Battery Life Is The Only Spec That Matters

Give basically any piece of tech you carry around the time-machine test. Jump ahead 50 years and show off whatever anachronism of a gadget you brought along to a native. They'd laugh, obviously. But within the confines of our traditional tech specs, you know what they'd probably find most egregious? The battery.

Somehow, when talking about gadgets, battery life has become at best the fourth of fifth thing you mention. It shouldn't be. It should be the very first. At this point, it's the only thing that matters.

Battery isn't some one-off feature. You don't fritter entire train rides away worried that your phone doesn't have diamond-cut chamfered edges, or which widgets you should have on your home screen. (Or if you do, that is very sad and you should stop.) Your night has never been ruined because your apps load too slowly. We bitch about annoyances, app availability and syncing issues. But if we accept that reception almost entirely subject to outside forces, you're left with battery life as more or less the only way your phone can totally screw up your plans. It's the only thing you worry about. And we really need to stop ignoring it.

Gadgets are all, basically, pretty good right now...

A few years ago, it was fashionable to explain that specs don't matter, performance does. This was true, insofar as the component wars had ended in an industry-wide tie. Everything used Intel processors, or competing mobile processors that didn't vary too greatly from each other. Build quality and design and integration of software took centre stage. And mostly just software.

Now, though, basically every widely used software platform is just plain good. You'll have preferences, of course. And certain areas, like trackpads on Windows ultrabooks or notifications on Android, are creakier than their counterparts. But at some point, you're just debating religions. The Lord of Light or the Drowned God or the Seven? iOS or Android or Windows Phone? Sure, one is probably more right than the others, but it doesn't really matter. You're arguing aesthetics. You'll enjoy owning an iPhone if you buy one. You'll enjoy a Windows Phone or an Android phone too. Just the same as you'll enjoy using OS X on a MacBook Air or Windows 8 on a Lenovo Yoga.

It's not just software. Everything's improved, if not in lockstep, at least toward similar endpoints. MacBook design is wonderful, but so are Acer's S7, Samsung's Series 9, and especially the Chromebook Pixel. The iPad and Nexus and Kindle and yes even the Nook all have wonderful screens. Gadgets are all, year to year, cycle to cycle, remarkably the same. Hardware, components, software, features, even design — all of it more or less on even footing.

...which makes battery life disproportionately important...

There are degrees and there are absolutes. By degree, the iPad is more pleasant to look at than a Kindle Fire, you might say. Maybe the aspect ratio of the Nexus or the iPad is a few degrees more pleasant to use than the other. But in absolute terms, a iPhone in your pocket being a beautiful, black, battery-drained brick is infinitely worse than, say, a RAZR Maxx chugging away after a kazillion hours, design and camera be damned. A big fat iPad 3 is absolutely better than a skinny, dead iPad. Things that work are better than t things that don't. A phone that's out of battery has zero features.

This effect is muted on categories like laptops, where usability measures like trackpad hardware and drivers are the biggest factors in how much you'll enjoy your computer. And most people probably have stronger opinions (and ingrained workflow habits) about desktop OS than mobile. But even then, we're grown so accustomed to laptop battery life being so far off from listed all-day expectations that we ignore it as a spec entirely. We shouldn't.

...especially since battery size, life and capabilities affect and are affected by design and features...

It's easy to see how battery needs directly affect design and engineering. Look no further than the fatass iPad 3, or the fact that every LTE phone is relatively huge because of the battery-sucking needs of an LTE radio.

The choice between LTE and other faux-G network speeds is a fine example, actually. We've all pretty much come to the conclusion that Google knows what it's doing with Android. Much more so than carriers and manufacturers. Yet everyone went insane when it turned out the Nexus 4 wouldn't have LTE. Why? Even without a battery-murdering LTE radio, the Nexus 4 still doesn't comes in barely middle of the pack in battery tests. Google knew that Jelly Bean 4.2 is a battery hog. It chose features over network.

But design pushes back as well. The iPhone 5, for instance, has crap battery life. But it didn't have to. With the 5, Apple finally got its hands on the thin, low-power screens it lacked for the current iPad. That, paired with the efficiency gains made by the A6 chip, could have driven iPhone battery life into the stratosphere. It would have been a welcome change, given the crap the iPhone 4S dealt with about its battery. But Apple chose thinness and lightness over practicality. And if you own one, you've suffered for it.

...so battery life continues to take a back seat...

