iPod Battery Woes Have Some Users Screaming 'Rotten Apple'

Many users find their devices won't charge after warranty ends.

Apple iPod users are finding a new definition for "the day the music died."

Ever since the portable music device debuted in 2001, the ubiquitous gadget has earned praise for its ease of use and storage capacity, but now it's the target of a class-action lawsuit, a guerrilla Web site and the ire of countless iPod owners whose devices have died on them.

Though Apple claims the iPod's built-in rechargeable lithium ion battery lasts eight hours per charge, some users have found that it conks out in a fraction of that time — or stops working entirely — not long after the device's one-year warranty expires. Until recently Apple's suggested solution to the problem was "Buy another iPod."

The latest iPods range in price from $299 for the 15 gigabyte model to $499 for the 40 gigabyte version.

The company now offers a battery-replacement program, and Casey Neistat has a feeling that his Web site had a little something to do with that. Neistat's ipodsdirtysecret.com, which launched in November, features a video of the 22-year-old spray painting the phrase "iPod's unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months" all over lower Manhattan.

"My brother and I made the movie in response to Apple not offering any alternative when your iPod battery dies other than buying a new iPod," Neistat said. "Their policy ... seemed to me to be an audacious, exploitative thing."

He said that in September he realized his 5 gigabyte first-generation iPod couldn't hold a charge for more than an hour. In the film, Neistat is heard calling Apple support and being told that the company doesn't offer a battery replacement and that his best bet is to purchase a new iPod, or he can send in his iPod and pay a $255 repair fee. Neistat tried to save money by buying a third-party replacement battery for $50, but he broke his iPod while installing it. In the end, he shelled out another $400 for a new iPod.

An Apple spokesperson said that the same day the movie went online the company began offering a battery replacement program for $99 and an extended warranty for $59 — a program that the spokesperson insisted had been in the works for months. In a statement on their Web site, Neistat and his brother said they think the new program is fair.

The Apple spokesperson, who asked not to be named, said Apple has never made specific promises about the lifespan of an iPod battery because "it's hard to predict how a customer will use a product."

The batteries used in iPods are similar to those found in laptops and wireless phones and are made to last for 300 to 500 charge/discharge cycles. The Apple spokesperson said the company has received feedback from customers whose original-edition iPods have retained their battery life and others whose battery issues have been resolved through software updates, but the spokesperson declined to comment on how many complaints have been received.

"These problems are fairly typical with these kinds of devices if they are used a lot," said Josh Bernoff, principal analyst for technology consultants Forrester Research. "The nature of the iPod is that it was very carefully designed, and I'm sure the space left for the battery was constrained by everything else they had to put in there."

Bernoff said the power demands of hard-drive-based devices like the iPod are much greater than those of electronics that run on standard AA or AAA nickel or alkaline batteries. Processor speeds continue to go up, and smaller components are constantly developed, but Bernoff said battery power for portable devices will continue to be a problem until "some miraculous battery technology pops up on the horizon," which he doesn't see happening in the near future.

Even music fans without the latest technology can feel the power pinch, easily spending $50-$100 a year on AA batteries to keep their portable CD players spinning.

And until better batteries come along, iPod fanatics like Karen Nicoletti will just have to make do. Nicoletti bought a first-generation 10 gigabyte iPod in November 2002, and it died in December 2003, leaving her collection of thousands of tunes in suspended animation.

"I played around with it and tried everything to get it working again," said Nicoletti, 27, who was so attached to her device that she swaddled it in special protective cases and gave it a nickname, Poddy O'Macintosh. "If I spend $400 on something, I expect it to last more than a year. I went from having thousands of songs at my disposal to none."

Nicoletti, a Bay Area resident who used her iPod during her daily two-hour commute, hasn't decided whether to repair or replace her iPod, but she shared a vision she recently had. "The Macworld Expo was going on this week, and I had this dream of going down there with a sign that had a tombstone and the words 'November 2002 to December 2003' on it," she said.

Relief might be on the way. The San Francisco law firm of Girard Gibbs & De Bartolomeo LLP filed a class-action lawsuit against Apple on December 23. The case alleges that Apple has engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices and false advertising in its claims about the iPod, whose battery the suit claims is touted in product literature as lasting the lifetime of the player.

A judge has yet to rule on the suit's class-action status; the Apple spokesperson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.