Finally: Better Battery Life Coming to Mobile!

Wednesday Jul 24th 2013 by Mike Elgan
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Would you believe 48 hours for a smartphone battery?

In the past two years, mobile hardware makers have dazzled users with stunning new displays and powerful new features. And by powerful, I mean they use a lot of power and drain batteries.

As users have discovered, even the greatest of features isn’t so great when the battery is dead.

The good news is that the industry has been paying attention and is starting to respond with gadgets that get much better battery life.

Over the next two years we’ll see battery and power technologies catching up. And this big catch-up started this week.

Google today introduced version 4.3 of its Android operating system for mobile devices. And it includes some powerful improvements for reducing power consumption.

For example, it can now push location “geofencing” into the hardware, where it can be processed more efficiently than it can in software. It can also scan WiFi without the user actually turning WiFi on. The new Android also supports Bluetooth Smart, which Apple’s iPhone has supported for a long time.

Better battery management in Android is just the beginning.

Motorola Maxxes Out Battery Life

Motorola, which is now owned by Google, announced this week a new phone called the Droid Maxx, which has at least one killer feature: A full 48 hours of battery life. In fact, Motorola announced three phones -- Droid Ultra, Droid Maxx and Droid Mini -- with a long list of advanced and surprising features. But the press and the blogs zeroed in on the Maxx’s insane battery life.

(Of course, this won’t matter unless you’re on Verizon -- the Motorola Droid lineup is incomprehensibly available in the United States only on that network starting August 20.) The Droid MAXX has a powerful battery -- a 3500 mAh monster -- one of the biggest batteries available from a mainstream handset manufacturer -- which can be conveniently charged with a wireless charging option. (mAh stands for “milliamp hours,” and it’s a standard unit for the amount of power a battery can store.)

Far more interesting is that the Droid Maxx takes a radical approach to battery management, using a comprehensive hardware approach, plus software, plus social engineering.

Wait, social engineering?

The Droid Maxx saves power in part by changing user behavior in a way that drains the battery less.

Motorola realized that users are constantly checking their phones for trivial purposes -- to check the time, see if anyone emailed or texted and to get social networking notifications.

Each time the phone is checked, the battery takes a hit: The entire phone has to come out of sleep mode, the entire screen is lit up, the phone fires up the WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS electronics and more.

The Maxx and other Motorola phones use a revolutionary new approach. A dedicated system-on-a-chip technology called the X8, developed in Motorola’s smartwatch group, displays notifications and the time on the screen using only the minimum number of pixels required on the Super AMOLED screen. Every few seconds, the latest data quietly appears on screen, then fades away.

That enables users to check data without turning on the phone -- or even touching it.

While many might think that having the phone “always on” would drain battery, in fact it does the opposite. It means the phone, compared with regular usage of other phones, is rarely on -- it doesn’t have to be fully on in order for users to check for updates.

Motorola calls the X8 an 8-core chip. Designed specifically for Android, it has two application processor cores, four graphics cores, a “contextual computing core,” (including a low-power way to maintain location information) and a natural language processing core.

All this separation of different computing tasks, plus software to go with it, plus the giant battery, enables the Droid Maxx’s epic battery life.

The Other Massive Batteries Are for Asia Only

A newish phone called the Philips Xenium W8510 has a battery nearly as powerful as the Maxx’s -- a 3300mAh monstrosity.

Apparently optimized to extend battery life for use of the phone, the Xenium W8510 offers 35 days of standby time 14 hours of using the web over WiFi. The downside is that the phone may be available only in Japan, for some reason.

While the Droid Max may have the biggest battery in the US, a Chinese-made smartphone to be sold only in China called the Oppo Find 7 may have the biggest in the world -- a 4,000mAh battery.

It may not achieve the 48-hour battery life that Motorola claims for the Droid Maxx, however, unless it has comparable battery management electronics and software.

Why Batteries Are the Big Showstopper In Wearables

Everybody, including and especially me, are talking about the coming wearable computing revolution. This movement will take place mainly in the form of wristwatches, but also in less mainstream applications like the Google Glass headset.

Everything the industry needs to make these wearable devices mainstream is present -- the tiny, high-rez screens, low-powered Bluetooth Smart, embedded operating systems, notifications infrastructures and more.

The only thing holding up the show is battery life.

Specifically, Google Glass testers (the device is in pre-beta, and won’t ship until the end of next year at the earliest) have been disappointed by battery life. Although Glass isn’t designed to be used constantly, but rather occasionally, constant use burns through the tiny batteries in about two hours.

The best battery life for currently shipping smartwatches is typically about a day, and many aren’t lasting nearly that long. Those that last longer have low-rez, low-powered displays, which are less appealing to consumers.

Apple even has a patent for flexible batteries that form part of the watch’s wristband. The battery issue may be one reason why industry insiders don’t expect an Apple iWatch until late next year at the earliest.

Either way, the wearable revolution isn’t going to happen unless the kind of radical thinking now improving mobile phone battery life is applied to wearable devices.

For now, however, we can look forward to radical improvements in battery life for our smartphones.

I hope better battery trend lasts for a long time.

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