Why Did We Give Up On Battery Life So Easily?

When you're working, the routine is always the same: if you don't plug in your phone overnight, you won't have enough to get through the next day. And if you're on the road, finding a power outlet is often at the top of your list of challenges. Why do we put up with it so readily?

I've been reflecting on this recently after playing with two products. Firstly, over the holidays I was testing out Telstra's EasyTouch Discovery 3. This is what people in the industry refer to as a "granny phone", aimed at a market who don't care about whether the phone is running Ice Cream Sandwich or iOS 5 or Windows Phone 7 Mango. They just want a phone that's easy to use for calls and texting, with big buttons and an obvious interface.

As granny phones go, this one is pretty advanced: it has a reasonable camera and you can use it as an MP3 player. It's perhaps a bit too expensive for a lot of cost-conscious buyers ($240), but it does pretty much what it says on the tin.

I'm not about to give up my smartphone addiction, but using this phone had one unexpected advantage: because I was only using it to make calls, the battery lasted for days. If I left any of my other regular phones switched on in my travel bag, they'd be flat before a day had passed. But the EasyTouch 3 was still good to go even after I'd ignored it for five days.

It reminded me of a simpler time, when I only had to plug in my phone to recharge after a few days had passed. It seems like a lifetime ago, and there's an obvious trade-off: a phone that doesn't let you browse the Internet or write emails is no good as a productivity tool. But there's still something very liberating about it.

It also seems to me that a product doesn't have to be obviously out-of-date to offer good battery life. Case in point: the Kindle. I got a basic model Kindle as a birthday present, and I've been using it incessantly ever since. But I think I've only charged it twice in that time period, and one of those was purely as a precaution (I was using the Kindle for my LCA2012 presentation and I didn't want it to run out halfway through).

Phones have dramatically improved in almost every area, but battery life is a notable exception. While battery technology improves, it seems our appetite for extra features and more processing power means we're still stuck with the once-a-day charging routine. Here's hoping that might change at some point in the future. Now if you'll excuse me, there's something I need to read on my Kindle.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't wait until all his gadgets can draw on solar power in an emergency. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


Comments

    To be honest, once a day charging doesn't bother me. It's much easier to get into a routine of plugging in my phone every night, then have to remember to charge it when it gets low every few days.

    My MP3 player (a Cowon J3) gets around 60 hours of battery life, which usually lasts me about a week and a half. I quite often run out of charge, since I just forget to charge it. My phone on the other hand (Galaxy Nexus) never runs out of charge, even though it obviously has a much shorter battery life, since I'm in a routine of charging it every night.

    Battery life has improved... But the new devices' thirst for juice has increased stupendously! I mean, my iPhone lasts a pretty long time on standby with all the data and 3G aerials off...

    I introduce to you... the docking station.
    A place to put your phone... aswell as charge it!

    Daily habits arn't that hard to form.

    it's not a case of "giving up" on it, it's that the battery technology isn't good enough - yet - to sort it out. The Kindle is great because it only uses power to change pages, the granny phone because you're using the power elsewhere - laptop, desktop, tablet, whatever - to do what you would have done on your smartphone.

    I agree, battery life is less important to me than having all the other amazing features on a smartphone. Battery life only becomes important when it doesn't last a whole day - most places in Australia have a power point, and you can buy car chargers if you're camping away from civilisation.

    My iPhone 4 can, after being unplugged from the charger at 7am:
    - be used for receiving texts and calls, and taking photos, and other things we expect a phone to do now
    - used as an iPod or stream radio for hours at a time during commute and at work
    - can be on facebook and twitter and a bunch of other internet related things as I don't use a desktop at home
    - still be around 20% charge when I plug it back in at 10pm when I go to bed.

    This seems like a pretty good deal to me, and worth much more than a brick that lasts for weeks but can only call and text.

    Turning off internet access on your smartphone (both cell and WiFi) and only using it for calls and texting will boost battery a fair bit.

