Mobile devices

22Sep 2014

I talked about capacity, cycle life, tricks of the industry….today, I will distill it down to some simple thoughts for you to keep in mind when you are ready to select your next mobile device or smartphone. In particular, today’s writing is about selecting a device with the proper battery capacity that can last you an honest day.

Mobile device manufacturers will give you an estimate of the battery life for their devices. For example, Apple’s tech specs say that the battery on the iPhone 6 will give you up to 14 hours of talk time on 3G. Samsung’s web page says that the Galaxy S5 will last up to 12 hours of internet use time on 4G. Plenty of independent sites on the web try to give a more objective analysis of the actual time a consumer can expect of their new device. Anandtech, for example, does their own thorough battery testing and provide a comparison of the battery performance of different devices. GSM Arena assigns a battery “Endurance rating.” Think of it as an index meant to give you the user an understanding of the battery’s ability to last.

Yet, the landscape remains confusing. What do the numbers mean in real life? Why is it that so many users can’t reliably get a full day of use when these sites clearly claim a full day of use. Generally, predicting battery life has been difficult for the industry because the usage patterns of consumers vary wildly across the board. An employee with a desk job who uses their smartphone for limited personal use will see a very different performance relative to a traveling executive or salesperson who is constantly using their device.

Early cell phones had far smaller battery capacities (only about 600 or 700 mAh), yet they lasted an entire week if not longer. But these devices did not have too many features…only a radio transmitter-receiver to make phone calls. Today’s mobile devices have multiple radios for the different frequencies and bands (2G, 3G, 4G, LTE…); they have beautiful but power-hogging displays with increasing resolution (meaning more power); they have GPS and navigation components that also need power from the battery; and worst of all, we, you, and all of us users, want to use them constantly in the day as we check emails, write texts and SMS messages, and check our favorite apps that want to access radio, displays, GPS, all simultaneously.

It is no surprise that the battery capacity in smartphones has grown massively since the introduction of the first iPhone to accommodate this extra demand for electrical power. From a battery capacity of about 900 mAh in 2007, most smartphones today have a battery capacity ranging between 2,500 mAh and 3,000 mAh for Android phones. iPhone 6 uses 1,810 mAh and its larger brother, the iPhone 6 Plus, packs more than 2,900 mAh of capacity.

For the most part, as experience and feedback from users have shown so far, smartphones with batteries closer to 3,000 mAh in capacity seem to provide their users with an honest full day of use (or more), even heavy users seem satisfied. So if you are shopping for a new smartphone, try to shoot for 3,000 mAh unless you know you are only a casual and occasional user in which case, about 1,800 to 2,000 mAh will likely be sufficient. Don’t get too fooled by the marketing gimmicks.

So why can’t we get smartphones with 4,000 mAh or even higher capacity? Trying to fit more than 3,000 mAh in a standard 5-in screen device is very difficult. Remember yesterday’s writing and the whack-a-mole problem…if battery manufacturers increase the capacity, they will take a hit in cycle life or charge times. It is getting quite uncomfortable for them. So for the foreseeable future, expect smartphones to have batteries in the neighborhood of 3,000 mAh, but not much more than that, unless of course you are in the market for a huge 6-in phablet.

Tablets have it a little easier. They have a larger form factor and therefore can carry a larger battery — 6,000 mAh up to 10,000 mAh. Most tablets on the market have a decent battery use time.

But wait, there is another problem. What if you forget to charge your smartphone’s battery overnight? You wake up in the morning and realize your battery is down to 20% or less, and you need to run out the door to the office, school, or take your children to their school…As batteries have grown larger in size and the anxiety about getting a full day of use has dwindled, we are now beginning to face another problem, one of how long does it take to recharge the battery — or refilling the tank.

If we use the car as an analogy, most vehicles manufactured today have a range between 300 and 400 miles (500 to 650 km). We, as a global society, seem to be content with that range. We don’t complain to General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Mercedes, and the other car makers about the “limited range.” That’s because we know, implicitly, that if the tank is low on fuel, we are very often within reach of a refill station and, most importantly, we can refill our tank in a matter of minutes. This is the use model that mobile devices have to reach soon. We will soon expect our devices to last a full day of use, but also expect that our devices can be recharged substantially faster.

