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June 13, 2011

Why your smartphone battery isn’t as good as your smartphone

Let’s face it, we’d all love our smartphones’ battery to last longer. But the simple fact is that the phones’ need for extra juice is outpacing enhancements in battery technology. Even though batteries have improved since the early days, battery manufacturers are struggling to squeeze as much as they can from more than a decade old lithium ion technology. So what exactly is it that makes life so tough for our batteries?

Old technology evolves slower

Smartphones are relatively new. Batteries have been around for more than a century. Why does this matter? Because new technologies inevitably evolve at a faster pace. Lithium ion polymer batteries for handheld devices haven’t changed dramatically in more than 15 years. A battery’s power comes from a chemical reaction, the transfer of electric-charge-bearing electrons between the anode and the cathode, and that reaction is difficult to improve. To drastically change things, we need either a new material or an inspired inventor.

Smartphones are getting fancier

The bigger your screen and the higher its resolution, the more power it will suck up. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon. On top of this power hog, you have ever more hardcore processing requirements. Most smartphones contain Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and GPS inside. Often these work simultaneously. What’s more, newer devices also have a 4G radio chipset that needs loads more power to decode loads more data. So, even though smartphone hardware is much more energy efficient today than it was when phones lasted longer, the power requirements are massively greater.

‘Appy days make batteries sad

We all know about the massive increase in the use of apps. The figures are truly astounding. Ovi Store, for example, currently gets over 5 million downloads a day. While most app developers don’t want to create something that will intentionally ruin your battery life, sometimes it’s a balancing act between functionality and power. Most of us have got used to plugging our smartphones in overnight, but if battery technology doesn’t improve soon, smartphone innovation might hit a wall.

Hope on the horizon?

So what are our prospects? Research labs across the world continue to squeeze smaller and smaller amounts of power out of lithium ion. And, theoretically, there is the possibility that graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of graphite that has the potential to store and transmit energy, could one day in the distant future be used commercially. But until that time, we’re probably going to have to get used to the fact that our smartphone battery just isn’t as good as our smartphone.