Your smartphone’s battery life won’t last forever. Today, your digital companion might work all day long, then party late into the evening — but, a year from now, you’ll almost certainly have depleted a substantial portion of its capacity. What happens when your phone no longer lasts the day? Time to replace the battery! But with Samsung’s new Galaxy S6, that’s not going to be easy.
If you’ve ever owned a previous Samsung Galaxy smartphone, you know that changing the battery is a breeze. Pop off the plastic back cover, and you have access to a removable lithium-ion pack and a microSD slot for extra gigabytes of storage. Unless you’re talking about the new Galaxy S6, because for the first time, a flagship Samsung smartphone is missing the ability to change out those components.
More and more big-name phones have gone the iPhone route of sealing everything inside. Samsung is hardly the first to give this up. In fact, it’s one of the last. The Galaxy line was the final huge hold-out, and it’s worth considering what that means for your phones going forward.
I’ll be honest: I won’t shed tears for the microSD slot. The cheapest Galaxy S6 will come with 32GB of built-in storage, with 64GB and 128GB options if you need. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have hard drives full of multimedia to cart around — and multimedia has been the only reason to have a microSD card ever since Android got rid of the ability to install big apps and games to SD. There’s also reliability to think about. SD card quality control is notoriously low. Too many can’t hit their promised speeds, and you probably know someone whose microSD shit the bed and lost their precious data.
I also understand — intellectually, anyhow — why Samsung might also want to get rid of the removable battery too. The same reasons HTC would. Or Motorola. The reasons why the iPhone always had a battery built-in. Once you no longer need to design a phone with a removable back panel, it opens up all sorts of possibilities. Your phone can be lighter! Thinner! More waterproof! You can fit more battery inside a smaller space! The back panel can be made of metal or glass instead of flexible dimpled Band-Aid lookalike plastic!
The Galaxy S6 doesn’t do all of those things, mind you. Oddly, it’s actually not water-resistant this time, and the battery’s slightly smaller too. Still, it’s 7g lighter, 1.3mm thinner, and even manages to cram in two different kinds of wireless charging and an impressive wireless payments system underneath that slick new Gorilla Glass rear panel. And Samsung argues that the wireless charging and a new quick charging system — four hours of battery life from ten minutes on the charger — justify a non-removable cell.
But let’s get real. Less time plugged into the wall is a cold comfort when your battery no longer lasts the day — not unless you plan to carry that quick charger or expect you’ll find wireless chargers wherever you go. (Even with both Qi and Powermat compatibility, there aren’t as many out there as you’d think.) Realistically, a year or two from now, you’ll be looking for a new smartphone, or a professional to help you painstakingly swap that non-removable battery. Chances are you’ve already had a phone with a built-in battery. Chances are you’ve been here already.
“What’s wrong with that?” You might be asking. “Don’t people upgrade every two years anyhow?” That’s a good point. Historically, it’s made a lot of sense to stay on 24-month contracts, since smartphones age so quickly, and you’ve gotta pay for your mobile service at some point down the line. But recently, the improvements have been getting smaller and smaller. Even mid-range processors run applications smoothly. Unless you’re sticking your smartphone inside a VR headset, you don’t really need a 2K screen. LTE, when it’s not overcrowded, is probably as fast as your home internet connection. This year’s smartphones have different looks, different designs, but we’d be hard pressed to call those designs much better. There just aren’t as many reasons to buy a new top-tier on-contract smartphone anymore. There’s never been a better time for swappable batteries, to be able to replace the one part of your phone that will necessarily degrade. And now, they’re on the verge of dying out completely.
There are often reasons to stick with smartphones you already own. My 2013 Moto X was the last great small Android phone available in the United States. I don’t know what I’m going to do when the battery can’t hold a charge. I don’t want a bigger phone! I bought my Moto X just over a year ago, and it comes dangerously close to dying before bedtime every day now. When that happened to my old Droid 2, I simply swapped out the battery — they only cost $US10 a pop — and I was good for a while longer. So it is with Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note owners today. But new Samsung buyers may still find themselves mentally locked into the 24-month hardware upgrade cycle simply to change out that battery.
It’s not like a new phone is the only way to replace a battery, mind you. Just because it’s not as easy as popping off the cover doesn’t mean replacements don’t exist. Yes, every iPhone battery is sealed, but you can pay Apple to get yours replaced if, say, you want to stick with your perfectly-sized-for-one-hand iPhone 5S. But unless you’re stubbornly holding onto such a handset, it’s probably more attractive to put that money towards a new subsidised smartphone and get some additional bang for your buck.
None of that’s to say that it’s a bad idea to buy a smartphone without a removable battery — unless you’re concerned about e-waste — or that there’s anything completely nefarious going on like planned obsolescence. (Email me if you have recordings of executives cackling with glee!) Besides, at this point, it’s not like you really have much of a choice.
For all I know you could be happier with your thinner, lighter, easier-to-charge Samsung Galaxy S6 than you ever were before, and that you’ll be perfectly happy trading it in when your 24-month contract is up. The millions of people who buy other unibody phones every year already are. Just know that you won’t have quite as much choice in that matter. Samsung’s choice to ditch those removable cells may trump your choice to hold onto a perfectly good phone that’s outlived its battery. And if you want that choice, your options are now more limited than ever.