Balancing The Bulk: The Battery Life / Size Tradeoff

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Until science comes up with a way to power smartphones by kinetic jostling, ambient solar energy, or maybe even by happy thoughts, we’re going to keep returning to the issue of battery life. After all, it’s a hugely important factor in determining just how much use we get out of our handsets; an advanced augmented reality app with 3D overlays and face recognition sounds awesome, but if it kills a phone’s battery after just a moderate run-time, we’re not going to be able to take full advantage of its transformative potential.

A few months back, we looked at the direction smartphones have been heading, both in terms of power consumption and battery capacity. We mused back then about the day we’d see miniaturization of components get to the point where the bulk of our phones’ mass would consist of battery. Well, we can’t speed up technological advancements any, but that doesn’t mean we can’t play around with the battery:other-phone-components ratio today.

We’ve already seen some solid interest in phones that sacrifice size and weight for the promise of increased battery capacity. Obviously, the RAZR Maxx is the poster child for this movement, but even phones that arrive without a huge battery as their selling point see the release of after-market extended batteries and replacement cases to accommodate their bulk.

How far out could we realistically extend that sort of progression? Sure, if we built a smartphone into the shell of an old Motorola DynaTAC “brick phone”, there’d be room for the largest phone battery you’ve ever heard of, but that’s both too big to expect people to carry around, as well as a poor fit for the sort of form factor we’re used to from smartphones.

Is That A Giant Smartphone In Your Pocket, Or…?

I think your phone has too many buttons.

Looking around my office for gadgets that might epitomize both “being the largest size you’d want for a smartphone” and “consisting of a general shape that would accommodate smartphone hardware” I noticed just how many devices fell short of hitting both marks. One, though, seemed to meet all the requirements I was looking for: large enough to fit a massive battery, general smartphone shape, and most importantly, it felt natural to hold up to my ear. What if we had a smartphone the size of a TI graphing calculator?

My trusty TI-85 measures 6.8 inches tall, 3.15 inches wide, and is a healthy three-quarters of an inch thick (about 1.9 cm). I’m sure some of you are scoffing at that thickness right now, but for me at least, it just feels right; I might make too big a deal over “hand feel”, but that’s critical to me. The Galaxy Note, for instance, has a great screen size when used as a mini-tablet, but the handset failed when I tried to use it as a phone; it’s just too thin and wide.

I also mention the Note because its 5.3-inch screen, though a tight squeeze, would just fit into the TI-85’s dimensions. So we’ve got a calculator-sized smartphone with a nice, big screen, but just what kind of battery could we fit in there?

More Space = More Battery = More Power

Look at it this way: the Galaxy Note has a volume of under 7.17 cubic inches (squaring-off corners, so it’s actually quite a bit less), while the TI-85 is just over 16 cubic inches. That’s some substantial extra space in which to fit a larger battery. Think: days between charges. Sure, it won’t fit so easily in jeans pockets, but neither did the Note, for that matter.

So who’s going to build my dream phone? Well, there’s the rub; even with phones like the Maxx taking a stand against the push for thinness-above-all else, smartphones are still very much driven by style and aesthetics, rather than pure functionality. Anything that looks “clunky”, even if that means it’s sturdy and packing some serious battery power, is going to be laughed off the shelves. It’s what happens when smartphones become less utilitarian and more “consumer electronics”.

That’s a shame, because the technology for high-performance, long-life smartphones is here now, if only we lose a few preconceptions about what we value in smartphone design.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!