June 18, 2010

Charge Me Up: No Batteries Are Good Enough

My Laptop Loves Being Connected. Batteries Don't Measure Up.

Just over a decade ago, Apple ushered in the wireless networking phenomenon with their new iBook consumer laptop, and accompanying Airport base station. Prior to that, Web access always required a hard-wired connection, be it through Ethernet cables or modems. Today, WiFi has practically become ubiquitous, a must-have for any new computer purchase, and one assumes it available in many homes and commercial buildings. Yet we continue to lug along with us a wide array of cords and connectors for all our devices, be they tablets, laptops or mobile phones - not for networking, but for power. The more powerful our devices have become, and the more capable they are, they seem to be just as hungry as ever in terms of sucking down electricity, no matter the manufacturer, no matter the OS and no matter the model.

Back in early 2007, when this blog was in its infancy, I said it was time to make power wireless and battery-free. While PowerMat has some solutions for mobile handhelds, the tipping point has not yet occurred where we can trust our batteries to run for days, and continue working after hours of peak load. And despite the occasional talk of new solutions that harness kinetic energy, solar energy or something else entirely, there have been no notable revolutions in this area that change the game.

One Would Have You Think the EVO Eats Batteries For Lunch
(Note 45 minutes elapsed between 1st warning and 5% warning)

Last week, Michael Arrington of TechCrunch aggressively said the HTC EVO was "seriously flawed" and said not to buy the phone - the same I've been using since Google I/O. One major reason cited was the battery life. It's the major knock against the device I hear in most reviews. My experience hasn't been so brutal, but it, like the iPhone before it, and my laptops, and every digital device I've used, has required me to bring power along, for fear of going dark. In fact, practically the only mainstream computing device I've used that has a battery to be celebrated is the iPad. Whatever Steve Jobs and team did to get that bad boy up and running for a few days is fantastic - but it is the exception, not the rule.

When using the EVO or iPhone or laptop, I plug in whenever possible. It's become as old hat as hitting Save every few minutes any time I use a Microsoft application. Old habits die hard. Today, I chose to use the EVO as I have been, but to keep it unplugged and let it run down to zero. Turns out, despite warnings out there that it's toast after about three hours, it was unplugged for more than 9 hours before spouting warnings, and I can't even guarantee it was full when I started. Interestingly enough, the EVO (and other Android phones, I assume) features the option to find out just what it is that is driving the battery downward.

What's Consuming My Battery Anyway?

According to the device, the hours of phone calls I made sapped 29% of the battery. Cell standby took another 17%, Bluetooth 17%, 15% for idling, and 13% for the Android OS itself. Good to know. But even though I had made hours of calls, and other activity on the device, it rivaled my experience with the last generation iPhone, which similarly was notorious for draining the battery, whether I used it or not. And while many people have pointed to needing to use a Task Killer to reduce drain on the EVO, Apple's helpful guide on preserving iPhone battery life isn't all that different - saying to fetch data less frequently, avoid Push notifications, or even to go into Airplane mode whenever possible!

Needless to say, companies like Apple wouldn't have to go into such details about preserving battery life if the phones were designed for always-on behavior. Meanwhile, laptop batteries are about the same they were more than a decade ago. In 1998, Apple introduced the PowerBook G3, claiming five hours of battery life, ostensibly enough to watch a DVD through fully, twice. The newest Apple MacBook Pros say they can last from eight to ten hours, though I don't know of many people who can claim having reached that threshold. So in 12 years, assuming truth in marketing, battery life has improved about 60-80 percent, while Internet speeds have improved much more dramatically, and CPUs have morphed from hundreds of megahertz to a few gigahertz. Batteries continue to lag the market, relative to most other measures.

It seems the best way to preserve battery life on laptops or mobile phones is to simply not use the devices or reduce activity on those devices. But today's machines are being built for multi-tasking, and for ever-increasing demands via Web browsers and high octane Office or rich media editing apps. I'm happy we're now seeing the first real products that leverage wireless power, but they are so limited as to not even be intriguing to this early adopter. I want real wireless power, just like 802.11, or I want an alternative that lets me charge up on the go, without cords. In this case, it's not about jousting between phone models, it's about making the same leap we did in networking. Fewer wires. More functionality. How can we get there?