The MacBook Pro 17″ bulging battery swindle

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
November 29th, 2010 • 7:40 pm

My personal experience with Mac laptops is as follows.

My first laptop was a Titanium PowerBook G4, bought in 2001. We went through three different ones before we decided that there was no point in trying to get Apple to acknowledge that the machine’s AirPort signal reception was atrocious. We just learned to live with it, by keeping the laptop fairly close to the wireless router, which meant using it in less than one-third of the total area of our house.

Then in 2006 we bought a black MacBook to replace the old TiBook. The AirPort reception was fabulous, but the mooing noise was a disaster. We ended up returning the machine for a refund and living with the TiBook for one more year.

Then in 2007, we bought a MacBook Pro 17″. Hardware-wise, it has been a fairly good machine… until now.

All of a sudden, yesterday, my wife started complaining that the trackpad wasn’t working properly anymore. I checked and indeed it seemed to behave as if the button was constantly pressed. I had seen that glitch a couple of times before, so I just told her to reboot the machine.

Half an hour later, she started complaining about the same problem again. I examined the trackpad more closely and observed that it seemed to be physically “stuck” and wasn’t responding to clicks properly anymore. I thought that maybe it had died on us from wear and tear, even though my wife mostly uses an external mouse when she’s at her desk—which is most of the time.

I went to System Preferences to check the option to ignore the trackpad altogether when a mouse is present. That fixed the problem. I told my wife I would do a bit of research on-line about the problem.

It didn’t take me long to find this thread on an Apple Discussions forum, which indicated that the trackpad problem I was experiencing could be linked to a problem with the battery.

And sure enough, when I went to check the MacBook Pro, I noticed that the battery had started to bulge slightly. It was still working and reporting a proper charge, but it was definitely sticking out a bit. And when I removed it, the trackpad went back to its normal behaviour and the button clicked properly again.

Among my friends and clients who own Mac computers, exactly one (a 85-year-old French national exiled like me in southwest Nova Scotia) also owns a MacBook Pro 17″. It’s a model that’s identical to mine (except that he bought his in France) and dates back to around the same time. Last year, he told me that his battery was not working anymore and was bulging. Since the computer was not under warranty anymore, he just asked to buy a new one, which I did. When I replaced the battery for him, I did see what he had meant: The old battery was completely warped and sticking out of its slot so much that my client had had to remove it altogether.

And now, of course, I remember that, some time last year, before this bulging became obvious, he too had started experiencing trackpad problems. Since he was using an external mouse all the time anyway, I had just checked the option to ignore the trackpad altogether when a mouse is present and not researched the problem any further. Now I can obviously make the connection.

And guess what? Two weeks ago, that same client called me again to tell me that his new battery (from 2009) was bulging again! He asked me again to order another one for him. (He does not do any on-line shopping and knows very little about computers in general.) I didn’t mention this to him, but I thought that I should give Apple a call and ask them if they really considered it normal that a battery bought 16 months ago was already so obviously and intrusively defective that it needed to be replaced again.

And then it happened to the battery in my own MacBook Pro 17″ too.

Of course, I have no way of conducting a scientifically sound survey of MacBook Pro 17″ owners to determine how widespread the problem is. Only Apple can do that. But it seems to me that three batteries out of three is not a good statistic, however small and irrelevant in the big scheme of things it might appear to be.

If our own situation here in southwest Nova Scotia is any indication, this is a pretty serious problem. So either we are just a statistical glitch, or there is a cover-up of some kind going on.

I decided to call Apple today to see how they would respond to this situation. (I had already ordered the second replacement battery for my client, and I was going to have to decide whether to order one for me too.)

The first-line tech representative was obviously prepared for this very scenario and immediately started talking about the fact that this is “normal,” that batteries have a limited life expectancy and after a while they “can” start bulging, which simply indicates that they need to be replaced.

I pointed out to him that, while over three-years-old, my battery, even with the bulging, still worked to a certain extent and could still supply power to the laptop for up to an hour. It didn’t seem to me that the battery was “dead” and really needed to be replaced, except that it was making the trackpad unusable.