20Sep 2014

Damage in a battery happens. You can’t stop it. It’s part of the physics. Yes, it is possible to mitigate it. It is possible to postpone its onset. It is possible to reduce its impact (that’s part of what our company Qnovo does)… But it’s always there and we need to deal with it. Battery manufacturers have tended to sweep this issue under the rug but it is now coming back to bite them hard.

In technical terms, this damage inside the battery is referred to in terms of “cycle life.” It is essentially a measure of how many times the battery can be charged and discharged before it is deemed dead. As I mentioned in the previous post, a battery is deemed dead when its maximum capacity reaches 80% of its original capacity as a fresh battery. So say a fresh battery has a maximum capacity of 2,500 mAh on its first day of use. After some number of charges and discharges, the internal damage reduces this maximum capacity. Eventually, this figure reaches 80% x 2,500 mAh = 2,000 mAh at which point it is officially deemed to be “dead”, i.e., it needs to be replaced.

Why 80%? and not 75% or 63.1849%? Because experience has shown that shortly past the 80%-mark, the damage accelerates rapidly and the battery capacity plummets very quickly. Not good!

But now you are saying, “how can I know?” Well, welcome to the world of opacity in how battery makers specify their products. As a consumer, you don’t know, nor you can measure it easily. Device makers tell you trust me, but you should not! All these apps that you can download from the Apple or Google stores also don’t tell you anything. Right now, sadly, the only way you can tell that your battery is dead or dying is because it feels that it is dying. Your battery can’t last you the day when only a few months earlier it did. Now to be sure, you also have to make sure that you don’t have one or more rogue apps draining the battery in the background. So if you reset or even restore your mobile device and its battery is still not delivering, then it is a fairly strong hint that something is very wrong with the battery. If you are asking “why can’t you fix it,” the answer is “we can and we are.” Let your mobile device manufacturer know that you are not happy if you suspect your battery cycle life is compromised.

Let’s get back to cycle life. As you can see, cycle life and battery capacity are very closely tied together. Capacity is effectively the capacity that you get on your first day of operation, and cycle life is a measure of longevity of your battery’s capacity. Cycle life is almost like the “Expiration Date” printed on a gallon of milk at the grocery store; except imagine that grocery stores decided one day to simply eliminate printing this crucial date. Grocery stores don’t dare do it! Well, many mobile device manufacturers choose to hide or not disclose the cycle life — effectively this expiration date of the battery is hidden. We are working on changing this behavior. But for now, I will give you some hints and tips on how to deal with this.

Most mobile devices including smartphones and tablets are rated to 500 cycles, i.e., you, the consumer, can expect to have 500 consecutive full charges and full discharges before your battery is deemed dead. Some devices do better than others. For example, older Apple iPhones lasted more than 500 cycles, whereas others either made 500 or fell shy of that figure. 

But some carriers (or operators are they are called outside the US), and in particular, Verizon Wireless, began demanding that mobile device manufacturers increase their cycle life specifications to 800 or more cycles, to effectively cover a 2-year warranty on the device. This new specification is beginning to proliferate but battery manufacturers are not happy! Increasing cycle life performance is not easy for them, and guess what, most of them are based in Asia and they don’t like to ask for help!

So one of the tricks that manufacturers do to increase cycle life is to — hold on to your seat — increase charge times! Ouch! Now, you are becoming increasing familiar with the battery whack-a-mole strategy that battery manufacturers follow. You want more capacity, well, you may get worse cycle life…you want better cycle life, well, you will get worse charge times….and so on.

Fortunately, the technology to fix this whack-a-mole problem already exists…mobile device manufacturers have to deploy it more universally. For now, here are some hints — albeit a little inconvenient — that you can apply to extend the cycle life of your life battery:

  • Charge your device slowly using the USB port on your PC or notebook, not wall charger or AC adapter. This effectively limits the charging current to 500 mA. Yes, it is slow, but if you are not in a rush, it will help your battery.
  • Charge at room temperature! Not on your car dashboard in the middle of a hot sunny day, or worse yet, in the middle of a cold winter. Batteries hate being charged at temperature extremes, especially below 60 °F (or 15 °C), and above 95 °F (or 35 °C).
  • If you are not traveling or need your phone fully charged all day, then charge your battery to about 80 or 85% — not to 100%. This will also help being gentle on the battery. 