    This is why I use my iPhone primarily as an MP3 player and portable game device, activating the 3G/data only when I want to do something online... and I keep my old Ericsson Z610i for phone calls. Despite the battery being around 5 years old and having spent much of that time in a drawer, I could still get around 4 days of battery life between charges with normal use (even on 3G). Now that I have upgraded the battery with an aftermarket ~2400mah battery off eBay (old one was ~700mah) I can go for close to 2 weeks on average between charges, while my iPhone still barely gives me a day of battery if I use it for anything other than as an expensive iPod.

    Best of all... when a call comes in and I press answer - it answers straight away. No animation delays, or lag while something in the background unloads, unresponsive touch screen etc. When I want to make a call it's ready in an instant. If I'm in a call and close the clamshell it hangs up instantly, every time, without fail... not 'hangs' there with an open connection chewing up battery for no good reason.

      Also, the biggest surprise in going back to the old phone - call quality is MUCH better. The person on the other end can hear me much more clearly, I can hear the other person roughly the same, and there's none of the warbling alien noises that the iPhone has given me at seemingly random from the iPhone 3G through to the current model.

    I believe Apple submitted a patent last year for solar cells being included in the touch screen of a phone. I may have been misled by an internet article though, so don't quote me. It does seem like a logical step though.

    Here's hoping they work out how to actually incorporate it in the phone. I'm guessing that will be the bigger challenge.

      The Register claims that apple has been granted a patent for fuel cells in mobile phones.

      I can't imagine that the iPhone will ever be powered by a solar cell (that can fit on it).

    The one day battery is no good if you're in places without powerpoints for 2 days every week.

      To be fair though, that's a very niche market.

        there are LOADS of countries where regular electicity supplies are still a problem.

        It's not just countries. Scenario: a business road-trip with 4 people in a car, all needing to be contactable. Not uncommon in S.Queensland with businesses heading out to mine sites on a regular basis. Sure, most phones can charge from USB or a car charger and there's multi-way 12v adapters, but when you've got 4 trailing leads the car gets messy, quickly. It's far from insurmountable, but better battery life would make things easier.

    If you can get by on an old phone, you can turn off all the extra crap on your smart phone. It'll do wonders to your battery life.

    Turn off wifi, 3G, GPS and push notifications; don't play music, videos or games; lower the screen brightness; kill any background apps. You'll find your phone lasts for days, if not over a week.

      +1 for lowered screen brightness - I primarily use tasker simply as an automatic screen dimmer for when I'm using a battery-chewing app such as words with friends.This makes such a difference!

    An interesting note is that the carrier can have a serious effect on phone battery life. The more your phone has to 'search' for a signal, the faster it goes flat - it doesn't just happen in remote areas, changing from telstra to vodafone can shorten your battery life just because they have fewer towers.

    That's partly why you shouldn't leave your phone running in a bag if you're flying: A few hours of struggling to pick up any mobile signal will be a big hit to your phone battery.

      Or.. put it on Airplane mode like you are supposed to..

    I have a Nokia E5 that requires very little charging. I often leave it in my pocket and it can last for weeks without charging.

    Battery life is absolutely atrocious right now. I don't know how we got into this state but it's a joke. I can't stand how poor my phones battery is, I get home and it's only got about 40% charge, that's just not good enough.

    Over at Giz in the review of the HTC Velocity this quote is given "Getting a full day out of the phone will require a top up, but as with all high-end smartphones these days, we just put up with it and think it’s normal.". That is absolute rubbish! Topping up your phone to get a full day's use out of it as "normal"? I'd call that a faulty product more than anything.

    It's pretty clear that these phones are designed for form over function. These things don't need to be 8mm think, put a goddamn bigger battery in the thing!

    Once you've got a bigger battery loaded up, look at fixing up your crap software that runs these things. If I'm out of service it shouldn't kill my battery searching for reception. Really, Nokia's been doing this for years without problems, Now all of a sudden you get iOS and Android and everyone stops caring about battery life!

    Yup.. last time I was in China I bought a cheap (it was about $10AUD) 'granny' phone for use while I was there. The battery life on that thing rocked.. I could go for around a week or so without even wondering if the battery was running out.. it had a very simplistic screen with no more than phone/sms functionality but it did what I needed it to do.

