day comes, the only option is to ask Apple for discounted replacements; but you'll need to know its code word to even get that. Not long ago, headphones were among the most universal, long-lasting electronics. We shouldn't let Apple turn them into expensive, disposable electronics. It's hurting our wallets, and the environment.

Apple doesn't dispute that the lithium-ion batteries inside AirPods wear out. "All rechargeable batteries have a limited life span and may eventually need to be serviced or recycled," Apple says on its website. Replacing batteries is very common on phones and laptops. In 2018, Apple stores got deluged after the company offered to replace the batteries in older iPhones for $39. But with AirPods, Apple offers far less help. First, there's no way to determine the health of the batteries in the ear buds or their charging case. Apple won't even share guidelines on their life expectancy. "AirPods are built to be long-lasting," said Apple spokeswoman Lori Lodes, without specifics. Mine went for 34 months; others have reported they die as soon as 18 months.

In Australia, when your AirPod batteries finally go, you have a few options if you want to avoid buying a full price new set at $249: If the set is less than a year old and the battery is not performing up to the promised five hours of listening time (or where appropriate under consumer law), Apple will replace them at no cost. Apple recently began selling its AppleCare+ warranty, which covers the battery, too. But this extended warranty lasts only two years. If your AirPods are out of warranty, Apple will replace them for $75 per stick, so in reality $150 total. A replacement for the charging case, which doesn't wear out as quickly, is also $75. The key phrase to say is "battery service." A $150 battery fix is still mighty expensive. Apple will replace the battery on an iPhone for as little as $79. An Apple Watch battery costs just $129. What makes AirPods so different? Because Apple's "battery service" for AirPods is code for "throwing it away." Apple isn't repairing AirPods; it's just replacing the ear buds and recycling your old ones. To understand why, I performed an autopsy on a dearly departed pair. Inside, I found the design of AirPods makes them inevitably obsolete.

What could be so hard about replacing the battery in an AirPod? I don't ordinarily go CSI on gadgets, so I sought advice from some folks who do. Kyle Wiens, the CEO of repair website iFixit, offers instructions on how to disassemble electronics and sells replacement parts. The first time Wiens tried to get inside an AirPod, he cut himself and bled all over it. Another time, the battery combusted in a poof of smoke on his team.