Smartphone battery life has become the burden and in some cases the bane of OEMs. An otherwise great smartphone is no better than a brick (re: HTC Incredible) if it can’t make it through a day of use before it has to hit the wall for more juice. But getting the right mix of features, form factor and battery life is an ongoing design challenge, as the handheld computers in consumers’ pockets scramble to power larger screens, connect to next-generation networks and power an increasingly robust portfolio of applications.
Certainly applications running on multi-tasking platforms are a big part of the problem, but the mystery of battery longevity is a much more complex issue than just the software a smartphone is juggling. The good news is that most of the new technologies coming to smartphones (i.e. LTE, multi-core processors) should reduce battery drain in the long run.
Capacity and Platform
A list of high-end smartphones with top battery lives put together by CNET came up with the following: Galaxy S 4G (1650 mAh), Motorola Atrix 4G (1930 mAh), Apple iPhone 4 (1420 mAh), Samsung Nexus S (1500 mAh), BlackBerry Bold 9780 (1500 mAh), LG Optimus S (1500 mAh).
If finding a phone with the best battery life was as simple as selecting the one with the largest capacity, judging by this list, the Atrix would be your best bet, right? Not necessarily.
“The best battery life I’ve seen are the iPhone and BlackBerry,” says Avi Greengart, director of research, consumer devices for Current Analysis.
Greengart explains that while the iPhone may have one the smallest batteries of all the high-end flagship phones out there, it actually uses power more efficiently than other devices on the market, mainly because Apple hedged its bet with multitasking. The company had claimed from the very beginning that it was reluctant to add full multi-tasking to its devices because the feature was a major battery killer. In the end, Apple chose a compromise, which allows iOS to hold a user’s place within an app when they want to switch tasks and then picks up where they left off when they re-enter the previous app.
RIM is also very hands-on with the design of its products, Greengart says, noting that the BlackBerry maker personally optimizes its radios for maximum efficiency. He adds that RIM’s forthcoming QNX-based platform may produce even better battery efficiency than even BlackBerry 7.
But it’s Android, the ever-heralded most popular OS in the land that has chosen to compromise battery life for true multi-tasking, thus the larger battery size in phones like the Atrix. “Android… by and large has the worst battery life,” Greengart says.
Greengart says that battery life on Android devices really does suffer due to the way the platform multi-tasks, allowing an unlimited number of applications to run at once, with many users completely unaware as to what’s doing what on their phone.
Multi-Core and LTE Concerns, Solutions
Carrier execs have been talking for some time now that late 2011 would be the real take-off point for LTE-capable smartphones, with USB dongles and hotspot offerings composing the heart of 4G devices until then. Apparently, they knew what they were talking about. At the time of this writing, Verizon Wireless offers LTE in 74 metropolitan markets; it currently offers three smartphones that support the technology (Samsung Charge, LG Revolution, HTC Thunderbolt), and none of them are dual-core devices.
At first glance, one might think that the combination of a multi-core processor, in addition to an LTE-radio, would lead to further battery drain, with Verizon Wireless holding off on 4G “superphones” until the technologies have been perfected.
In fact, LTE and dual-core should lead to better battery life.
Ardeshir Ghanbarzadeh, director of services development for Metrico, a company that does independent device performance testing for carriers before those devices go live on the network, says it behooves both OEMs and carriers to keep first-generation devices of any kind relatively simple.
“Battery drain really depends on the power efficiency of the chipset,” Ghanbarzadeh says, noting that at this point, LTE-capable chipsets are still being refined for maximum efficiency.
Ghanbarzadeh says that far from draining more battery, technologies like multi-core processors and LTE, which is spectrally more efficient than existing 3G networks, should ultimately result in better power consumption. Greengart of Current Analysis reinforces this assertion, adding that dual-core processors reduce heat and limit battery drain, which is why they were first installed in laptops and desktops.
When asked whether throwing in a bigger battery might help with longer battery life, Ghanbarzadeh says it might but adds that there are limitations when you’re talking about something that’s supposed to fit in an end-user’s pocket. “Sure, you could throw a 2500 mAh battery in a smartphone, but you have to consider form factor, the size of the device and the weight of the battery.”
Apps’ Appalling Appetite for Power
At a recent investor conference, Motorola CEO, Sanjay Jha, put the blame for poor battery life squarely on the shoulders of the Android Market, saying that Android’s ability to multi-task can lead to certain apps remaining open, like those that constantly check location, which in turn leads to battery drain.
Jha claimed that 30 percent to 40 percent of battery drain is due to third-party applications from the Android Market and suggested that Motorola would be working on better notification systems, possibly built into Blur, to alert consumers about which apps are open and draining their phone of its life-giving charge.
SpeechCycle, a company that started in 2001 by providing automated customer care for major telcos, is working on just such a solution. Roberto Pieraccini, the company’s chief technology officer, says poor battery life is one of the main reasons that new smartphone users call customer care.
Pieraccini says one of the solutions his company is working on would actually diagnose problems with poor battery performance.
“It’s an application that is integrated with the device, and once the user says something like, ‘How can I extend my battery life?’ the application goes into the device and finds out, device permitting, what are the things that they can do for increasing battery life.”
Pierccini says that the customer might then be prompted to turn off location services, close an unused application or reduce the brightness of their screen, all of which are major culprits in the consumption of power on smartphones.
The Internet is littered with articles that suggest various ways smartphone users can save on battery life. Most of them suggest adjusting user settings that can be manipulated to conserve power, such as turning off GPS and Bluetooth when not in use, or as noted earlier, reducing screen brightness. And then, of course, users could opt to carry around an extra battery or invest in a battery case. There are even solar-powered cases out there for charging the phone.
What all of these ad-hoc fixes for battery drain mean is that battery technology is lagging behind the rest of smartphone innovation. As OEMs begin packing smartphones with more and more sensors, and features like 3D displays, and developers start writing applications that will leverage these technologies, smartphone batteries will only continue to suffer. Until, that is, major advancements are made in battery technology.
At Credit Suisse’s Convergence conference in March, Verizon Chief Technology Officer Tony Melone was asked whether there would be any concerns around battery life with upcoming 4G devices. He replied that the company would “optimize it and provide a battery experience that we believe will be acceptable to consumers.”
It’s worth considering that what used to be “acceptable to consumers” was a feature phone that didn’t have to be charged more than twice a week. Then again, how much did that feature phone get used?