Monday, 14 February 2011

Mobile Phone Batteries - Just Put A Bigger One In!!

Back in 2007 my primary mobile phone was a Nokia 6300, a robust device with a stainless steel body, running the S40 operating system. Granted it only has a 2 inch 240 x 320 resolution screen, no WiFi, no 3G, no GPS and no multi-tasking, but at the time I remember it running 4 maybe 5 days on a single charge. During this time I would use it for mobile browsing using Opera Mini, listening to music, as well as phone calls and SMS. Bluetooth would be permanently turned on to facilitate my 2-way phone-to-Google calendar sync system (automatic Bluetooth sync from phone to Outlook using PC Suite when in range of Bluetooth dongle in PC, Outlook then syncing to Google calendar using Google Calendar Sync).

That 6300 (and another 6300, when the first one got "misplaced" one night out) lasted until mid-2009 when I moved to a Nokia N79. The N79 is a nice S60 3rd Edition FP2 candy bar style device, upgrading my 6300 experience with WLAN, 3G, GPS and multi-tasking with S60; very much standard specifications expected from a device in 2009. This would have WLAN permanently turned on so as to take advantage of access points at home, office and friend's houses. Bluetooth too was permanently turned on, so lazy boy here could get into his car and the N79 would automatically hook up to the in-car system. Mail for Exchange would sync my Google calendar and contacts over the air every hour, and using IMAP Google email would be pulled every 30 minutes. This phone would regularly last 3 to 4 days on a single charge, despite the extra functionality over the 6300.

So from 2007 through to early 2010 I spent my time charging only every 3 or 4 days across both devices, and when iPhones started to become very popular in the UK I would be slightly envious of some of Apple's great design work, but would in equal measures make fun of those who could just about get through a day with a single battery charge, though many wouldn't even get that much, and bought second chargers to place at their work desks. Many may say that being plugged in to charge a lot isn't such a bad thing, but anyone who's ever been on a camping holiday, been to a 2 or 3 day festival, or ever done any trekking will tell you shouldn't always expect to be near a mains power source 24/7. It shouldn't be a given.

I've been a Blackberry user since 2008 through work, a second device I keep with me as well as my "own phone". I had an 8100 Pearl followed my current 8520 Curve. These devices too seem to be fine over about 2 or 3 days, again with WiFi and Bluetooth permanently turned on similar to the story with the N79.

Now I, like many, have abandoned Nokia's truly great hardware to move over the Android platform. It makes sense for anyone who has bought into Google cloud services, as well as providing in my opinion the most user configurable experience of any mobile operating system. This had led me through the Huawei Pulse Mini, Sony Ericsson X10 Mini Pro, and currently the Motorola Defy. However, with all 3 of these devices I have found myself making some adjustments and compromises just to get through a whole day on a single charge; WiFi is turned on/off with a 3rd party application that checks which cell towers I am connected to in order to determine my approximate location, Bluetooth is off until needed, 3G is never turned on, so when I am outside of my WiFi areas I am on 2G only, Latitude is turned off despite the fact that I'm one of the few people who think it's a nice idea. I leave the sync for Google mail, calendar and contacts turned on because that's the big reason I came to Android in the first place!

It would be bad form to not at least quote some battery capacities (and screen sizes) for the devices I'm talking about:

Battery Capacity Display Size
6300860mAh2 inch
N791200mAh2.4 inch
Pulse Mini1150mAh2.8 inch
X10 Mini Pro 970mAh2.6 inch
Defy1540mAh3.7 inch

The trends here seem to be: the N79 needed more battery for its extra functionality over the 6300; the Pulse Mini and X10 Mini Pro both had less than the N79, but the Defy has significantly more and at the time of launch had the largest capacity battery of any Android phone available in the UK. The Defy's Achilles heel versus the others in the list is the screen though, a large 3.7 inch, with the others ranging from 2 to 2.8 inches. With screens being more equal maybe that large 1540mAh battery in the Defy would take it through 2 or even 3 days use, or a full day of use with all the bells and whistles turned on?

So it is a real shame to me that what I once took pity of on other users, particularly iPhone users (pre iPhone 4) I am now subjecting myself to with Android phones. I remember a year ago or so it feeling strange to have to remember to plug in to charge every night, and having quite a few days when I failed this task and suffered the consequences. However, even with a nightly charge the user experience is somewhat dumbed down (3G off, no Latitude, etc) and dependant on 3rd party bolt-ons to keep the radios in the device off until absolutely needed, all to get through one day. Symbian clearly has much better power optimisation than Android at time of writing, and I miss the days of not worrying about charging every night without fail.

Will Android get better with battery optimisation in the near future? Will battery technology make any leaps and bounds to enable higher capacities in the same physical volume? Are manufacturers even bothered about this, and consider 2000mAh and higher capacity batteries? Or are we doomed to be tied to a power socket every night, or a collection of mobile chargers cluttering up our laptops and rucksacks? (Which we will have to charge every night as well...)