Again and again, we have chosen form and power over endurance. Skinny iPhone over longer lasting iPhone. LTE radios over perfectly acceptable HSPA+ speeds and better battery life. About the only gadget that's made the decision to not compromise on its battery life, damn the cost, was the iPad 3. And we told it to eat a damn salad.

The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course. Samsung's Galaxy S 4 shrunk the imprint of the Galaxy S III, more or less, while going from 2100mAh to 2600mAh. But that's the exception, not the rule.

Feature bloat doesn't help matters. Stuff like Intel's Smart Connect (Apple calls this Power Nap) — which pulls down email and other files while your computer is asleep — seems like a smarter way to operate our stuff. Except the overhead on that is opening up your computer after a few hours of sleep and seeing it drained of 15 or 20 per cent of its battery. Is that worth it? The nerd answer is that smarter sleep states are coming with Haswell, so hold on. The real person answer is "no".

In some ways, this is our fault too. Us, the reviewers, the blowhards. Every review of a phone or tablet or computer talks about battery. We run a standardised laptop battery test, and mention if phones or tablets make it "all day". When they don't, unless it's criminally lacklustre — Galaxy Nexus: guilty — we shrug it off as a problem a lot of phones have. And when when they're exceptional, like the Razr Maxx and Lumia 920, we chalk it up as a positive. But never with the same kind of reverence that we do a thinner, prettier model.

And here we are. It's 2013 and our ultrabooks get 2-4 hours of battery life. Our mobile phones die before happy hour if we don't charge them at our desks.

...but it has to get better soon.

It can't stay like this. Wearable tech like Google Glass requires enough juice and efficiency for all day use. But comparable products have struggled to hit two hours of continuous use. Or look at the Tesla — for now our best shot at electric cars proliferating — embroiled in heated urinating matches about its battery range. The future is Always On, and it's not connected to a wall charger. So something has to give.

Some of the gains will be from fuel cell efficiency (or supercapacitors; but those have been "coming" for a while). Others from software optimisation. But for a lot of reasons, a good chunk of the progress might have to fall on Intel's shoulders, which sounds nuts given the way the company has struggled to keep up with power efficiency demands. Intel has been doubling down on its efficiency the past few years, with dedicated hardware accelerators to make tasks run faster, and active sleep states. But what's coming next is pure muscle.

In simple terms, Intel has the ability to make its future chips smaller, and therefore more power efficient, than anyone else on the planet. Right now it's making them at 22 nanometers. Within a year or two, it's going to be down to 14nm. Then eventually 10nm. That should mean, in theory, unprecedented efficiency in chips — both traditional computer cores, and the SoC processors in phones.

In the meantime, both Samsung and Nvidia claimed they made the most energy efficient chip in the world this year. One of them is probably even right. But how much that means in practical terms is anyone's guess. I asked an Nvidia spokesperson, talking about its new Tegra 4i processor, if Nvidia would ever think about taking a generation to focus only on efficiency, since it's so strong on graphics already. Short answer: No.

"We don't think your phone can ever be fast enough," he said. "Every time you have to wait for an app to load, for a video to load, for a game to load, that's time we want to eliminate. We showed you how strong we are on efficiency, but we're never going to stop giving you the best graphics we can."

It's a fair point. But sometimes I wish someone would spend more of their energy eliminating the time I'm stuck on the train with a dead phone.

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Comments

    Hence why I jumped at the Note 2. Even with heavy use with Telstra 4G, the worst usage time I have had is 8 hours.
    The only other time battery use is high is when away from network coverage.
    The phone uses more power searching for a signal.
    John.

      Same here! I can get 3 days out of my Note 2 with the right settings and usage :)

    My phone is just 11mm thick. My first ever Nokia was like 20mm and seemed plenty small. Maybe a 20mm thick smart phone would start to look like a freaking brick, but I bet adding just two or three mm of battery would make a massive difference to battery life and still look adequately sexy

      if you're happy to double the thickness of your phone just buy a battery case.

    So, are you willing to put your money where your mouth is, ditch your iPhone and get something with better battery life? Or will you cling to your current device for reasons you've dismissed in this article?

    Research by several manufacturers suggests that consumers don't tend to agree with your article. Instead, it seems that brand, cost, and a slim and fashionable appearance are far more important factors in the purchase decision to the average buyer.

      With particular regard for apple products. The battery life has barely changed at all since the original iPhone. If I was to guess why, it's due to the fact that apple did research to figure out the minimum battery life that people will be satisfied with. Since then, every time they've exceeded that, they shrunk the battery.

