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The Next Spec War Must Be Battery Life

Gordon Kelly

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The next spec war must be battery life

meRobert Scoble made an interesting observation this week: “The battery life is a real problem... one six-minute video I did took 20 per cent off the battery”. The influential tech blogger was talking about his experience with Google Glass, the wearable gadget Google hopes will ultimately replace our phones, tablets and computers.

Not with battery life like that it won’t.

Low Battery

Of course Glass remains a prototype device, but the observation only further highlights that battery life has become the technology industry’s biggest dirty secret. Today’s latest and greatest smartphones are no better at getting us through a day on a single charge than smartphones a few years ago and cannot hold a candle to dumbphones 10 years ago. Tablet and laptop designs are 70 per cent filled by batteries and after a few years their performance diminishes dramatically.

The impact is seismic. Daily life is restricted to predictable pit stops and travelling involves packing a suitcase full of cables that make a mockery of the eye-catchingly thin devices they are powering. Forget megapixels, megahertz, CPU cores, screen sizes and apps - amps are where it’s at.

Solar, fuel cells and wireless charging

To this end technology has to step up, and theoretically it is doing so. Recent weeks have seen a number of breakthroughs that claim to solve technology’s obsession of squeezing ever more power into ever thinner forms.

microbattery

The most exciting comes from scientists at the University of Illinois. Researchers there claim to have developed ‘microbatteries’ with microscopic internal three-dimensional structures that make them 1,000x more capacious than existing lithium batteries. They are also powered by fast charging cathodes and anodes, which lead researcher William King claims could reduce charge times to a few seconds.

Solar isn’t standing still either. Last year photovoltaic manufacturer Amonix became the first company to convert more than one third of incoming light energy into electricity - something that had proved a glass ceiling on solar for a decade. It hopes to go beyond 50 per cent efficiency in the next few years.

Fuel cells are also finally showing signs of life. In March researchers at the University of Calgary found a way to dump the expensive and toxic materials in fuel cell catalyzers and replace them with common metals.

Meanwhile wireless power options are increasingly offered in flagship handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S4, Nokia Lumia 920 and Nexus 4. And wireless charge points have become a fairly common sight in airports, and are expanding into restaurants and coffee shops making it easier to top up batteries in our existing devices.

Format wars

But inevitably there are buts. Lots of them.

The University of Illinois’s microbatteries use a combustible liquid as the electrolyte that carries a significant explosion risk if scaled up to practical sizes. Amonix’s solar breakthrough uses proprietary technology and even 50 per cent efficiency is too inefficient for power hungry smart devices. It remains restricted to external battery packs. Meanwhile fuel cells continue to be a fire hazard, which scares both manufacturers and consumers.

This leaves wireless charging as by far the most practical and immediately viable of our battery boosting technologies. The problem is its take up is being harmed by the most familiar of tech barriers: a format war.

powerkiss

The predictable opponents in this are Duracell and Energizer, and the split between influential manufacturers is as heavyweight as the battle was between HD DVD and Blu-ray. The Duracell side (represented by a group called the PMA - Power Matters Alliance) counts Google, LG, BlackBerry, Texas Instruments and ZTE along with retailers AT&T, Starbucks and airport and restaurant outfitter PowerKiss among its 57 members. Backing Energizer are Samsung, Sony, Toshiba, Nokia, Motorola (making an interesting dilemma for Google), Huawei, HTC, Hitachi, Pentax and Philips in a list 120 members long.

Consequently Energizer has the manufacturer advantage, but Duracell has retail outlets that could sway consumers and manufacturers alike. To make matters worse a third standard, ‘PowerbyProxi’, is starting to win affection as - unlike the others - it doesn’t require precise placing of devices onto specific points on wireless charge surfaces and can charge multiple devices on a single charge pad.

Ultimately consumers won’t win until one format does, but sadly it looks like a battle with years still to run.

Inescapable trends

All of which means, right now, we’re stuck. Handsets may be getting bigger, but like tablets and laptops they are also getting progressively thinner. Furthermore while chipsets get ever more power efficient with each generation, what they enable - 1080p video, more complex gaming, 4G fast web browsing and streaming - all make us use our devices in increasingly demanding ways.

Consequently the only solution appears to be for manufacturers to keep slapping in ever larger batteries. This works in the short term and we can only hope rumours the Motorola X Phone will have a 4,000mAh battery (almost twice the size of most Android handsets) turn out to be true to induce this much needed spec war.

