What are the outstanding problems with smartphone battery life?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: August 22, 2012

I've touched on the topic of battery life a lot lately. The consensus is that, in general, smartphone batteries suck these days and, like many others, my phones rarely last an entire day without some form of supplementary charge after lunch.

Last week, however, I covered a topic that could change the battery life game as we know it, and it all lies in how fast smartphones charge. South Korean scientists at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have discovered the secret behind rapidly charging batteries. If their tech were to be used in a smartphone, instead of waiting an hour and a half to upwards of three hours to charge your phone fully, it would take less than a minute to charge from completely dead to full. A novel idea, right?

Sadly, while it would greatly reduce the time your phone spends tied to an outlet, it doesn't answer all problems when it comes to battery life in smartphones. So while we wait on the golden mobile battery technology breakthrough to come about, let's go over some of the more outstanding issues with smartphone batteries and battery life.

 

Stamina

First and foremost, there is stamina. I would write and complain a lot less about battery technology if my phones would simply last longer, or if others' phones would last longer, too. Like I have explained what seems like dozens of times now, I can rarely last an entire day on a single charge with both of my phones. I generally have to carry something with me that will allow me to charge in a pinch: a micro USB cable to charge from my computer, an AC adapter for any open outlets I may find throughout the day, a Powerbag or one of my many portable battery chargers.

And it's as if I have someone asking me about how to prolong their battery life each and every day, namely my girlfriend, whose phone has a constant habit of dying in just a few short hours away from the charger.

The temporary fix is to buy an extended battery for your device or for manufacturers to follow Motorola's lead and pack phones with slim, higher capacity, integrated cells. The DROID RAZR MAXX has nearly double the capacity battery that my HTC One X has and it has no problem lasting through an entire day of very heavy use. The downside, however, is the time it takes to charge, which is less of an issue if you simply charge overnight. But that gets me to my next topic …

 

Charge times

I typically charge my phones – one iPhone 4S on Verizon and an AT&T HTC One X – twice each day. They are both plugged up when I go to bed at night and unplugged when I wake in the morning. And there is usually a supplementary charge around noon or shortly after, just to ensure they don't die while I'm out and before I return home at night.

By noon, depending on how much I've used them, the battery percentage remaining is somewhere around 65 to 75 percent – the iPhone errs on the upper side of that range while the One X is on the lower end. That's not bad, by any means. It's much better than, say, the ThunderBolt I (somehow) dealt with last year. But just from 65 or 75 percent left, it can take the One X 45 minutes to an hour to fill back up (note the picture above), whereas the iPhone only takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Of course, this all depends on what I'm using to charge and what amperage the charger supplies.

However, the point remains: they charge too slowly for my fast-paced life. I try to never leave the apartment with my phones on anything but 100 percent. But I can't always judge when I'm going to leave an hour or two in advance. Things come up. Sometimes I have to leave right in a hurry, and I may be gone for 12 or more hours. (This doesn't happen all that often, but it has happened many times before.) Both phones will likely die in that time frame if they aren't fully charged when I leave, and I likely won't have two hours to sit by an outlet to charge both devices.

The rapid charging technology that the South Korean scientists discovered may be the long-term answer to today's agonizingly slow charging. That said, the technology is neither readily available to consumers or ready for manufacturers to implement, nor will it be available for the foreseeable future.

 

Too many variables

The biggest issues with smartphones being powered by such a puny cell is that there are so many wireless signals constantly being connected, disconnected, pushing and pulling data, varying in signal strength and, respectively, consuming an undisclosed amount of battery. The worst part is that it's difficult to gauge it all.

For contrast, I can fairly accurately guess how long my laptop will last on a single charge each day. There are only two wireless signals that I use – Wi-Fi and Bluetooth – and only a handful of programs I have open at any given time. Not only that, but there is an offered estimation of how much time I have left before I need to plug in that appears when I hover the pointer over the battery meter.

To be fair, there are in-depth breakdowns of what's eating your battery, like the built-in Battery Usage utility in the Settings app on Android. And third-party applications can guesstimate the time remaining on the current charge. But with so many connections connecting, disconnecting and fluctuating all day, every day, there is a limit to how accurate these estimations can really be. And it's hard to ignore the elephant in the room, which is my next point.

 

Rogue apps

Every mobile operating system has its own little ecosystem, which is chock-full of thousands upon thousands of applications. In terms of the biggest two, Android and iOS, each have over 600,000 applications available to their users. Of those 1.2 million applications, how many of the respective developers do you think know or care about battery optimization?

Maybe it's not even about optimization. But with each application I install on either Android or iOS, I find myself taking mental notes of the rate of battery drain before and after installation. If the application uses more than four or five percent in the Battery Usage settings on Android, I will immediately uninstall it. Chrome for Android, for example, used 40% of my battery one day having only been running in the foreground for a single second. So I uninstalled it and never looked back. (Note: I haven't had a similar instance on any of my other Android devices, oddly enough.)

And I use the application called Carat on iOS to teach me ways to improve battery life. It is constantly telling me to close apps like Facebook, Tweetbot, Google Voice, etc. To little surprise, when I listen to it and close the battery-munching apps, the drain is noticeably slower.

What this all means, though, is that it's impossible – for me at least – to judge smartphone battery life. Sometimes, the One X will last 27 hours with three hours of screen-on time without a hitch. Other days, it's wheezing, begging for a charge, after just six hours. The difference between the two instances? Nothing on my end. It's all to be blamed on applications and variance in connections. And the iPhone, while generally more reliable, is susceptible to the exact same, unpredictable change. Some days it will last all day without a supplementary charge. Other days, it's notifying me that I need to plug up by 2:00 PM.

 

The silver lining is that one answer could solve most of these problems. A combination of answers, such as higher capacity batteries that charge in mere seconds, could have us all but forgetting about how troublesome the tiny cells of today are. The four above points are solely what irks me about battery life. Is there anything I missed about batteries that bother you, readers? If so, sound off below!

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