Ah, the good old days. When phones had headphone jacks, memory card slots, and removable batteries. We didn’t know it at the time, but the good old days ended on February 24, 2014.
On that day in Barcelona, Samsung revealed the Galaxy S5, which was objectively a good phone, but suffered from a major issue. It was made of plastic, and everyone fixated on it. Samsung took note.
A year later, the Galaxy S6 would launch with a sleek metal-and-glass unibody construction. It was a wildly successful design. Hints of it can still be seen today in the Galaxy S20 line.
The Galaxy S6 and its successors turned Samsung from design laggard to design leader. In the process though, Samsung decided — or rather, figured out — that form trumps function for most people.
Today, many phone makers have dropped the card slot from their devices and most have removed the headphone jack. Virtually all of them have long abandoned the idea of removable batteries.
Phones with removable batteries: Obsolete, but not forgotten
While the slow death of the headphone jack has spurred debate and impassionated defenses, the removable battery quietly slipped into the night. Its fate was sealed (pun intended) as soon as Samsung abandoned it, despite a brave effort from LG. Launched in 2016, the LG G5 and V20 were the last major phones to launch with removable batteries.
Today, you can occasionally still see people reminiscing about removable batteries, but the concept is so removed from the reality of the modern industry, you might as well call it a legend.
I was therefore quite surprised to see the results from a poll we recently ran, where we asked readers what they think about removable batteries.
Out of the 27,000 poll voters, a surprisingly high 27% said they want a removable battery in every phone. Meanwhile, 47% said it’s a nice-to-have, yet non-essential feature, and just 26% don’t care at all about having a removable battery.
Granted, Android Authority’s audience doesn’t necessarily reflect the broad market, but I still find striking that almost 75% of our respondents are at least somewhat interested in having a removable battery.
People say they care, so why don’t phone makers listen?
If you charted the number of phones with removable batteries that come out every year, you’d get a decent approximation of an asymptote. The line approaches zero, but never quite gets there. From time to time, you’ll see a new phone launch with the feature, perhaps to remind us that OEMs can still make removable batteries (they just won’t). Ironically, Samsung keeps the concept on life support with the occasional release in the business-focused Xcover series.
So why this discrepancy between what people say they want, and what companies think people want?
We have precious few phones for practical people.
Surely, billion-dollar corporations must know better than your humble tech blogger. Surely, they have better tools to understand customers than a Twitter poll. Does that mean people don’t care about removable batteries as much as they claim they do?
I think the more likely explanation is people do care about removable batteries, but only if all things are equal. In other words, if they can get removable batteries and water resistance, nice build quality, wireless charging, and the low weight and compact form factor of unibody designs. Perhaps that was too much to ask from manufacturers in 2014, but technology has come a long way since then.
Opinion: 2014 was the best year this decade for smartphones
How’s this for a gimmick?
In the last five years, the industry decided flagship phones should have unibody designs with glass backs and aluminum frames. This basic blueprint has been enormously successful, generating sales of hundreds of millions of phones every year.
Perhaps it worked too well: in 2020, most phones kinda look the same. Phone makers are struggling to differentiate their products, occasionally slipping into gimmick territory.
So why not chase this gimmick? Why not give replaceable batteries another shot? Unlike wraparound displays and color filter cameras, they have real utility and demonstrable consumer interest.
In 2020, we have phones for gamers, phones for photographers, phones for videographers, phones for audiophiles, phones for K-pop stans, and phones for crypto fans. Yet we have precious few phones for practical people.
Instead of forcing people to carry power banks around, why not put out a mainstream phone with a removable battery? Why not bundle that extra battery into the retail box, along with a charging stand? That’s real added value that will market itself.
Tell us: how do you feel about removable batteries? Would you buy a phone just because it had this feature? How much would you pay extra to have it?