Better battery life is on the way!

Anna Scantlin
Contributing Editor from  Kansas City, MO
| December 26, 2012

Every day it seems like the “great battery life” I initially started off with on my iPhone is slowly creeping towards “annoying” status as it only seems to last half a day instead of nearly the whole day like it used to. There are several factors as to why my battery drains faster now as opposed to when I first got it, but it’s mostly attributed to increased GPS usage. In fact, in any phone the element that causes the most battery consumption is the GPS chip. However, our friends at Microsoft may have found a way to cut battery consumption by a great deal.

The current GPS component in a phone can take 30 seconds to get the data it needs via satellite just to locate something on the map, but that’s not all. After the initial data batch of acquiring a location, it then has to sort through codes in order to calculate the intended location with more precision. That’s a lot of work for one phone to do, especially if you’re running an actual GPS system that’s trying to keep up with you in real time.

A Microsoft Research project has been working on finding a way for the GPS chips inside our phones to consume less power.

We are all becoming more familiar with “cloud” technology and how it’s enabling us to have even more storage by offloading some of our data like music, photos, and documents to another source. You can pull these files whenever you want from the cloud, and put it back as you see fit. The Microsoft Research project intends to use cloud technology to do the same thing for GPS – offload most of the time-consuming components of GPS and only pull the crucial information from the satellites in just a few milliseconds.  The other half of the equation is to then combine the data obtained from the satellites and with other important information obtained from public online databases to calculate a device’s past locations. Jie Liu, one of the principal researchers at Microsoft Research, and his team have developed a system based off of these principles and are actively working to make it available to us sometime in the future.

However, right now in this system’s development, this means that you would need continuous data/WiFi/cellular coverage in order to use the GPS. Right now we are fortunate in that many GPS systems continue to work, even offline. This idea would need some tweaking before it would be well-received by incorporating them in our phones. I’ve come across too many “spotty” areas to trust a device to completely rely on cellular connectivity.

This could be ground breaking technology for the future. So far, it seems our solution for better battery life is to just incorporate bigger batteries. Not a bad idea, but with bigger batteries come bigger phones. The next Galaxy Note is rumored to have a 6” screen – that would literally make the phone one inch away from being a tablet. Maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but are people really interested in a phone that big? I would rather phones be at least in the same range we see them now (the Galaxy Note II is big enough to me) and improve the battery life through internal components.

Liu says that that in a typical mobile phone continuous GPS sensing would burn through a phone battery in about six hours. Six hours is not a lot of time if you’re using your device for a road trip (although one could assume if you’re using your phone for GPS on a road trip, you’ll be taking a car charger along with you). Regardless, say you don’t have a car charger or something happens to yours; it at least sounds nice in theory to not have to worry about your phone and your GPS dying in just six short hours. Even if you’re not on a road trip, we use GPS in our phones every day through other various location-based services, such as applications, and that can arguably consume a lot more battery life than we might like on any given day.

Readers, do you have battery life issues that might benefit from this project? Even if you have what’s deemed “good” battery life on your smartphone – is there ever such a thing as battery life that’s “too good”? Do you think we’ll ever get back to a time where our phones could stay off the charger for days and still have a decent amount of battery life left?