Gadgets Need a ‘Check Engine’ Light

Repairing devices is a key part of reducing their long-term environmental impact, but many consumers don’t know when to do it

A man repairing an open smartphone

While consumers generally expect to be notified of regular maintenance on their car — any time the “check engine” light comes on, they know it’s time to take it to the shop — many remain unaware of a host of common repair needs for their gadgets or don’t know when to get their devices serviced.

It doesn’t have to be this way. After Apple was caught throttling iPhones with older batteries, the company added a Battery Health feature that does a decent job of letting users know when it’s time to seek a replacement. But this exception puts into stark contrast how rare such a feature is for other devices to offer the same information, an especially glaring omission considering repairing a device is a crucial step in reducing its long-term environmental impact.

Though gadgets do not have an equivalent of a “check engine” light, most of them require some repairs to function correctly. When manufacturers ship new products, they’re required to put together environmental reports that account for, among other things, power consumption by their devices throughout their use. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all base power consumption estimates on at least three years of usage for their portable devices and even longer for devices like laptops and tablets. However, it’s difficult to reach that target — much less the many more years that a device could conceivably last — without regular maintenance.

A typical phone battery, for instance, is estimated to last around 500 charge cycles before it loses a substantial amount of its capacity and the phone doesn’t work as well. A “cycle” is defined as charging from 0% to 100%, so if the phone makes it to a charger before it powers off, that only counts as a partial cycle. However, given that the estimated lifespan of phones is more than 1,000 days, it’s impractical to assume that the device is meant to reach its full life without any repair whatsoever.

In order to reach the estimated three years of use, the unspoken implication must be that repairs occur occasionally. “Apple is assuming that the battery is being replaced at least once, if not twice over the course of its lifespan,” Kyle Wiens, CEO of repair site iFixit, explained to OneZero. “They must be assuming there’s maintenance happening to this thing.”

However, this assumption doesn’t always translate to a user experience that makes seeking out repairs easy. “You need to know that maintenance is required,” Wiens said. Google and Microsoft’s platforms don’t readily supply battery health information the way Apple products do, and even on Apple platforms, there’s more information that could be surfaced but isn’t. Third-party tools like coconutBattery can show how many charge cycles a device has used so a user knows how close they are to 500 — not unlike taking a car in for service when it reaches 75,000 miles — but the only way to find this information without an app is buried in an arcane XML report on the device.

Wiens suggests that regular repair information should even be readily available before purchasing a product. “It should be like a Nutrition Facts on the side of the box. Imagine, ‘AirPods are designed to work for 500 charge cycles, which is an average of 18 months,” Wiens said, suggesting what such a label could look like.

Another common repair that may extend a smartphone’s life is waterproofing. “If you’ve had a phone for a year and it was waterproof when you got it, it’s probably not waterproof anymore,” Wiens said. Yet if anything, consumers have claimed in lawsuits against Samsung and Sony that they got the impression from advertising that water resistance makes phones more indestructible than they really are. Not only are consumers usually not informed that regular maintenance is required to maintain a level of water resistance, it’s difficult for them to even know what kind of watery environments they can survive in the first place.

Laptops, like phones, also need regular maintenance. “With a laptop, you’ve got the fans that need cleaning, you’ve got a hard drive or something that can fail,” says Wiens. “And then the battery.” Currently, most diagnostic tools that can warn of hard drive failures are aimed at IT professionals who know how to use them, but average users often only find out their hard drives might fail after they’ve already happened.

Many computers can also be upgraded to last longer, which would keep them out of the landfills and cut down on overall environmental impact, but, once again, users might not realize what they can do to improve their existing hardware. “You can imagine a computer that would say, ‘Hey, we noticed that I’m running kind of slow, and I’ve got an extra RAM slot,” Wiens says. “I’ve never seen anyone do that. Like why not? Microsoft could do that easily.”

These kinds of repairs and upgrades are crucial to minimizing the long-term environmental impact of gadgets. Mining the rare minerals that it takes to produce a new phone makes up an overwhelming majority of the CO2 emissions that phone is responsible for over its life. No matter how efficient its power usage or how much recycled material it uses, nothing can make a phone easier on the environment — and the user’s wallet — than not buying a new one every couple years.

In order for that to happen, though, consumers need to know what kind of repairs can be made, how often they should happen, and where they can go to get them done. Even if users don’t perform the repairs themselves — which they should also be able to do — knowing that repairs are needed is crucial to reducing a device’s environmental impact.

If a car can let the driver know when it’s time to replace the oil, service the engine, or even replace the battery, it only makes sense that a phone or laptop could do something similar.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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