New MacBook Pro Battery: More, Longer, but Locked In

Well, the Macworld keynote has come and gone, and we received a lot of new software from Apple, but not too much on the hardware side. In fact, the long-awaited missing unibody MacBook Pro is the only machine to come out of the event. But it might not be the laptop itself which becomes the biggest headline. In fact, the notebook’s battery is much more deserving of attention.

As rumored, the 17-inch MacBook Pro will have a built-in, non-removable battery (or not removable without major surgery, at least) when it ships later this month. The reason for the battery being locked in, rather than switchable? According to Phil Schiller and Apple’s engineering department, the new design increases space efficiency immensely, allowing the 60% boost in battery life Apple is claiming for the new laptop. That’s 8 hours (or 7 running the dedicated graphics card), compared to only 5 claimed for the last gen Pro.

There’s also the shape of the batteries. Using lithium-polymer instead of a straighforward lithium-ion, as do most current notebooks, Apple engineers were able to change the shape of the battery cells. Lithium-ion batteries necessitate a cylindrical shape for their cells, but the new lithium polymer allows for thinner, more sensible shapes that better fit the space allotted in the new ultraslim aluminum MacBook Pro case.

Finally, the chemical makeup of the batteries themselves is new, and along with a new chip that improves communication between battery cells and the computer, this allows for a greatly expanded battery life. Apple is claiming a lifespan of up to 1,000 charging cycles (complete charge and discharge of the notebook battery), compared to between 200 to 300 for existing Apple batteries. If true, the lifespan of the new battery would far exceed that of existing notebooks, both Apple and non-Apple. According to Apple’s own calculations, this puts the outside range of the new batteries at 5 years, which, they also point out, means less waste, and a more environmentally friendly product.

There is an obvious downside to all of this, namely that you can’t do a quick switch-out of the battery on your own. Instead, Apple will offer a takeback and replacement program in case you should require a new battery. That also means you can’t stock more than one of the device’s batteries for quick replacement on the fly when you’re away from a power source for an extended period of time. Arguably, the much longer battery life decreases the need for this sort of thing, but we all know that manufacturer estimates of battery life are usually incredibly optimisitic, so there’s still the possibility that this thing won’t provide true all-day computing yet.

I’m most interested to see how long it takes the new tech to make it’s way down the line into the more reasonably priced Apple laptops, and how people react to the new, locked-in form factor. Personally, I prefer to depend on Apple’s help as little as possible once the computer’s on my hands, so I’m not thrilled about the design. What about you?