14Nov 2018

Geoffrey Fowler at the Washington Post recently published an article observing that phone battery life is getting worse. I enjoyed my conversations with Geoffrey as he researched the topic. But why is the phone battery life getting worse? Why are batteries not keeping up with the new crop of smartphones? 

Like so many things in life, it is all about energy balance. Our doctors tell us that we need to balance our calories: Calories we eat versus the calories we expand on exercise. And so the smartphone needs to balance its energy stored in the battery versus the energy it spends on use. So I distill this to two simple questions on energy demand and supply:

  1. Why is the energy demand growing with increased use of our smartphones?
  2. Why can’t we have a bigger battery to supply our growing energy needs in a smartphone?

So let’s tackle the first question by examining the sources that drive energy consumption in a smartphone. There are three parts in your smartphone that are energy hogs:

  • Your screen….ok, I am sure you all know that ;
  • Your processor….some of you probably know that too ;
  • Your radios. Not your FM radio! Radios means the cellular connection, WiFi connection, bluetooth, GPS….anything that communicates with the outside world using radio waves.

Energy consumption for each of these parts depends on the nature of the hardware and you, the user — that’s the length of time you spend on the device. 

The energy used by a screen is quite large, even with the new OLED screens. Screens are getting a bigger numbers of pixels. Each pixel consumes energy. More pixels means more energy.  Every time you turn the screen on, it’s more energy that the battery has to supply.  And that adds up rapidly. 

If you follow various chatrooms, you probably know that “screen time”, meaning the total amount of available battery time with your screen on, is probably about 6 hours, give or take – regardless of what the smartphone maker advertises about all day use or more.

Next is the processor. Fortunately, that piece of hardware used to be a major energy hog but with the new generation of processors from Qualcomm or Apple or Samsung, they have become quite efficient. How much efficient? About twice more efficient than the previous generations from a few years back. All good news, right? well, not quite.

You see, processors have become efficient indeed, but now they are running a lot more frequently than they ever did. Think about an SUV parked in the garage versus a Honda Civic used for Ubering. Which one uses more energy?

A few years ago, we used our smartphones for texting and emailing….now, we stream videos. So while these processors are efficient, they are being taxed by video and social media. Net net, they are consuming more energy from the battery. How can you tell? watch how hot your smartphone becomes when you stream videos or take 4k movies on your device. That’s your processor getting hot.

Let’s talk now about radios. That’s a growing problem for the battery, so much that carriers like AT&T and Verizon in the US, or DoCoMo in Japan are really worried about it.

On one hand, carriers love that you use more and more data…that’s how they make money. But data use means your cellular connection is on, a lot more than before. 

But you say wait, isn’t 5G cellular connection better than LTE? Think of 5G as adding more lanes on the internet superhighway as compared to LTE. It means more cars, a lot more cars, will use the highway. It means more energy will be consumed. And the battery needs to supply this energy.

The FCC is just auctioning a new range of frequencies between 24 GHz and 47 GHz for the future 5G spectrum. By comparison, LTE runs at frequencies between 0.5 GHz and 2 GHz. Why is this important? Energy use goes up with frequency. So by going to the new 5G frequency, energy consumption will grow with it, worsening the burden on the battery. In other words, the future will tax the battery even more!

Bottom line: our smartphones and our user behavior mean our appetite for more energy will continue to grow.

Now we can tackle the second question: Why can’t the device manufacturer put a bigger battery in the smartphone? 

It is simple: Bigger battery capacity means a physically bigger battery. Batteries are improving so slowly such that the only way to give users more battery capacity is by making the device larger or thicker. The recent iPhone XS, XR and XS Max show a clear trend to making larger devices that can hold larger batteries.

Will that be enough for the future? not really. Smartphone sizes can’t get any bigger. At 6 in or greater screen sizes, they are already too large to hold in one hand. They may get a little thicker but not by much. Our human hands determine the optimal physical form for a smartphone.

So what gives? I don’t know yet, but most likely, our behavior and expectations. It is quite likely that users may charge their smartphones more frequently in one day…perhaps charge twice instead of once. Some users might be happy with fewer pixels in their devices. Others may turn off their Facebook and social media apps. 

Regardless of how we adapt to the future of smartphones, the battery will continue to be the weakest link, and the one in most need for innovation.