Decoding Apple’s iPad Battery Replacement Program

When the iPad became available for “pre-order” last week, Apple updated and expanded its Web pages that cover the forthcoming product. Included in the new information was a page describing Apple’s iPad Battery Replacement Program. It contained what was probably the biggest surprise revealed that day:

“If your iPad requires service due to the battery’s diminished ability to hold an electrical charge, Apple will replace your iPad for a service fee. The service costs $99, plus $6.95 shipping.”

In other words, when your iPad needs a new battery, Apple will replace the entire iPad for about $100 rather than install a new battery in the original device!

While the bare essentials of the program are clearly stated, a number of questions remain unanswered. I contacted Apple for clarifications but have so far received no reply. As is often the case in such situations, I am left to sift through Apple’s tea-leaves in an attempt to fill in the gaps.

Q. Is Apple really replacing the iPad here?

A. Yes. There seems no other possible interpretation. The Apple Web page goes on to state: “You will receive a replacement iPad that will not contain any of your personal data.”

This policy is unexpected in at least two respects.

First, given the relative costs of the battery vs. the iPad, it’s just plain unusual. For a $100 fee, Apple’s fix for a failing battery is to replace the entire iPad, a device that could cost as much as $829. Imagine if Sony sold a LCD TV that used a rechargeable battery and — when the battery stopped holding a charge — Sony gave you a replacement TV instead of a new battery. That’s the equivalent of what Apple is doing here.

Second, as far as I can determine, this is the first time that Apple has offered this type of replacement for a failing battery. For example, the Web page for the iPhone Battery Replacement Program states: “Apple will service your iPhone for a service fee.” It uses the word “service” rather than “replace” — indicating that you will be getting your original iPhone back. Not surprisingly, the same “servicing” is true for replacing the “consumable” batteries in the latest MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Q. Are you really getting a new iPad?

A. Maybe. Maybe not. Notice that Apple carefully chose the phrase “replacement iPad” rather than “new iPad.” A replacement iPad could be a new iPad, but it could also be a refurbished model.

Apple already does something similar with the iPhone for certain repairs. For example, when the touchscreen on my original iPhone stopped working, I took it into an Apple Store. Their solution was to exchange my iPhone for a “new” one. I did not receive a new retail-boxed iPhone (complete with Dock connector cable and headphones). Rather, I received an iPhone in a white box that contained nothing but the iPhone itself. It appeared to be a new iPhone, but it could have been refurbished. The Apple employee could not, or would not, say for sure. Not surprisingly, even though the iPhone 3G was available at the time, my replacement was the matching original model.

Getting a new or refurbished iPad for a failing battery, as opposed to just a battery replacement, can be a mixed bag. On the plus side, you may wind up with a free “fix” for minor problems and defects that Apple would otherwise not repair for free (such as scratches on your screen). On the other hand, the replacement iPad may come with minor glitches not present in your original iPad.

Q. Unlike the comparable page for the iPhone, the Web page for the iPad Battery Replacement Program does not include the phrase “out-of-warranty” in describing the program. Does this mean that users will have to pay $100 to replace a battery even if the iPad is still under warranty?

A. At this point, only Apple knows the answer to this for sure. However, it is my general belief that such differences in wording from Apple are never accidental.

My guess is that Apple will use some discretion here. The official policy will be that you will need to pay the fee whether or not your iPad is still under warranty (Apple probably has confidence that batteries will last at least a year, so that this should not be an issue in most cases). Still, if the battery fails unusually early, such as within the first month or so that you own it, Apple will assume a defect in the battery and replace it for free.

Assuming I’m correct, this new policy negates one of the advantages of purchasing the AppleCare extended warranty for the iPad: you won’t be able to get a free battery replacement during the second AppleCare year.

By the way, similar to what is true for the iPhone, an iPad is not eligible for the Battery Replacement Program if the iPad has been damaged or if there has been “component failure.” In such cases, the cost of replacing the battery, if needed, will be rolled into whatever the overall (likely larger) cost of the repair will be.

Q.  If you take an iPad to a retail Apple Store for a battery replacement, will you get a new iPad on the spot, or will you need to wait for a new iPad to be shipped?

A. I suspect, if the Store has any replacement iPads currently in stock, you will get one right away. This is a potential advantage of the policy for the user. You won’t necessarily need to be without your iPad for a week or so.

Q. Why did Apple chose to replace the entire iPad instead of just the battery?

A. Again, I can only guess. I imagine it is because the internal design of the iPad makes it so awkward to replace the battery that Apple decided it was more cost effective to replace the entire iPad. Apple could then take responsibility for any problems that might result from removing the old battery, without affecting customer service. It is a safe bet that your old iPad does not go in the trash. It will likely be recycled, possibly winding up as a refurbished iPad. Still, as I said, it’s a bit surprising.

In any case, this is all part of Apple’s current strategy of eliminating user-replaceable batteries from all of its devices. Apple does not currently sell any laptops, iPods, iPhones, or iPads with replaceable batteries. By giving up on this user convenience, Apple claims to offer batteries that hold a charge longer and last longer before needing replacement. Personally, I’d prefer easily replaceable batteries. But Apple doesn’t ask my opinion on these matters.