The scourge of shrinking batteries and runtimes

This guest article was submitted by Steven Law.

Pico_thumbdrive "Great things come in small packages." It's a fairly well-known statement. Mothers and grandmothers trying to console tearful children come to mind. In fact, bullies and fun-size candy bars aside, an overall sense of smallness is smiled upon in quite a few areas. Consumer electronics is one of them. Folks marvel over wafer-thin media players, computers that fit in one's hand, and thumbdrives that are barely larger than the port itself. It seems that designers are intent on driving material scientists nutty by dreaming up thinner, lighter, and less voluminous products. Product engineers then torture themselves to stuff in as many features and capabilities as they can. If a phone doesn't have push email, play high quality video, and fit invisibly in your pocket, well, we know what sort of reception it'll receive.

But it's gotten to the point where I think it should be said: things may have gotten too small.

Forefathers_imac I know that may seem ridiculous to say on a site called Pocketables. In fact, I don't find anything fundamentally wrong with small, well-designed devices. Smaller devices are more likely to be carried around, increasing the likelihood of use throughout the day. Your back and shoulder will probably thank you for the decreased stress you put on them. And then there's just the fact that they remind the user that he or she is living in the future. If you're over the age of 20, just stop for a moment and think about the gear that you have and what you can do with them. Cool, no? If you're under the age of 20, just roll your eyes and post on Facebook about how behind the times old people are.

However, as an Aztec priest would say, there are sacrifices to be made. The most common complaints revolve around input and output. "There's no hardware buttons/keyboard!" "The screen is too small!" "There's no on-board 3G/Bluetooth/GPS!" "The battery life is mediocre!"

That last one, that's me. I know a certain size is required for a phone to fit in your hand, and I understand that there really isn't a market for a media player the size of a paving stone, even if it could play your entire collection on one charge. What gets to me is when it seems form isn't following function, but rather dragging it along by the scruff of the neck, especially when it's difficult or impossible to use the item as intended while it's being charged.

The Littlest Offenders

Ipod_shuffle_dissected A good example of this would be the new, third-generation iPod Shuffle. It's sleek and shiny, with no buttons to complicate things; it isn't a choking hazard; it has a battery life of 10 hours – wait, couldn't the previous Shuffle play up to 12 hours of music before requiring a recharge? Yep. (Side note: Who really ever gets the maximum stated usage time, anyway? I don't.) Perhaps it was a move to maximize profit; maybe user studies showed that most Shuffle users didn't need to get 8 hours of music playback between charges. Whatever the reason behind this decision was, it seems a little backwards when a revised model ends up with a smaller battery. This is doubly important when you consider that a decreased maximum battery life also means a shorter useful life for the device. Remember the rule of thumb for lithium ion packs: batteries that are properly taken care of lose about 20% of capacity per year. I suppose if you buy a new iPod each year this won't affect you too much.

Nintendo_ds_family Looking at something more interactive, we have the Nintendo DS trio. Folks debate about whether The Godfather II was better or worse than the original; however, I don't know who wouldn't agree that the sequel to the DS was indeed improved. Not only was the DS Lite more durable, stylish, and compact than its predecessor, but it also offered a longer runtime. This was partially because of a 20% larger battery. This same battery, powering the recently released DSi, might be a little stretched. Between the slightly larger screens, more powerful CPU, etc., a not insubstantial increase in power draw is expected. What does Nintendo do? They switch to a battery that is smaller than the pack included in the original DS! As a result, runtimes are down by a third or more. It's important to note that the DSi is 10% thinner than the DS Lite: fractions of an inch. Will folks notice it? I don't know. The DSi battery is about the size of a matchbook. Would we have a considerably larger battery if it were thicker by a few fractions of an inch? Definitely.

How to Pretend the Problem Doesn't Exist

Large_ugly_battery Up until now I haven't talked about smartphones, UMPCs, and MIDs. This is partly because I'd like to get people thinking about battery life in all sorts of devices, convergent or not. At the same time, the aforementioned electronics don't really have any well-publicized solutions to shortened battery lives, whereas these three categories of devices do . . . right? Here are the options, and why I feel they aren't all that great.

  • Extra/extended batteries. Congratulations, you have a removable battery. Time to spend an extra $50-$150 for an additional pack that can't be used with any other device. Don't forget to sell it for half-price if you eBay your phone or computer! Note: An extended battery may make your stylish UMPC look chunky (I'm looking at you, Fujitsu U820).
  • Universal batteries. What is universal about these batteries is that you will need a bag to carry them in. One would be advised to make sure that they're compatible with your computer; if you have anything imported or exotic, all bets are off.
  • Solar chargers. Good for trickle charging your phone in an emergency. They just don't put out enough power! With the large bags with embedded panels, we still have the same problem of compatibility, and now you have to worry about the cells being damaged.
  • Using advanced features sparingly. I include this because an increasing number of companies think the solution to using your super awesome gizmo for a longer period of time . . . is to turn off the functions that make it super and awesome. No thanks.

The End(game)

So what's coming down the pipe in terms of improved energy storage? Unfortunately, not much. For the past five years exotic battery technology, fuel cells, and ultracapacitors have been "just 12-18 months away from market." Meanwhile, we trundle along with li-ion and li-po batteries that keep shrinking in size, or running in place at best. For example, it's rumored that the battery for the Palm Pre, the next highly anticipated smartphone, will be of the same size – if not the same model – as the Centro and Treo 800w.

Major players are instead content to tackle the problem from the other, sexier end: power consumption. Intel's Moorestown is supposed to compete with the Cortex family of ARM processors, sipping power at fractions of a watt. Theoretically the same size batteries will keep devices powered for a lot longer. Of course, that's not going to happen if those designers dream up a phone that could be mistaken for a pocket mirror. Drat, I may have given someone an idea…

Steven Law is a San Francisco-based personal technology consultant and assistant. When not promoting UMPCs to curious on-lookers, he can be found working on half-baked hardware prototypes.

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Pocketables is a US-based online tech magazine that brings news, insights, opinions, and comprehensive reviews on various mobile computing devices, portable technology, and related topics to a global audience. We focus on devices that fit into pockets of all sizes, from jeans and jackets to backpacks and purses. The gadget experts that comprise our staff produce high quality articles and original features colored with real-life use of products over weeks and months, not first-impression opinions formed within hours or days.

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