More later.

19Sep 2014

Yes, I did. That’s when you wake up a few months after you make a proud investment in a new mobile device, then you realize that the battery is not lasting as long as you wanted.

Well, first to be safe, you have to make sure that you don’t have too many apps running in the background draining the battery without your knowledge or your permission. But assuming that you already reset your phone, deleted the useless applications, and turned off all the background app refreshing, and you are still not getting the battery life that you had only a few weeks or months ago, then you are right, you are now experiencing the signs of battery damage, or in geek terms, it’s called “capacity fade.”

Remember when we talked earlier about the charge capacity of a battery and said it is measured in units of mAh. So let’s say that you battery is rated at 2,500 mAh. So when your device is fully charged, and your fuel gauge in the upper right hand corner of your screen is reading 100%, it means that your battery is holding about 2,500 mAh of electrical charge…using the earlier analogy of the water bucket, it means the bucket is full and is holding some number of gallons of water.

But this assumes that the battery is new. As damage sets in the battery, its maximum capacity will actually degrade over time and use. This can happen for many reasons, such as poor manufacturing, extended exposure to low or high temperatures…etc. (we will get back to this at a later time). So the battery you have now has a maximum capacity of say 2,200 mAh instead of 2,500 mAh. In other words, you will notice a decrease in your battery life by about 1 to 2 hours per day.  

So now you are frowning, and possibly complaining: “But, but, but….the fuel gauge is still reading 100% when it is full.” Yes, the fuel gauge only reads the available charge in the battery as a fraction of the maximum available capacity in the battery (it’s a mouthful). In other words, on day one, your battery was able of holding 2,500 mAh, so 100% of the fuel gauge is then equal to 2,500 mAh. But after 6 months of use, the battery can only hold 2,200 mAh, and the 100% displayed by the fuel gauge is now equal to only 2,200 mAh. Ouch! 

If you are thinking about where you can read the lower battery capacity of 2,200 mAh, the answer is nowhere. You can’t. The smartphone manufacturer and battery vendors either can’t tell you or don’t want to tell you. This is called “state of health” of the battery. 

When the battery capacity drops to 80% of its original capacity — in our example here, it is 80% x 2,500 mAh = 2,000 mAh — the battery is deemed dead and must be replaced. But as you gathered, it has been difficult if not nearly impossible for customers and consumers to prove that they have a dead battery. 

18Sep 2014

The most common complaint about the battery is that it “does not last.” In other words, we have in our minds the expectation that our mobile device shall remain powered by this battery for an indefinite time…and when it’s empty, it should recharge very quickly. We will revisit these concepts and solutions to them in subsequent blogs, but for now, I want to set, or rather reset, a few expectations.

First, remember to charge your better whenever you can. An empty battery is useless, and waiting 2 or 3 hours to charge your battery is very inconvenient if not annoying. Yes, you can carry one of these battery sleeves, but now you are carrying a brick, not a thin and stylish smartphone. 

If you can and have the time, charge your mobile device using the USB cable attached to one of the ports of your PC or notebook. Yes, it is slow, but it will recharge the battery as you are working on something else. If you are at your desk, you don’t need the charging speed. And it’s way better than getting to your car and realizing you are now down to 20% remaining charge.

If you don’t sit at a desk, or you don’t have a notebook or a PC, put a couple of standard wall chargers around your house, and give your device some charging whenever you can. Of course, try to remember to charge your device at night. There’s no magic in this…it’s just some simple discipline to start with. 

For an Apple mobile device, you can use the Apple wall chargers in addition to the USB port on a PC or Mac. Don’t worry about using an iPad wall charger to charge an iPhone or vice-versa. An iPad wall charger will not charge an iPhone any faster (well, with the rumored exception of the iPhone 6 Plus). 

For an Android device, you can use a standard micro-USB wall charger (also known as AC adapter) as well as a USB port on your PC…it’s your choice. If you try to use a tablet AC adapter to charge your smartphone, there is a small risk you may damage your smartphone battery. That’s because if your smartphone is fairly new, say a year old or less, then the software inside your smartphone will protect it from drawing too much power and damaging its battery. But if you smartphone is older, then there is a risk it will draw more power from the larger tablet adapter and damage the battery.