      Consumers (or well in this example, iphone users) are happy with a days worth of battery. This will not change unless batteries themselves magically improve ten fold.

        It always amuses me when people whinge about their phone's battery life but do nothing about it. For instance, there's some people whine about the iPhone 5's short battery life when using 4G heavily - but many of them refuse to use a battery case because it makes their phone heavier and thicker.

        You can choose a phone based solely on battery life criteria, and deal with any consequences of that compromise. That's simply the price you pay for being a niche market - the vast majority of people are happy to have shorter battery life, and it's not the manufacturer's fault that you have different and unusual needs.

        Personally, I've never had any real issues with battery life on my phone. 16 hours of battery life (6am to 10pm) with 20% remaining is perfectly acceptable to me; my phone gets charged in a dock every night and this doesn't bother me at all. I have a car charger and carry a 10000mah external battery for times when I'll be away from power for longer periods, but I'm quite happy that the trend is for slim phones with single-day battery life. I don't want or need anything more than that.

          A girl I know complained about the iPhone 5's battery life so I had a look and turned out her 4G and 3G were on, as well as location services and brightness pretty much all the way up. I fixed it for her by turning all of them off and she raged. Guess people can't be helped.

        The iPhone is overpriced, has-been junk. iPhone is the new Blackberry.

        Last edited 03/04/13 3:25 am

          BlackBerry is on its way up. I hope they succeed.

      Really? I currently have an iPhone 4 and it gets 2-3 days battery life, just signed up for an xperia z (waiting impatiently) but I'm prepared for a massive reduction in battery life. Maybe its the iPhone 5 you're referring to but as many have suggested there are heaps of battery cases on the market to double or triple the life.

        I know for a fact that an iPhone 4, or 4S will last about 10-12 hours with moderate to heavy use. You must use your phone maybe a couple of times a day. I've had plenty of experience to know that they aren't much better then Android phones.

          okay well thats promising, I'm not a heavy user but I check emails at least once an hour, text about 20-30 times a day and make a few phones calls. When I'm driving I listening to music via blutooth (about an hour a day). so if I can do that and still get 2-3 days out of my xperia when it arrives I'll be stoked. I pretty much just charge my phone in the morning while I'm getting ready for work so it's usually not even full when I leave and will still have 50% by the evening.

            Yeah I text about 100+ times every single day haha. I drain my phone man.

              haha fair enough, unfortunately I have to work during the day and can't spend a lot of time on the phone. Well i will see when I get my sweet new android how it stacks up.

    I've been saying this for AGES. In human terms, a thing that is 12mm thick is actually not thick, really. But given the huge footprints of many modern flagship phones (e.g. 93.7 square cm for the HTC One), even a single mm of extra thickness (bringing that phone to 10.3 mm) will provide another ~9 cubic cm of space inside the body. Dedicate most of this extra space to a bigger battery and voila! real-life all-day usage!

    But no, the market demands thinner and thinner phones with bigger, brighter and more battery-draining screens. Y'all have only yourselves to blame!

      Respected everything you said until you used the word Y'all

    The options are there for anyone who is really worried. I get 3 days out of my phone battery, at least twice as long as any previous smartphone I have owned, and my laptop gives me the ability to do around 6 hours of intensive graphics work, even though it is set to only charge the battery to 80% (it will improve the longevity of the battery, apparently). And I have not had to sacrifice style or thickness. Quite the opposite, I bought both my HTC 8S and Samsung Series 9 because of their svelte beauty as much as for any practical considerations.

      Actually with modern battery technology it's not necessary to charge the battery to a certain percentage or discharge it to 0 every week or day. They have no memory effect so it makes doing this redundant.

        That's not what Samsung reckon and I think they would know a little bit more about it than you do.

          on the flip-side, Samsung does have an interest in selling you a new battery should that one die or deliver less-than-stellar performance... :P

            Yeah, right. Who would be stupid enough to stick with any brand if their advice led to a shorter battery life? The obvious answer is "Apple customers" but they hardly count.

            Last edited 03/04/13 10:58 am

              my 4 year old macbook pro is still showing 78% battery capacity in the coconut battery app and my iPhone 4 still gets 2-3 days out of it so not sure that they put in any worse batteries than anyone else. I mean why would they?

