Battery Life Throwdown: Brute-Force vs. The Future
We mobile mavens have been jabbering about battery life for years. Almost a decade ago, when dumbphones were the only phones around and HowardForums was still the best place to talk mobile tech, people were already pointing out that battery technology wasn’t keeping pace with the rest of the industry’s innovations. And it’s true: one of the biggest speed brakes on innovation in the mobile space has been battery life. Because all the amazing features in the world don’t matter if you’re constantly tethered to a power outlet.
In the past decade, various novel methods of augmenting the power supply of mobile devices have been proposed. The focus has alternated between finding ways of building batteries with higher power density to entirely new energy-generation technologies. This isn’t new buzz, either: Pocketnow has a piece on mobile fuel cells from literally eleven years ago. Some manufacturers have tried slapping solar panels on their phones in the quest for more milliamp-hours. Other companies are even tossing around the idea of powering phones with the user’s voice.
The problem with all of these approaches, of course, is that they’re either in their infancy or they’re not very efficient. Voice-powered phones are still a lab experiment, and solar cells are slow: in its 2011 review of perhaps the highest-profile phone to include a solar panel, the Sagem Puma Phone, CNET managed just under 10% of battery replenishment per hour on a sunny day by the pool. Not bad, but certainly not useful on a rainy day or if you’re stuck indoors.
“No more chatting with Lancelot today, I’m afraid. Storms a’brewingggg.”
In the absence of elegant, innovative new solutions, mobile device manufacturers have taken the time-honored alternate route of every impatient man-child in existence: “if you can’t do it better, just do it harder.” Batteries today offer more power than ever before. This is due in some part to advances in the technology, but also because battery size is increasing. Which falls right in line with another time-honored maxim of car-lovers and LCD enthusiasts: bigger is better.
At the same time, the components that do the work of actually running mobile devices have miniaturized at a steady pace. A radio board from the Droid X, for example, is laughably small compared with those of the Motorola iDEN sets I used to disassemble in my Nextel days. Granted, anything is smaller than iDEN hardware, but have a look at the internals of an iPhone 4 and see what the biggest component is.
That big rectangular thing in the middle? It’s not the processor, I’ll tell you that.
Even that’s nothing compared with the hilarity that a disassembled new-iPad presents:
Okay, so we’ve got bezel, display, boards, and UNLIMITED POWERRRRR!
iOS isn’t the only one chowing down on the volts, of course. Smartphones as a whole -including tablets running smartphone OSes- have never been known for their dainty appetites. Platform evangelists from every corner have for years been making sweeping generalizations about their OS being most power-efficient; that’s what passionate mobile fans do. But with the exception of MeeGo, I’ve used multiple devices from every available smartphone platform, and they all could stand to do better.
Android is the platform that seems to take the most heat for shoddy battery life. Feel free to argue about the validity of those complaints in the comments, but that’s not why I bring it up. Let’s have a look at some popular Android devices over the past four years, and the battery life they’ve brought to the table.
A few things: Obviously, this chart is in no way comprehensive. Yes, this is an Ameri-centric selection of devices; I live in America and wanted to compare devices I’d used. Android was chosen partially for that reason, and also because of its ubiquity across manufacturers. Extended batteries are available for most of the devices used in the survey, but these are out-of-box figures. The chart is here to show mAh ratings climbing over the years. And climb they do.
Speaking of: see that purple line labeled “Motorola Droid Variants?” See that massive upswing? You know the phone that provided that data point. It needs a quick word.
In case you missed it, Motorola resurrected the RAZR branding late last year with the XT912 / “DROID RAZR,” an ultra-thin Android phone with aggressive styling measuring only 7.1mm thick. Not even three months later (75 days, to be exact), in a shameless middle-finger to anyone who’d bought the original, Motorola released an iteration of the same phone with a massive battery, dubbed the DROID RAZR MAXX. If you survived the assault of capital letters on the sales floor well enough to be able to survey the specs, you found a massive 3300-mAh power source inside the still-thin 9.5mm casing. The thing boasts 21 hours of rated talk time and 15 days of standby. Did I mention this is an LTE device?
Might as well be a car battery.
Such performance is mostly thanks to its massive power source, that brute-force solution to the problem of devices with ever-increasing capabilities. Intelligent components are slimming down to get out of the way of ever-more beastly batteries. As we’ve seen, cracking open a phone or tablet reveals the absurd disparity in sizes between the guts and the power source, casting into sharp relief the massive gap in development between the two technologies.
And it’s not just miniaturization of components, either: the technology behind them is changing to draw less power, as well. One of the big pushes behind the early development of OLED displays was the fact that they didn’t need energy-intensive backlights to illuminate them. Processors have been designed to run at variable speeds depending on whether a device is awake or in standby mode, conserving battery power in the dormant state. Motorola and third-parties have built entire suites of apps designed to enable or disable features based on where your device is located. All this is in the name of battery power conservation.
And you know what? Some companies are taking those lemons and making some great lemonade. The RAZR MAXX isn’t just a spec stunt: it really does have incredible endurance. My Samsung Focus (WP7) and even my tiny 910-mAh HP Veer (webOS) each typically lasted me more than a day, thanks to OS optimization. Yeah, there are underperformers out there -my current Galaxy Nexus is one of them- but by and large, most of them offer run times that are at least manageable.
International law states that this image must appear at least once in every battery-power editorial.
So does it really matter that cracking these devices open reveals an absurd imbalance in the way space is allocated within the device? Is the inelegant “brute force” approach necessarily bad? Not to me, no. Blow it up to a ridiculous scope: let’s say five years from now our smart devices feature hex-core processors the size of a pinky nail, while 95% of their internal volume is occupied by a 10,000-mAh battery. Do I care? As long as it works, no.
The disadvantages are real, though: component miniaturization isn’t easy, and there are downsides in terms of expense, as well as manufacturing and development time. Non-user-replaceable batteries, and the accompanying impact on convenience, are sometimes a symptom of this state of affairs.
Most importantly, though: in a fast-moving industry full of exciting technology, the worst possible kind of thinking starts with the question, “how do I keep doing what I’m doing now?” If you ask me, it’s better to look down the road to capabilities that haven’t even been envisioned yet, and ask how we’ll possibly be supporting those. Just as in such diverse areas as ship propulsion, tall building construction, and power generation, at some point the “brute force” approach stops scaling. When that happens in the mobile tech world, we’ll need a new, elegant solution which is why it’s good that smart people are working on it now.
In the meantime, the status quo is likely to reign supreme. So we’ll probably see more manufacturers shoehorning ever-bigger batteries into our mobile devices, competing with product innovators to provide more mAh for more features to gobble up. That’s the state of the immediate future: the innovation “arms race” rolling onward, with mAh ratings reigning supreme. We’re going to get some great battery life out of it while we wait for our fuel cell/solar/voice-powered salvation … but keep your AC adapter handy. Just in case.