    When I am at home in Australia, I like to be able to play casual games, browse the internet, watch downloaded video content and so on.. all on the one device.. so I have a smartphone with a 4.3" screen.. I look at my Australian phone as more than just a phone.. it's a pocket computer.. and just like laptops, there is only a limited amount of time I can spend on it doing those high end tasks before it needs charging. So it's not really about a compromise between a phone that lasts for a week or more and a phone that doesn't.. it's simply no longer a phone anymore. You can't compare apples and oranges.

    While the increased features and functions all inevitably drain battery life, I think also the lust for ultra thin is a problem too. You could add 2mm and 50g and fill it with more battery without turning most phones into tradies brickphones.

    There's no doubt we'll have 16-core phones with a week between charges at sometime in the future, but we're on the pointy end of this smartphone technology, so battery life is the price we pay.

    I remember when the iPhone 3G was released, with all it's bells and whistles - I was among the many to assume it wouldn't be a hit, due to battery life...how wrong was I! (I'm now one of the many recharging my smartphone - SGSII - daily)...

    For travel (ie when mobile) I still like my old Palm IIIxe for text input and information storage - bulletproof (hasn't crashed in 12 years), and lasts 4 to 6 weeks on a pair of AAA batteries. Also a granny phone for calls - a week or three between charges. And a digital camera which takes AA batteries - carry some spares and I can go many days of heavy use between recharges.

    Yes I know smartphones can do more, but it seems odd to me that a gadget lasting less than a day is now considered okay.

    Daily recharging when travelling is fine if you stay in hotels all the time, but not practical if camping, or staying in hostels where you don't have a private power point to leave valuable gear plugged in and unattended for long periods.

    Being "mobile" shouldn't mean being restricted to being within a few hours of a power source. If we accept that, we've progressed backwards.

    C'mon, really. Battery life was the #1 priority of the Kindle, above all else. They sacrificed enormous amounts of functionality to make that happen. Whereas iPhones etc are the opposite. If phones' battery lives are short, it's because that's a trade-off we're all willing to make for features.

    Giz ran an article not long ago about new Lithium batteries charging much faster and lasting ten times longer.

    http://gizmodo.com/5860029/new-li+ion-batteries-will-run-ten-times-longer-and-charge-ten-times-quicker

    I find it amusing that the 20% charge warning came up on my phone while reading this artcicle

      I find it amusing that after posing your statement it came up with a 10% charge warning, validating Graham's remark.

    I have a Blackberry Bold 9700, the screen size is not the best but it definitely does everything I need it to, and I only charge it maybe twice a week. This is with very regular use of email and calls.

    We gave my grandmother an iPod shuffle for Christmas a few years back. She mainly used it when she went walking. When we visited a about six months later she said it had stopped working about a month ago. Turned out it had run out of battery, and she hadn't charged it once since we gave it to her.

    Granted, she was only using it for an hour or so a week, but I was pretty impressed that it had lasted almost 5 months.

    We gave my grandmother an iPod shuffle for Christmas a few years back. She mainly used it when she went walking. When we visited a about six months later she said it had stopped working about a month ago. Turned out it had run out of battery, and she hadn't charged it once since we gave it to her.

    Granted, she was only using it for an hour or so a week, but I was pretty impressed that it had lasted almost 5 months.

    For my Kindle, it lasts so long I lost the cord between charges and had to buy a new one.

    http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2011/04/avoid-frequent-discharges-to-extend-your-phone-or-laptops-battery-life/#more-384931

    Well, I just got a new Kindle Touch last month and it seems things have changed -- after only 24 hours without using it for more than 2 hours and switching it off when done, every day, the battery charge indicator show it's only got half the charge remaining...Dunno if this one is just a lemon or if the Touch has somehow been blessed with a bigger appetite for power...

      Make sure you have 3G and/or wifi turned off when you're not using them, and make sure it isn't stuck indexing a book. If you've done that and it keeps happening, send it back, you've got a lemon. At 2 hours a day, you be getting a least a couple weeks out of it.

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