Let’s be honest. Battery life, in general, sucks.
“Oh, but Display X is 30 percent more efficient! And Processor X consumes 25 percent less power! And it has a 2,500mAh battery!”
I got my smartphone roots from the BlackBerry camp, back when BlackBerry – then-Research In Motion – was running the show. Among at least a dozen other models, I carried a BlackBerry Curve 8330 for nearly three years. Even today, it’s one of my favorite phones I’ve ever owned – not because the display was great, the fixed camera took 3.2-megapixel shots or because it had Wi-Fi. (Yes, Wi-Fi was a feature of BlackBerry back in the day. Not all models had it.) But because it lasted days on end on a single charge.
I could plug my phone up on Sunday night, use it all day Monday (hours upon hours BBMing, on Facebook, Google Talk, Twitter, etc.), all day Tuesday and usually most of the day on Wednesday. If I didn’t use it heavily, it could last until Thursday.
Most of the time, I carried one spare battery. I could pop it in halfway through the week and last until the weekend.
Now, if I’m lucky, I can last one whole day. Even with the Galaxy Note II and its monster 3,100mAh battery, one full day of use without needing a supplementary charge in the evening is a rarity.
Of all the technologies in cell phones, the battery is the one technology that has not drastically changed or improved since the introduction of lithium-ion and lithium-polymer cells. Cameras have matured from 1-megapixel technicalities (“Sure, it can take a picture!”) to rather impressive image sensors that rival even dedicated point and shoot cameras; displays feature mind-blowing pixel densities beyond 440 pixels per inch, impressive color reproduction, saturation and viewing angles; processors and GPUs have improved beyond belief in as short as two years; 4G LTE is just as fast as my home Internet connection (and blows my uplink out of the water); and Samsung will soon introduce 128GB eMMC NAND chips for inbuilt storage. Even Bluetooth has greatly evolved in the last five years.
But battery technology is still the same. The only difference is manufacturers are cramming more milliamp-hours in phones. In most cases, this just offsets the additional power consumption from all the higher-tech components (ahem … LTE, quad-core CPUs, 5-inch displays).
So we’re constantly on the lookout for innovative battery technologies that may change the direction of smartphones in the future. After all, a phone that stays tethered to an outlet several times a day is hardly mobile, right?
To be fair, to say there haven’t been any breakthroughs in battery technology is false. There have.
Research teams at universities around the globe have innovated some impressive new battery technologies. The problem is, none of them have been manufactured on a large scale, none of them have been cleared for consumer products, none of them are quite ready for prime time. At best, they are proof of concepts, prototypes that only really work well in a lab.
One of the most recent breakthroughs is one that some feel will be the future of battery technology for all consumer electronics … and even electric vehicles (EV).
Enter graphite solutions and graphene.
Current-generation batteries are charged from the outside to the center, a slow-moving process that can take hours, depending on the milliamp-hours and the fed amperage. “Conventional batteries use only powdered nanoparticle materials to form a dense, multi-layered structure that can store and give off energy,” says Yonhap News Agency. A South Korean group of scientists discovered that if you coat those nanoparticles in a graphite solution and then carbonize it, it creates a “dense network of conductors through the electrodes of the battery”.
The result? All energy-holding particles charge simultaneously, meaning a smartphone could be fully charged in mere seconds. That’s right … seconds. And an EV could fully charge in just a few minutes.
But the South Korean scientists weren’t the only ones to discover this. UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has a similar solution took it to an entirely different level. The team created a one-atom thick micro-supercapacitor using a sheet of graphene and a LightScribe DVD burner.
This means, not only does it provide a method of rapidly charging consumer electronics, it can be easily manufactured, is extremely small and lightweight, and is relatively cheap.
If such a breakthrough were to make it to consumer devices, it would change everything. Slow, solar chargers could be used how portable chargers are today – a common charging method, not solely as a last resort or for camping. Wireless charging could finally hit the mainstream – you could walk up to a public wireless power source, touch your dead phone to it for a few seconds and walk away, fully charged.
Another company plans to take a different approach. CTO of Eta Devices, Joel Dawson, says, “Instead of heat being put to good use, a lot is wasted as heat.” There are two ways to improve mobile battery life: improve battery technology, which hasn’t worked so great so far, or boost the efficiency of how current smartphones consume power.
Steve Kovach of Business Insider explains that by assessing how much power your wireless radio is using, Eta Devices’ technology will adjust the power pulled from the battery, instead of the battery simply powering the radios full-force 24/7. The resulting power boost could have your phone lasting up to twice as long on a single charge.
Will 2013 be the year for better battery? Doubtful. Implementing newly discovered technologies takes time. While the team behind UCLA’s discovery is hoping to work with gadget manufacturers in the near future, it could be a year, two years or even more for the technology to reach consumer hands. The same could be said of the South Korean’s graphite solution.
The important part, however, is that battery innovations are on the rise, and we’re several steps closer to much better batteries in smartphones. Imagine a phone that lasts roughly twice as long as the standard smartphone today and fully charges in just a few seconds.
If that ever happens, we’ll have to find something else to complain about.