Last week I wrote up a guide for choosing and living with a budget Android device, especially for people who have lost access to their company provided flagship phone. In that piece I mention the importance of repairability when selecting a device, using XDA and iFixIt for reviews and info before buying. This week I urgently repaired one of my mobile devices because of a swollen battery. This process was a solid reminder for me on why all phones should be easy to replace the battery and should be mandated from the beginning.
There are plenty of reasons to make this accessible for more users, from environmental to economic. I realized after repairing my daughters Honor 7x, that I now have three devices in use after battery replacements, all of them repaired for a combined cost of $60.
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Why it matters
On Monday when I saw the swollen battery, I was immediately stressed out. Not because I was nervous about doing a battery replacement, but because of money. The previous Friday I learned my position was not needed at my employer and was laid off due to COVID. This has been a painful experience. After being with a company for over 18 years I am, for the first time in my career, without a job. My nervousness wasn’t about the phone, but how in the hell I would come up with the money to replace it.
My wife and I have always operated on a tight budget and as you can tell that translates to the mobile devices we have. Other than my tablet, I’ve never paid more than $300 for a new phone. We bought both the Honor 5x and 7x for under $200, which is an impressive deal for the quality of device you get. To come up with $200 right now would be impossible. We’ve cut every bill, service and even our food budget to make sure we can get by while I’m looking for work (during one of the hardest times to find a job in US history).
This is true for many, many people not just during the current economic crisis. A phone is much easier to use and maintain than a laptop or desktop PC. It also is useful in more ways. Carrier payment plans are the only viable option, even though you can get a decently performant mobile device unlocked for sub-$300. The barrier is coming up with that money up front. That’s where carrier leases come in. You can get a great device with no money upfront and locked into a criminally expensive plan and contract. Not only do expensive, non-repairable devices lock users into an unsustainable upgrade cycle, but it blocks them from money saving MVNO carriers too.
Repairing my daughter's phone only cost $15. Imagine the benefit so many people could have when a repair costs a fraction of a new device and the manufacturer wasn’t conspiring against you to block this process. This is even more evident now as millions of people are out of work just like me, looking to save every penny they can.
The problem with batteries
On Monday my daughter came to me with a storage problem. Her device (a Huawei Honor 7x), with 64 GB of storage plus the same in a SD card, was out of room and she couldn’t figure out why. Reviewing the settings, for whatever reason Android was only seeing the SD card with 6 GB of storage, not the 64 available. Simple enough, I’ll pop out the card, format, pop back in and viola.
When I pulled the case off I could immediately see a much more serious problem. The back panel of the phone was open, the battery bulging out the back. She never notices since it was always in the case. Much to her dismay, I told her there was no way she was getting this phone back until the battery had been replaced.
This wasn’t my first rodeo with a Huawei battery swap. About this time last year I acquired a Honor 5X from my same daughter who upgraded to the 7x. Luckily I could unlock the bootloader before Huawei closed the program, so I was happy to get it. I’ve been without a personal phone, substituting my mobile experience with my Samsung Galaxy Tab S5e. All I needed was a phone to send messages, check email and make the occasional call. My tablet handles the rest.
The first thing to do was to replace the battery. I barely held a charge and that also hampered the performance to a near crawl. Following this iFixIt guide I replaced the battery with one I bought off eBay for $18. I felt fairly confident I could pull it off after replacing the battery on an even older Google Nexus 5x previously with great success. The combination of LineageOS plus a new battery turns any phone into a brand new device and this was the effect both 5x’s had.
Over time, as the battery degrades, the device will slow itself down. This was huge headlines for Apple when it was discovered iOS did this in the background without notifying the user. However, this makes sense. If the battery is capable of sending less power and generates more heat, the device will need to slow down as a precautionary measure. This means if users were able to more easily replace the battery in their devices, they would keep them longer. The upgrade cycle is fierce for mobile phones. Many people upgrade the device after it stops working as well as they think it should. They think this is a natural cycle, but most of this is due to poor battery performance.
Yes, there are absolutely other reasons a phone would slow down. But, if your primary uses are taking photos, email, Facebook, Instagram and banking/bills, replacing the battery would be more than enough to keep the user happy. In fact, it is more than enough to keep me happy.
Read more of my thoughts as an avid Android user.
For the Honor 7x I ordered another battery from eBay. This time the replacement was only $15 with free shipping. It came much faster than I anticipated, only taking two days from Southern California to Phoenix. The kit came with the battery, adhesive to hold it in place and all the tools needed to do the job (which I didn’t need, but a nice touch).
Since the battery was swollen, it had popped the back off the phone most of the way. With the Honor 5x, the back panel was held on with a very, very strong glue which took a lot of work to separate. To take the back panel off on the 7x was just 2 screws on the bottom next to the charging port. To remove the battery was a different, much harder experience.
Underneath the battery was a significant amount of glue that refused to let go. With the battery near exploding, I did not heat up the device, which would have helped with removing it. In fact, I didn’t want to heat it up or pull too hard on the battery since it was so swollen. Removing the two motherboard cables, battery connector and fingerprint sensor ribbon, I used fishing line to go behind the battery and slowly pull the battery loose. In total, this took probably a half hour. I did it outside with gloves, a mask and safety glasses, all in Phoenix spring heat (about 105 degrees F) which made the process feel like it took 7 hours. Perhaps I did get some heat on the device, although created by nature.
Installing the new battery was trivial and only took about 5 minutes. Within the hour I had removed the old, installed the new, and she was back to normal with her phone. For now, crisis averted. I’m happy with the process and I’m happy with the choice of the Honor line of phones. With replacement batteries accessible and updates still coming from LineageOS, I know I will still get years of use out of them. Which is much more than I can say about nearly all flagship devices. Once upon a time, an easily replaceable battery for Android phones was a differentiator. Its one of the things that steered me away from Apple devices.
This is possible and should be an emphasis for OEM’s. Yet greed in the upgrade cycle is keeping us from actually owning our devices.