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It also seems to me that a product doesn’t have to be obviously out-of-date to offer good battery life.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.

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