When Apple introduced its new MacBooks recently, it touted a doubled battery life -- but noted that the laptops' batteries were sealed into the case, not user-swappable as is the norm on laptops.
The MacBook Air and Dell's Adamo knock-off of it also use sealed-in batteries, but the MacBook Pros are the first mainstream laptops to take this leap. Given Apple's influence on PC makers, sealed batteries may become more prevalent. Is that such a good idea?
At first blush, the idea of a non-removable battery in a laptop seems ill advised. After all, batteries are absolutely key to laptops, and everyone has had a laptop with a battery that just won't hold a charge, requiring you to be no more than five feet from an outlet. In those cases, it's simple to buy a new battery and install it in a few seconds.
Why sealed-in batteries trouble users and IT
The most common complaint about having a sealed-in battery revolves around being on a long-distance flight or waiting in an airport lobby where no power plugs are available, where even a five-hour battery may not be enough to get you through. In those cases, having a spare battery in your bag can mean the difference between finishing the report you're writing (or the movie you're watching) and having to entertain yourself with the final 30 minutes of "Bride Wars" on an off-color overhead screen.
There's also the case of those who work in remote locations -- such as war zones -- where wired power may not be readily available. In extreme cases, the ability to swap batteries there can mean life and death.
More prosaically, sealed-in batteries create a hassle when a battery fails, as the laptop must be returned to the vendor, causing significant delays to users and more overhead for IT to manage. Likewise, some batteries can swell over time, and if the battery is fixed into the computer, it may damage sensitive parts.
So why seal batteries in at all?
Given the potential problems, why would vendors seal in batteries?
Simply put, if a laptop manufacturer doesn't have to worry about a removable battery compartment, the design of a laptop is simpler. Without the inset for the battery, the connectors, the catches, the support frame, and so on, a battery can take on different physical forms and be larger than their removable counterparts. That means there's less need to design around the battery's shape and location.
Also, with the deletion of the battery case and the separator for the battery compartment, the laptop becomes slimmer and lighter -- even as the battery size can increases, providing longer battery life. These are not minor trade-offs, especially if you have to constantly lug a laptop around an airport.
Another fact to consider is that today's laptop batteries are far more advanced than those of just a few years ago. The old nickel-cadmium batteries were slow to charge and prone to "battery memory" issues that occurred if you weren't careful to fully charge and discharge them (essentially limiting how many times you could juice them). The first issue meant you likely needed to swap between two batteries, so one could charge independently; the second issue meant you likely had to replace a battery during your laptop ownership. In both cases, you needed to be able to easily remove the battery.