Smartphone Battery Life Sucks

Every time there’s a new iPhone, Apple’s the first to note just how many millimeters they’ve managed to shave off the back. Like many people, it seems they’re self-conscious about their waistline. But when it comes to the diet, it’s muscle being trimmed, not fat.

One of the limiting pieces of smartphone technology is the battery. Battery technology is evolving slowly. They can only hold a certain amount of energy and be dis/charged so many times. Compare that to other pieces of smartphone technology: screens are getting bigger, processors are getting more powerful, and there’s so many radios (LTE, NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) I could contact the Enterprise on half the non-ionizing EMR spectra.

While smartphones grow more powerful, they’re also getting more power hungry. Companies are currently prioritizing two things: thinness and fast and convenient charging. And boy, do they want to be thin. On the iPhone 6 page, Apple proudly proclaimed that this eighth iteration of iPhone was:

iPhone at its largest. And thinnest.

Apple’s marketing department has kicked thick to the curb, describing products as just X mm thin. As if thinness was ever truly important once we stopped carrying around Motorola DynaTACs and everyone’s favorite indestructible Nokia bar phone. Thinness sells, but it’s a hollow promise. Battery technology is slowly evolving. It isn’t fast enough to keep up with smartphone form-factor shrinkage.

Even Apple has recognized that this is a problem. Enter the Smart Battery Case, Apple’s official entry into the already huge battery-equipped case market. Apple has sold these cases in their own store for some time, so they know there’s demand. But these cases, including Apple’s own, are ugly and obstruct the device that Apple spent a lot of time designing and refining. Further, they make the phone thicker than if it was properly equipped out of the box and increase the cost by $99. Ouch.

Phones used to last for weeks on a single charge. I’m lucky to get through the day with my Nexus 5 idle in my pocket. The reality here is that we (as consumers and as industry professionals) shouldn’t be prioritizing mere millimeters when it is entirely possible to make lightweight phones that are comfortable to hold and enable at least a full day of use.

Reprioritizing is, well, a priority. Fast/convenient charging should stay on the list. Then pour money into new battery technology. But here comes the hard part: the industry as a whole should consider smartphones at peak thinness. (Or would that be graphed as valley thinness?) Stop obsessing over thinness and make everything power efficient.

Right now, the screen of a smartphone uses the most power out of any other component. That includes the processor itself. In fact, processors for mobile devices are quite efficient. The code that runs on that processor, however, typically isn’t. Neither are the radios used to enable wireless communication.

Improving the hardware is one side of the efficiency coin; the software should be heavily optimized, too. With faster processors and more resources available to software engineers, it’s tossed by the wayside. (Remember: we put people on the moon with less computing power than modern, non-smart watches have.) That means extensive code rewrites and the addition of contextual awareness to reduce usage that unnecessarily drains the battery, like fetching Facebook updates while you’re asleep or trying to maintain a full LTE connection in your pocket.

With hardware and software efficiency maxed out, thinness removed as a development priority, and hopefully soon the commercial availability of new technologies like suitable supercapacitors and graphene batteries, we may yet see another phone with a battery life that can outlast a person’s ability to stay awake.

Qualcomm’s Quick Charge and Qi wireless charging technologies can help ease the pain of being tethered to the wall/car/other power source. Provided, of course, you have a device and charger compatible with Quick Charge or Qi everywhere.

In the meantime, when you shop for a phone, treat your phone like your clothes: get the size you fit in, not the size you want to be.

Maybe we should just go back to using Nokias…