One last tidbit…the difference between the wall charger of a tablet and a smartphone is the power rating, in other words, how much power the charger is capable of providing at its output. If you look at the standard AC adapter that comes with your smartphone (iPhone or Android or Windows), it will read typically “5V / 1.2A output“.  This means that it is capable of providing a maximum current of 1.2 Amps at 5 Volts, or an equivalent output power of 5 x 1.2 = 6 Watts. Output here is the electrical power that flows through the USB cable to your mobile device.  In comparison, a tablet AC adapter will provide nearly twice that power or about 12 Watts. 

Finally, a car charger is very similar to your standard AC adapter. The difference is that the AC adapter takes 120V from your wall outlet and converts it to 5V that your mobile device can use. The car charger, by comparison, takes 12V from your car cigarette lighter outlet, and converts it to 5V.

17Sep 2014

The lithium-ion rechargeable battery lives in many of our devices today, from our laptop PCs, to our tablets, and our smartphones, and many other devices that are not tethered to a power outlet. It has replaced the older generation of batteries such as nickel-metal-hydrides (also known with their abbreviation NiMH) and the more toxic nickel-cadmium (NiCd) batteries. You can still buy NiMH batteries at your local electronics store or Amazon: they are the size of the standard AA or AAA battery but can be recharged about a hundred times. They tend to be useful for your light torch or your children’s toys, but they are not used any longer in mobile devices or other gizmos that require longer battery life.

The lithium-ion battery is today’s king of the hill. It contains about 5 times more energy than the NiMH battery…in other words, it lasts 5 times longer. It comes in many different shapes; it can be a cylinder or it can be in a thin flat rectangular shape such as the one in your iPhone. It also requires proper care and operation. For example, if not properly charged in its appropriate wall charger, it may catch fire or worse yet, explode. 

lithium ion battery in iPhone 6
Lithium-ion battery in the iPhone 6

One of the key characteristics of a lithium-ion rechargeable battery is its maximum capacity to hold electrical charge. This is measured by the amount of electrical charge when fully charged, and is given in units of milliamp-hours, abbreviated as mAh. It is not a unit of energy. It is a unit of electrical charge. Higher numbers are better. More electrical charge means longer life and longer use time. Think of it as a bucket of water….capacity tells you the volume of your bucket. 

To convert from electrical charge to energy, one multiplies mAh by the battery voltage. Most lithium-ion batteries have a voltage of about 3.8 Volts (notice, this is way less than the typical 120 Volts out of your home outlet). So if we take the iPhone 6 battery, its capacity is 1,810 mAh (look at the bottom of the battery photo). When we multiply it by its voltage 3.82 Volts, then we get an energy of 6.91 Watt-hours (abbreviated as Wh). Once again, higher numbers are better.

So let me put this in perspective. One gallon of gasoline contains 34,000 (yes, thousand) Watt-hours. One gallon of gas has the equivalent energy of nearly 5,000 iPhone 6 batteries. So a takeaway here: You should appreciate why it has been difficult to make rechargeable batteries last for a very long long time.

Now, just because you have a bucket that has a given volume, it does not mean that you have that much volume of water in the bucket. First, you need to fill your bucket. That’s exactly what “charging” does to the battery. It fills it with electrical charge. When the battery is fully charged, its battery meter reads 100%. That’s the little gauge that shows up on the upper right hand side of your smartphone screen. Surprise, surprise, it is called the “fuel gauge.” When you use your battery, the meter reading decreases until it gets to 0%. Presumably, your anxiety level has risen a lot before you reach the zero level.

Ok, now here’s a little secret. Zero-percent reading of the fuel gauge is not really empty. It just means that you can no longer take charge out of the battery — mostly for safety reasons. The electronic systems in your device are smart enough to say STOP and shut it down. So it’s ok if you take your mobile battery to zero. It may be inconvenient to have an “empty” battery but it will not damage your lithium-ion battery. And no, there’s no memory effect in lithium-ion batteries.

More later.