Not-so-mobile battery life: Time to force the issue

I was having a lovely conversation last week with a woman who had just upgraded to a Palm Pre. She's been an avid user of Palm products since the company's first-generation PalmPilots defined the PDA market, and was thrilled to see her beloved Palm finally get back into the game with a modern smartphone, a competitive OS, and a reasonably solid-looking business plan.

She waxed poetic about its user interface, the slickness of its multitasking, the smoothness of its application integration, and its great camera. I nodded appreciatively as she took me through her experience. I'm an old Palm PDA addict, too, and I often find myself secretly rooting for the company to overcome its demons and regain, if not market dominance, then at least something that'll allow it to survive and thrive as a smaller kind of innovative agent provocateur in a larger smartphone market.

Your mileage may vary

Then she told me about battery life, and suddenly things weren't so lovely. Her device lasts for about three hours of consistent use before she needs to plug in. Granted, she admits she's a heavy user, often hammering away at her device as incessantly as most of us use a regular desktop or laptop computer during a typical work session. Even so, she hardly expected to have to charge up by lunch each and every work day. It means she carts her adapter with her wherever she goes. She's bought one for the car, too, as well as an extra one for the office so she's never far from a top-up.

And on the days when she's either not in the office or simply forgets to bring an adapter along with her? She lightens her use as much as possible, which sometimes gets her to dinnertime. Or she simply does without, which kind of defeats the purpose of buying a mobile device.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)I'm not the only one who thinks this is a little more than ridiculous. Later, over dinner with a group of tech journalists, they all scoffed at a half-workday's worth of power, and said they'd strike any energy-deficient devices off their personal-purchase shortlists. And while our battery-starved Pre user says she remains enamored of her new device and has no intentions of returning it to the store, they felt those intentions were largely due to her status as a Palm superfan. Their opinion was, only a true Palm fanboy or fangirl would find it within herself or himself to ignore such a glaring fact as energy drop-off, when comparing the Pre to any other device in the store...assuming she'd even go so far as to make a comparison first.

Behold the power-blind consumer

But maybe that's the problem: You can't really see power drop-off in the store, can you? Chances are, most consumers will never know about battery performance before they sign up for a two- or three-year contract and bring their new wonderphone home. At least when we buy cars, we have EPA stickers that provide somewhat understandable estimates of city and highway fuel economy. We know the numbers are often optimistic because the test regime is so patently disconnected from the real world. But at least these figures provide some basis for comparison and understanding. Consumer electronics buyers don't even have that. Manufacturers provide little to no guidance and in-store salespeople, focused on making the commission-boosting sale, are rarely of much use.

And using "lousy battery life" as an excuse for returning a recently purchased phone won't fly with most carriers. It isn't defective, after all: That's just the way the thing was designed. (I suppose you could lie, but I can't sanction such behavior.) If you bought the electronic equivalent of a gas guzzler, you're stuck either buying extra batteries for the thing, or walking around with adapters in your bag and one eye on the nearest outlet.

This isn't solely Palm's issue, and I don't want to seem like I'm harping on this one company. The sad reality is all smartphones suffer from this same affliction to varying degrees. Every new feature seems to require a new kind of radio. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and multiple flavors of second- and third-generation cell network coverage may result in the electronic age equivalent of the Swiss Army knife, but they exact a heavy toll on battery life. Once you turn them all on simultaneously to run all those funky apps you downloaded to find the nearest restaurant, alert your friends via Twitter and Facebook, shoot and upload a video of your adventure and keep the cops from busting you for not using a handsfree device, you'll be looking for supplemental juice soon, too.

Apple's iPhone gets an extra slap with a wet noodle because of its non-removable battery. At least the Pre gives you the option of swapping in a fully charged battery when your first one dies. The iPhone seems to be somewhat better at managing its battery through the day, but even friends and colleagues I've spoken to say stretching things much past dinnertime is often asking too much.

Failure to meet growing demand

Moore's Law never seems to have applied to battery life. And while processors, memory, and screens have all advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years, batteries have not. While new battery technologies and chemistries hold promise, we're stuck in neutral -- or reverse -- for at least the next couple of years.

Perhaps we've grown accustomed to laptops that barely squeeze two or three hours out of a full charge. Perhaps we've actually believed netbook manufacturers who claim eight-hour runtimes or handheld vendors who swear by week-long standby endurance. Whatever our earlier assumptions, we now know we're being hosed on the battery life front. We've moved beyond basic e-mail and voice on our mobile handsets, and now use them to run intensive, integrated, connectivity- and power-hungry applications. It's entirely appropriate for us to move power capacity closer to the top of our priority list.

Until an industry standard for battery life along the same lines as the EPA's fuel economy estimates emerges for mobile devices, consumers will continue to shop blindly, only to get home and gradually realize that they aren't as mobile as they thought they were. Expect this to be portability's Achilles Heel until the industry gets serious about properly, and transparently, balancing between power and performance, and until consumers begin to demand the same.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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