                That's not what I meant. I meant only Apple customers put up with being treated like idiots. Maybe they are?

                  perhaps, but then again again anyone who decides on a purchase due to "brand loyalty" has dubious intelligence to start with. P.s. your inference wasn't lost on me that time but I'll let it slide lol

          You're being ignorant. This is common knowledge about current day battery technology.

            You mean Samsung, one of the world's biggest users of the technology, are ignorant because I am just following their advice in preference to "common knowledge".

              Well to be honest yes. Just because a big company says something doesn't mean they're right or the expert on the topic.

                Seriously? So you don't place any value in a manufacturer's charger over a generic one? So the fact that my Lumia 800 only lasted half as long if I used the car charger on it was just coincidence? Hard to believe and when it comes to companies that design products over anecdotal "evidence" from places like this, there is no question in my mind who is more likely to know that they are talking about. That you would think otherwise is laughable.

                  You truly are being ignorant. It's like saying when you don't eat for a few hours you go into starvation mode. Which is also a common myth. You need to do some solid research on batteries.

                  Last edited 07/04/13 4:59 pm

                  No, I don't. I'm sure I know at least as much about it as you do. I'm just not so full of myself to think that I would know better than Samsung.

    I just charge them at every opportunity I got. ie Driving to work, at my desk, on the way home, etc, this is fine unless the phone have some ridiculously short battery life. Oh and get a phone that allows you to swap batteries.

    The moment my warranty expires on my phone though, I'd probably flash it with a custom ROM without the battery-chewing bloatware.

      Actually despite contrary believe, the average stock rom will last longer then a rooted flashed rom. This of course depends heavily on what you do to a flashed device. I'd rather a stock OS over a flashed underclocked slower performing phone.

        I wouldn't underclock it. Rather, I'd used one that varies your CPU speeds on what's being done, so if it's sitting idle, some cores should be off. You can't adjust the CPU speeds without root.

    If I had to replace my phone right now, bigger and removable battery would be the deciding reason to go with Samsung. HTC have had my money for 5 years now, and the One is gorgeous, but it's third behind samsung and Xperia Z's durability (my phones can never seem to stay away from liquid).

    And really, to me the author is spot on. There are new and interesting features in this year's generation of premium androids, but I'd rather just have a phone that doesn't require me to buy a car charger and another two or three charge cables.

      Not sure why you think the Galaxy S4 is durable. AFAICS it's more fragile than the HTC One (alumium casing trumps plastic) and the Sony XZ (waterproof etc).

      I assume you're aware that all of the popular phone models have battery cases available - these are relatively inexpensive and will give you double the battery life at the expense of some extra bulk and weight. And of course the battery case is removable, so you can enjoy a slimmer phone during the times you don't need longer battery life.

        Aluminium doesn't trump plastic, it dents, gets scratches and the chamfered edges will also get marks. This has already been proven with the iPhone 5. I'm waiting for the pocket now videos of after the buzz to see how it fares.

        I meant the Z is durable in that it's waterproof, etc. yeah re-reading it now it's pretty ambiguous.

        and while battery cases are available, that's not really a solution - my issue is buying extra charge cables, I'd still have to buy the charge case(s) and carry around a chunkier phone.

    I work somewhere that it's impossible to charge my s3 and I listen to music and podcasts about 7 hours a day. During downtime, I read, surf, look at Twitter, news etc.
    I bought the mugen 4600 battery, Without it, I'd be out of juice by lunch. Now I'm getting home with 65% battery and that's with 3.5hrs screen time..
    It might be fat & ugly, but I don't care!

    Yes we all want more battery and yes we keep getting told about the amazing advancements we are making in the battery department but the fact is we are just going to have to wait... for now we have plenty of options to keep your phone charged. Cars/Computers/TV's/Consoles are all Loaded with USB ports and having micro USB cables hidden everywhere will make sure you are ready for a dead or low battery anytime. The best thing i have is a 2AMP car charger (suitable for ipads) and it charges my galaxy SIII at a rate of 1% a minute which is almost twice as fast as a regular wall charger. Its been the best investment for quick charging when i'm in need.

    Another good option is to have a spare battery charged ready to go on one of those china docks and just swap out batterys whenever you leave the house so you know when you leave you are leaving with 100%. If you bought an iphone then tough sh!t, your sh!t outta luck :P

    I really really can't wait till manufacturers realize we don't mind an extra few millimeters if it means an extra few hours of battery life. Other then that I'll have to wait for new battery technology.

    Amen. ALL smartphone batteries should be 3300 mAh as standard.

    Last edited 03/04/13 3:23 am

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