Walt Mossberg

New Mac Laptops Use Batteries Sealed for Power

The majority of laptop computers come with removable batteries. This approach allows you to pop in a fresh spare when your battery runs out of juice between charges, and to easily replace a battery when its lifespan is over.

But there’s a dirty little secret about removable-battery laptops owned by average consumers: Hardly anybody buys extra batteries. Research firm NPD estimates that fewer than 5% of consumers buy a spare. So, a small trend has begun in the industry: More electronic products are being designed with their rechargeable batteries sealed inside. For instance, Dell’s (DELL) new high-end laptop, the Adamo, has a sealed battery, as does the excellent Flip pocket video camera.

The leading proponent of this idea is Apple (AAPL), which has often led the industry in introducing or removing components from computers. This month, Apple unveiled two revised MacBook Pro laptops with higher-capacity, sealed-in batteries. In fact, Apple’s entire line of laptops now uses sealed batteries, except for one low-end MacBook model from last year’s series.

Apple says this makes sense because sealing in the batteries lets the company make them larger, without adding heft to the laptops. Apple says the two models are the same size and weight as their predecessors, yet their battery capacity has grown by 33% and 46%, respectively.

And, Apple asserts, it has come up with some software technology that allows these sealed batteries to last up to five years in typical use. The company claims that is almost triple the industry average for removable batteries and is longer than the typical time consumers keep the computer, thus making it far less likely you’ll need to replace a dead battery. Apple says it is able to seal in bigger batteries without making the machines larger because the company can compensate by shedding the casings, internal housings and other components needed by replaceable power packs.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro

I’ve been testing these two new Apple laptops, the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the 15-inch MacBook Pro, using my own harsh battery test, which I apply to all laptops I review. The results were excellent. These two new Apple laptops scored among the highest battery lives between charges of any laptop I have ever tested with a battery that fits entirely inside the machine’s dimensions, without sticking out of the back or bottom and adding weight.

The smaller of the two machines lasted a few minutes shy of five hours in my test. And the larger one lasted five hours and 21 minutes. I estimate that, in a more normal usage scenario, both machines would come close to Apple’s claim of around seven hours between charges—essentially a full workday of unplugged use. Those numbers are likely to obviate the need for spare batteries for the majority of average consumers.

There are some important caveats. I was unable to verify Apple’s claim that these sealed batteries can be fully recharged up to 1,000 times, and thus, last around five years. Second, if and when the sealed batteries do become unable to hold an adequate charge, the entire computer must be returned to Apple for a new battery. The company says that, if you do this at an Apple store, it’s a same-day process and, at least on the 13-inch model, the price of a new battery is the same as what Apple formerly charged for a new removable battery. But it’s still more of a hassle.

Also, there are users—like people who work on very long flights—for whom replaceable batteries will always be a necessity. These users will want the option, unavailable on the new Macs, to pop in an extra-strength battery.

Finally, while Apple has cut the prices of these two new laptops, they are still pricey compared with similar-sized models from other companies. The 13-inch model starts at $1,199, and the 15-inch model starts at $1,699. Like all Macs, these computers have, in my opinion, a better operating system, better built-in software and better security than their Windows competitors. But you can get competing machines for hundreds of dollars less.

In my battery test, I turn off all power-saving features, leave the Wi-Fi network on, crank up the screen to 100% brightness, and play a continuous loop of music. That maximizes some of the biggest power hogs on a laptop. In normal use, a typical owner would likely use the power-saving features, turn the screen down a bit, have Wi-Fi off some of the time, and wouldn’t be running the hard disk constantly.

Neither of my test machines used the energy-saving, but costly, solid-state drives that are slowly replacing mechanical hard disks. And my test models both used integrated graphics chips, which suck less power than the more potent discrete graphics offered on the 15-inch model.

Still, I believe that these new MacBook Pros prove that sealed batteries can result in a very good experience for average users.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email mossberg@wsj.com.

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