I also mentioned what had happened to my client, and asked the representative what I was supposed to think when it came to buying a new battery that risked exhibiting the same behaviour again slightly more than a year down the road.

He obviously didn’t really have an answer for that, except that of course, after one year, the battery is out of warranty and they cannot guarantee that it will continue to operate properly. He even went as far as to assert that one year was a “normal” life expectancy for a laptop battery. He started to sense my frustration and suggested that I take the battery to a local Apple Store. After I pointed out that the closest reseller was 200 km away, he offered to transfer me to a senior manager/representative. I said OK.

The senior manager came on the line 5 minutes later. Unfortunately, his response was not particularly different. While he didn’t go as far as to claim that one year was the normal life expectancy for a laptop battery, he didn’t do much more than just reiterate that the battery only had a one-year warranty. Obviously my own battery had long been out of warranty, since it came with the laptop three-and-a-half years ago. But he did say that the three-year extended Apple Care warranty, if I had purchased it, “probably” wouldn’t have covered the battery anyway, since it was not “defective” but just old.

So apparently, according to Apple, not only are batteries perishable and pretty useless after a few years (although mine really isn’t that bad after 3.5 years), but they can also start bulging out of their casing and this is perfectly “normal.” And depending on who you talk to, some representatives will even say that the life expectancy of a battery is little more than a year.

The senior manager tried to get technical on me and said that we could check the total number of charges over the years, indicating that a normal battery could sustain approximately 300 charges. We checked my battery under “Power” in System Profiler and its total number of cycles was… 66. And its current condition was described as “good.” (My wife mostly uses the laptop at home and plugged in. I do remind her to leave it off the power adapter until the battery is empty about once a month, and she has done so pretty reliably since the beginning. So you could say that we have been treating this battery with care and it’s not surprising that System Profiler finds that it is in good condition.)

Unfortunately, that didn’t lead him to change his mind about anything. He was still, at least implicitly, asserting that there was nothing abnormal about my situation and that it was up to me to decide what to do. I just gave up on him, thanked him politely and hung up.

Of course, like I said, only Apple knows the true extent of the problem. But if the user reviews on the Apple Store are any indication, there are many other people dissatisfied with this situation. (At the Canadian Apple Store, the battery has a star rating of 1.5 out of 5, based on 361 reviews.)

I suspect that part of the problem here is that most owners of 17″ MacBook Pro laptops are probably people who can afford to purchase a replacement battery every year if they really have to. But is this normal? Is it really normal that, after little over a year in some cases, your laptop battery starts to bulge and render your trackpad inoperable? Is it really normal to expect laptop users to purchase a new $159 (+ tax) battery not knowing if it will actually last more than the single year for which it is covered by a warranty?

Deep down, I cannot help but feel that there is a bit of a swindle going on here, something that Apple is aware of and not doing anything about because they know that the majority of customers involved can afford the extra cost and are only a small minority of Mac users globally anyway.

I cannot help but wonder what the situation is with more recent laptops, especially now that they all have a “unibody” enclosure and the battery is not even removable anymore. What if the battery starts to bulge inside that enclosure?

And what about leaks and toxicity? Is there anything that risks coming out of this warped battery enclosure? Is there any risk of fire? I suspect not, or the outcry would just be too big, even from a small minority of users.

Still, the whole situation leaves me with a rather bitter taste in my mouth. Over the years, I have had my share of hardware problems with Mac products, and not just with laptops. (Remember the G4 MDD noise problem? The dead G5?) The only machine that hasn’t given me any problems so far is the Mac Pro… (except that the Bluetooth reception on my 2009 model seems to be so bad that I effectively cannot use either the wireless mouse or the wireless trackpad with it).

The 17″ MacBook Pro had been a pretty trouble-free machine… until now. It’s possible that, with our usage patterns and the fact that we’ve only had 66 charging cycles over 3.5 years, a replacement battery will last us another three years, which should be alright since a 6-year-old machine will have to be replaced anyway. But I have my doubts, and I am spending nearly $200 on this replacement battery very reluctantly.

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