“Sealed” Apple Notebooks Demand More Battery Stewardship Attention – The ‘Book Mystique

In most aspects, my two MacBook Airs (one a mid-2013 revision and the other the current early-2015 refresh spec.) are the best computers I’ve owned over the past 25 years. The only major dissatisfaction I have with them is that there is no provision for hardware upgrading or repair — even for battery replacement.Being of the “right-to-repair” philosophy, this rubs me the wrong way.

Up until my late 2008 aluminum unibody MacBook I could still at least upgrade RAM (which I did) and replace a spavined battery (currently needs doing). However, even with that machine, more extensive fixing or tweaking of the internals is not really a practical proposition for typical do-it-yourselfers without a proper tech lab, tools, and advanced expertise in their use.

As for my MacBook Airs and other contemporary Mac notebooks, forget battery replacement as a DIY project. It’s not for nothing that these machines garner low IFixIt repairability scores — 4 out of 10 for my MacBook Airs, and a pathetic 1 out of 10 for the current Touch Bar MacBook Pro.

A far cry from my beloved old Pismo and WallStreet PowerBooks, which you could open up in seconds, without tools, and gain access to most of the major internal components. Even a processor upgrade was basically a plug-in-and-play proposition as were RAM upgrades. A hard disk drive swap took only a few minutes without hurrying. Battery swap out/in took literally only a few seconds aided by a convenient release handle. Repairs tended to be simple and straightforward as well.

Alas, those days are behind us, with Apple seemingly determined to make all of its hardware systems hermetically sealed units. Even if you successfully open one up without damaging something, there’s not much you can do once you’re in there since  most components are hard-soldered to the logic board and the battery is glued to the aluminum chassis.

In the case of the Touch Bar MacBook Pro, iFixIt points to Apple’s use of proprietary “Pentalobe” screws that make gaining internal access for servicing and repair unnecessarily difficult, and the processor, RAM, and flash memory all soldered to the logic board. Moreover, the Touch Bar adds a second, difficult-to-replace screen to get damaged, and the Touch ID sensor doubles as the power switch, and is paired with the T1 chip on the logic board, meaning that fixing a broken power switch may require help from Apple, or a new logic board (very expensive). While Apple notebook batteries can be replaced, Apple advises that MacBook, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro computers with built-in batteries should only have their batteries replaced by an Apple Authorized Service Provider or Apple Retail Store (not cheap).

Unhappily the Windows PC side has been ominously moving in this direction as well, but you can still buy PC laptops with user replaceable batteries and upgradable RAM and SSDs.

To be fair, Apple has made some advances in mitigating the problems created by its design decisions. For example, while today’s Mac notebooks need to be shipped back to Apple for battery replacement, the number of projected charge cycles in the battery’s lifespan has been more than tripled from 300 to 1,000 beginning with late 2009 models.

For example, the battery of my mid-2013 MacBook Air, purchased on Black Friday of that year, has had 218 charge cycles and still maintains 88.6 percent of its 7150 mAh design capacity according to the handy and free battery monitor app Coconut Battery, and I can still get more than ten hours of real world uptime.

How to best care for your MacBook’s glued-in battery is a matter of some controversy and debate, but there are several points that Apple recommends being mindful of for maximum battery lifespan and performance.

Charge Cycles

Depth of discharge (DoD) is more important with Macbook batteries than the overall number of charge cycles because Lithium Polymer batteries are happier with being recharged while still half-charged (shallow discharges) than with repeated deep discharges, so it’s best to avoid the latter whenever possible. Ergo; a battery that has seen 300 charge cycles with recharging typically initiated at 40 percent charge remaining will be in better condition than a battery with also 300 charge cycles but recharging when there’s only 10-15 percent charge capacity remaining.

Constant charging is also not recommended, but staying plugged in while playing high-end games or during other graphics-intensive tasks is. Some say the absolute worst charge conditions for lowering Lithium Polymer battery life expectancy is ‘always plugged in and in sleep mode,’ which presents a challenge for those of us who rarely shut down our laptops. The ideal mode is reportedly to keep the battery in a range between 20 and 85 percent charged.

Don’t do “battery calibrations” on your Lithium Polymer battery MacBooks. No calibration is recommended for current Apple notebooks with built-in batteries.

Temperature:

Apple says MacBook devices are designed to ideally be used in ambient temperatures of 62° to 72° F (16° to 22° C), but 50° to 95° F (10° to 35° C) is within the operating temperature design tolerance. The company warns that operation in ambient temperatures higher than 95° F/35° C can permanently damage battery capacity, and charging the device in high ambient temperatures can damage it further, Even storing a MacBook in a hot environment can apparently cause irreversible battery damage. Apple’s recommended MacBook storage temperature range is -4° to 113° F (-20° to 45° C).

Maximizing Battery Runtime Between Charges

To maximize battery charge life in use Apple recommends keeping OS software up-to-date and optimizing Energy Saver settings such as dimming the screen to the lowest comfortable level, turning off Wi-Fi (Airport) when you’re not using it to connect to a network, turning off Bluetooth when not needed, quitting applications when they’re not in use, ejecting an SD card if you’re not currently accessing it, making sure to pug in and power on the MacBook when you’re using it to charge other devices via USB.

Storage Charge:

For long term storage, Apple says to neither fully charge nor fully discharge your MacBook’s battery — but to charge it to around 50 percent capacity and store it in a cool, moisture-free environment at temperatures lower than 90° F (32° C).
For long-term storage, charge it to 50 percent every six months.

All well and good, and useful information to have, but I would still prefer being able to just swap in a fresh battery, by myself, preferably without tools, even if it made the device thicker and heavier.

For more information on care and use of Apple notebook batteries, see:
http://www.apple.com/batteries/notebooks.html
and
http://support.apple.com/kb/HT1446

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