By Stephen Schenck | December 5, 2012 7:07 AM
Last week, just after Microsoft revealed the pricing for the Windows 8 Pro Surface, the company confirmed that the tablet would only see four to five hours of battery life on a charge. I quickly went through my own little version of the five stages of grief: “Eww… then again, I guess that makes sense… people are going to be crazy upset about this… or maybe not, since it’s essentially a laptop and all.”
Now that I’ve had the time to let the news sink-in a little, and see the sort of commentary being made online, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this kind of battery life, at least for the type of device that the Surface Pro is trying to be, just isn’t a deal-breaker. While there will surely be times when users find themselves wishing they had a little more charge remaining, they’re just going to fall into old laptop habits, and learn to charge up the tablet when enjoying their morning coffee or at the office before heading out for lunch.
That got me thinking: are other tablets just overdoing things when it comes to their battery capacities? Do we really the extended use cycles our tablets deliver? And, if we don’t, would there be any benefit to cutting back on things?
The gold standard for smartphones is obviously their ability to get through the day on a single charge. With so many handsets struggling to even manage that, any extra capacity on top of that is just gravy.
With tablets, though, we have a very different set of expectations. All of a sudden, we’re not so much concerned with on-and-off casual use throughout the day, and instead focus on just how much prolonged use they can offer. That makes perfect sense, though, as our usage patterns for phones are just so different. You’re going to be a whole lot more likely to sit down and watch a full movie on a tablet than on a phone’s much smaller screen, for instance. I’ve also got to consider that many tablet users don’t operate their devices with an always-on wireless data connection, offering great power savings over phones.
What if our tablet battery expectations more closely mirrored ours for smartphones? The ability to go days between charges is great (and helped me keep from going stir-crazy during a recent extended power-outage), but we wouldn’t be throwing our tablets away if we had to charge them everyday like phones.
I suppose a large component of my little thought experiment concerns just what a day’s tablet usage consists of. Few of us would outright replace our smartphones with tablets, and unless you’re going to watch a ton of TV or movies, your usage would probably be no more than three or four hours, spread throughout the day. If I’m way off-base here compared to your own experiences, I apologize, but for as many users who might clock-in with even higher usage, I’d wager there are far more who barely use their tablet for two solid hours a day.
Just what kind of battery lives are current tablets really capable of? Again, that figure’s going to vary wildly based on individual usage patterns, but one new set of data that’s just come out has a lot of higher-end ten-inch tablets getting eight hours and up. The tale’s not much different for seven-inchers, as they’re built with smaller batteries to match the rest of their construction.
So long as tablet owners could live with daily charging, I really don’t think that a tablet with only four or five hours of battery life would create many problems. Already, some tablets barely manage that (though not as a design feature, I’d bet).
But here’s where I think things start to fall apart. Sure, manufacturers could cut down on battery capacity by about half, but what’s the benefit? With a smartphone, size can be a big deal, but less so for many tablets. After all, a ten-inch tablet is going to be big no matter how thin it is, and just having all that extra surface area alone gives manufacturers plenty of room to fit-in a big (yet quite thin) battery.
Weight’s a different story, and a tablet with a half-sized battery would be noticeably lighter. By now, though, we’re used to our tablets having a certain deal of mass to them, and substantially lighter tablets may be a bit off-putting.
Could we make better use of the space, replacing a larger battery with a smaller one and some extra circuitry to offer the tablet additional functionality? That’s an interesting avenue to head down, but what could we really add? An optical disc player might be a nice treat, but those can only get so thin, and that’s really only going to eat through the newly-shrunken battery even faster. An ATSC tuner for free-to-air HDTV (in the States, at least; other nations use different standards) could be cool, but ATSC is not too friendly with small, mobile antennas, limiting its usefulness.
I’m not prepared to completely give up on this idea; I can’t quite shake the feeling that giving tablets huge batteries feels like a lazy way to fill extra space, but I’m hard-pressed to find a better use for it. Still, I’ve got no illusions that most of you aren’t soundly in love with your tablets having the huge batteries that they do, and see no reason to change things any.