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Solving the battery life conundrum

As battery life continues to be a major issue, we take a look what’s holding back OEMs from adopting new technologies, and examine some of the more promising possibilities and industry stopgaps.

Published onFebruary 12, 2015

For all the incredible improvements in mobile technology there’s a persistent complaint that tops the consumer survey charts – battery life.

According to IDC’s survey, Top 10 Smartphone Purchase Drivers, battery life is the top consideration by a distance, way ahead of ease of use, operating system, and camera resolution. Battery life topped the list in a similar UK survey by GMI which found that 89 percent of respondents felt long lasting batteries were important, compared to 68 percent for brand in second place, and 67 percent for a fast processor in third.

If battery life is so important to us then why aren’t the manufacturers focusing on it? Why do the majority of us still have to charge our smartphones every single day?

Moving the goalposts

The lithium-ion batteries that power our smartphones have been improving, but the processors and screens that they’re powering have been improving much faster. As we jump to QHD displays and octa-core processors we need more power just to maintain the same level of usage.

As we pack in more and better features, and our expectations for performance grow, battery life suffers.

“The inconvenient truth is that we can probably build more on silicon than we can turn on in one go,” Ed Plowman explained to us in ARM’s mission to improve gaming on mobile, “Working out how we can make the techniques employed on high-end gaming platforms accessible on mobile hardware without blowing power budgets is a real challenge.”

As we pack in more and better features, and our expectations for performance grow, battery life suffers. Our smartphones also get more prone to overheating, which has a knock-on negative impact on our batteries.

Why aren’t they improving faster?

It is becoming increasingly difficult for engineers to squeeze more power out of the existing technology. New breakthroughs require expensive and time-consuming testing on a large scale. Safety concerns are paramount with batteries because they can literally explode if the manufacturer gets it wrong. There’s no substitute for long term testing.

Exciting findings in the lab can’t always be scaled up for mass production. How do you balance output, capacity, longevity, and charging speed? Even if something has been extensively tested and it can be scaled, it’s going to be prohibitively expensive compared to older technology which is already being manufactured for the mass market.

That’s not to say that research and development departments around the world aren’t working on new battery technology, because they are, but there’s a big gap between a lab breakthrough and a mass roll-out. In the short term we’re likely to get more mileage out of workarounds that extend or boost our existing li-ion technology.

Working around the problem

Some people are already working around the problem by using extended battery cases, external chargers, and extra batteries, but there are obvious downsides. There’s no getting away from the extra expense and the added bulk of a battery case or an external charger.

Many manufacturers are also embedding batteries now and making it hard to replace them, ostensibly because that enables slimmer, unibody designs. It can also help with water resistance and potentially tougher phones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt from the OEM perspective if you decide to switch your phone every year or two because the battery is dying.

There are lots of different ways that the battery life problem may be rendered moot.

Improving charging

We’ve taken a look at what’s holding back wireless charging before. The technology is far from flawless, there’s little agreement on industry standards, and no one has really given it a big marketing push. It also still relies on contact. It may not solve the problem in its current form, but don’t count it out just yet.

Something like WattUp from Energous, which uses RF and Bluetooth to charge a device within 15 feet of a transmitter could be a game changer. If truly wireless solutions like that are proven safe and they hit the market with the right level of support, then perhaps wireless charging can still be the answer.

Speed is another line of attack. We’re already seeing smartphones and chargers that speed up the process of charging. Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology offers 75 percent faster charging, so you’re looking at around half an hour to get to 60 percent on your battery. StoreDot wants to take it much further with the promise of a 30 second recharge, but the technology is yet to be perfected and it can’t be retrofitted.

Battery top-ups

How about unobtrusive solutions that enable us to top up the battery throughout the day? We’ve seen ideas like Ampy which transforms your kinetic energy from walking and other activities into a standard external battery pack that could be used to top up your smartphone.

Wearables could play a big part here. As we develop batteries in different shapes they could be built in to clothing. Beyond transforming kinetic energy, there’s some possibility that body heat could be used. We could also see solar panels woven into our clothing, though early examples like this Hilfiger jacket aren’t terribly inspiring.

Sticking with the solar theme, there’s a possibility that solar charging could be built into our phone’s screens. But these ideas all offer a limited return, and some depend a great deal on our activity level or location.

New battery technology

Barely a month passes without news of some possible breakthrough that will improve on our current technology, whether it’s Stanford University’s next-gen lithium batteries tripling smartphone battery life, the promise of silicon anodes, research into nanomaterials to lengthen li-ion battery life, or start-ups like MIT spin-off SolidEnergy looking to boost battery longevity.

There are possibilities everywhere, but no solid answers on the future of batteries.

We may see much vaunted wonder-material graphene transform battery tech in new Li-ion designs or as part of a supercapacitor. There are possibilities everywhere, but no solid answers on the future of batteries. For all the promise, we don’t seem to be on the verge. The next big breakthrough still looks to be years away rather than months.

What we can be sure of is that software optimization will continue to play an important part, and component manufacturers are still finding ways to reduce and optimize power consumption.

Where exactly is the sweet spot between performance and functionality? Would you be happy to ease off the cutting edge and dial back resolutions and specs if it meant week long battery life? Would you be happy with better charging technology? Or do you envisage another solution?

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