That said we will soon reach a stage where phone dimensions become essentially fixed (how large and thin can a smartphone be?) and even smaller devices such as Google Glass start to take over. With analysts IHS claiming Glass could ship over nine million units in 2016, this may happen sooner than we think.

By then new battery technology must have come to the forefront. If not technology’s greatest inventions will be ruined by it.

Glenn Gore

April 29, 2013, 11:44 am

I agree wholeheartedly with this article. My cellphone has all sorts of neat functions on it, but if I were to turn them all on, which one would think would be the ideal situation that the manufacturer intended, then my device would not last until noon before the battery died. This is ridiculous. The phone is a really pretty, nicely thin thing, beautifully designed, but due to this design, it is completely incapable of containing a battery sufficient to power it for even one day, let alone 3-4 days.

Yes, battery manufacturers have been improving their technology in recent years, but all this work has been completely voided by the trend towards paper-thin phones with increasingly demanding processors, larger screens, etc. We have been left with the situation of not being able to use any of the functions our phones have within them, or only being able to turn them on for the few seconds we need those functions and then turn them right off because we can see the battery indicator dropping fast. A thin phone is nice, a huge screen is nice, but if you can't put a big enough battery in a phone to make those features useful for more than 2-3 hours, I won't be buying it any more.

Luke

April 29, 2013, 12:35 pm

I am shocked and appalled that Motorola seem to be the only manufacturers smart enough to put proper batteries in their phone. When a phone can't even make it to the end of your day, something is very wrong. A 1650mAh in a 4.3" phone is ridiculous (S2), so is 2100mAh in a 4.8" phone (S3). It's almost like a sick joke, as if they though "Hmm, how can we ruin our customers' evenings?"

Chrispynutt

April 29, 2013, 3:12 pm

To paraphrase an old saying: Pick two from these: Smart/Fast, Long Battery Life, Slim.

I think I would trade up to a bigger phone if the battery life was much better and that the design considered a large battery from day one. To be honest the Galaxy S2's official extended battery is the most seamless design I have seen. Although the Mugen Power Xperia Arc battery looked almost right.

I think someone needs to create a modular phone system. You buy the base model and add extras on like rugged casing, double capacity battery, keyboard, game controls, designs for outer shell on top. You leverage economies of scale on the base model and lockin with future upgrades to keep all your gear.

Gordon Kelly

April 29, 2013, 3:38 pm

I too would put up with a little more size and weight for better battery life... I think most consumers would. Manufacturers though are scared to compete on battery life, because they wouldn't look as sleek as the competition. Who takes the first step is what is holding them back.

The modular phone approach has been done before, but very badly: http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

Gordon Kelly

April 29, 2013, 3:40 pm

Spot on, but until manufacturers realise that shaving another millimetre off the thickness is not worth sacrificing 2-3 hours of battery life then it won't change. There's a huge amount of substance to smartphones, but when it comes to physical design they certainly aren't as smart as they think they are.

toboev

April 29, 2013, 4:00 pm

"Amonix’s solar breakthrough uses proprietary technology..."
Of course it is proprietary, they are the proprietor who just developed it, I assume?

toboev

April 29, 2013, 4:34 pm

"how large and thin can a smartphone be?"
Hopefully they will keep on getting thinner, on the inside. Outside can remain at about 8-10mm. The difference can then be taken up by the battery. Eventually a phone will be just a battery with the electronics and display sprayed on.

Greg

April 29, 2013, 10:08 pm

Battery life isn't the problem, power supply is. Think about it - it is the 21st century. Why are we still carrying batteries to widespread charging points.

Pg

April 30, 2013, 12:54 pm

How about having official products which are larger batteries that come with a different back casing, making the phone larger but allowing customers to choose between slim or power? I know some phone manufactures won't allow you to change the battery, but there are plenty that do. Choice is never a bad thing.

Though I'd rather see wireless charging develop to the point that you don't need to put your device on a pad to charge it. Just being in the presence of a wireless charging station would charge your item. Sitting having a coffee your phone could be charging in your pocket. Hopefully get to the point where batteries are optional, that your device is constantly powered by a wireless field. I'll leave any health issue with such fields to the professionals and the future, as it's unlikely to happen in my lifetime.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 1:11 pm

That's a twisted way of looking at the same thing. Better batteries = less carrying to charging points. Either way things need to improve.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 1:15 pm

Yep, but that won't hack it. They are about 70-80% of a phone's internal space now.

Increasing that to 95% is just a 15-25% gain which is nowhere near enough to handle the advanced 3D games, 4G browsing, increasingly complex HTML5 rendering, 15+ megapixel image processing and 4K video support.on the horizon. The battery space is finite, what phones are being asked to do is not.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 1:16 pm

Not sure you understand the use of proprietary here. Many inventions in technology are made then open sourced to enable their further development. Amonix has every right not to do that, but it means widespread solar advances will be slower because of it.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 1:20 pm

I think there is already a version of what you're talking about in terms of casing. The Galaxy S3, for example, has third party larger backs with increased battery capacities. Offering it straight from the manufacturer is a nice idea, but with the move increasingly towards unibody metal designs (http://www.trustedreviews.com/... it seems we're getting further away from that than closer.

I like the second idea... charging is akin to Bluetooth or WiFi and automatically pairs when in a charging area. Yes the health implications will be massive, as will public acceptance (whether it is safe or not) but similarly a few second full charge like the 'microbatteries' in this article could be the way to go.

EuroAnchor

April 30, 2013, 3:56 pm

Time to vote with your wallets. Buying additional batteries or juicer packs only aggravates the issue, its a solution to problem that you shouldn't have.

Greg

April 30, 2013, 4:35 pm

Either way of looking at it is valid, and that doesn't mean one of them is twisted. You're approach to your readers is very divisive - there's little if any room to empathise with their view. I've observed your spend more time admonishing their opinions in comments than you do writing! That's probably a twisted view too...!

toboev

April 30, 2013, 4:47 pm

I understand the word proprietary. What I'm not so sure about is why you say profit driven companies would "open source" (give away) the fruits of their expensive research.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 5:35 pm

Not all companies are profit driven. It is an important piece of information to include to make sure that was understood. Amonix is not developing for the wider industry in solar like, say the IEEE in wireless.

I don't understand your issue with me making its position clear.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 5:40 pm

The danger of language.

You have completely misinterpreted 'twisted'. I mean it as in: that's flipping the problem over - literal twist... not that it isn't a valid point. It is. There is no admonishing going on here.

Secondly the fact I take time to respond to almost every comment as a freelance writer should be welcomed. I'm not paid for it. Whether I agree or disagree with a comment is my prerogative, but I will always give a reason. It's a strange criticism.

Gordon Kelly

April 30, 2013, 5:42 pm

It does, but not buying them at all would probably lead manufacturers to believe there is no problem. If, say, Mophie sales suddenly skyrocketed to multi-millions it might raise awareness.

The only solution would be to stop buying ultrathin phones, but even then it would probably take a while for manufacturers to work out why the sales had slumped and integrate changes into their development cycle.

Hopefully as other elements even out: screen quality, dimensions, camera quality, processor speeds, etc the area which does still clearly have problems will at last be properly addressed.

toboev

April 30, 2013, 5:51 pm

I don't have an issue.

Bugblatter

April 30, 2013, 9:15 pm

If the Razor Maxx had been a huge success then manufacturers would now be including far larger batteries. Instead the S3 and Note II were huge successes and so manufacturers are including far larger screens. Who's to blame?

Greg

April 30, 2013, 9:53 pm

It isn't a criticism - it is an observation. I appreciate as a freelance you're limited in what you can write, both in content and volume, and so continuing your story in reaction to comments is, of course, very welcome.
Succinct is one thing, ambiguity is another. The latter is dangerous when language is one's profession.

andyvan

May 1, 2013, 7:51 am

So, which current phones are the worst culprits here? I confess I've always been satisfied with the iPhone's battery life - currently I'm on a 4S but have had an iPhone 5 recently, too. I remember the HTCs being particularly bad, the Desire era phones especially.

I guess my point is this - how long is enough?

oselimg

May 1, 2013, 8:29 pm

There is a saying among photographers that "Best camera is the one you have with you" If your smart phone with zillions of functions can not perform it's duty because it's run out of battery even before the day ends it's not smart anymore is it? Actually it's darn right "dumb phone"

oselimg

May 1, 2013, 9:04 pm

As an alternative look at the issue "power supply" All we need is longer power supply with or without the batteries and we don't want to pay anymore than what we pay now (most smart phones are grossly overpriced IMHO). I think that smart phones reached a level as "phones with moderately capable pocket computers". We'we lost sight of functions because most people have gadgets they dont fully use or doesn't know how to use it to it's full capacity. A good lap top computer costs around 500 pounds with it's 13 inch screen and a good basic phone(I mean phone only) around 60 pounds. Now, how come a phone with a dumb computer with 4,5 inch screen costs 500 pounds. Any thoughts.

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