Why battery life sucks

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There is a great rant over on Mobile Fanatics, about battery life in mobile devices. The author makes the case that poor battery life is down to lack of optimisation by developers, citing Android as the worst offender. Furthermore, he blames mobile platforms being based on the Unix/POSIX/Linux family of operating systems, stating that these systems were never planned to have been run on mobile platforms where energy is at a premium. Read on for commentary.

"Blackberry OS and Psion/Symbian were written based on hardware and written to compliment a device. Nowadays, your phone is being mass-manufactured and a pre-cooked OS is being slapped on. Nobody knows what platform your hardware is running before it gets it. HTC can and will swap it randomly during testing. Point is – it’s not optimized for the device."

A great irony given Android's openness. It seems lazy on the part of manufacturers to not get into the Operating System they're using and thus not create a better experience for the user. Of course, there is the question of economy, it would require a significant investment of man-hours to do this. However, are the benefits not worth it? Surely having a reputation for creating a phone with a great user experience and battery life is going to engender a loyal following of evangelistic users who will then go and do your marketing job for you?!

"So when your battery sucks and you can’t make it through the day <SARCASM ALERT> – don’t blame Nokia for shipping a 1320mAh battery. Don’t blame Apple for making their devices with a non-user-replaceable power source and please don’t blame HTC for designing a device so thin that the battery has 4 cells in it.  Here’s who you can blame. Developers, developers, developers. The same people who are coding your precious 250,000 apps are the same ones who don’t give a flying frappuccino about power management. The ones who are letting services run idle in the background, the ones who don’t follow specs for protocols, and the ones who aren’t allowing you to dictate when and where you want things to happen."

Having recently tested my first Android device, I have to completely agree with this. Having focused on Symbian devices for a long time, I'm accustomed to having complete control over which applications are running and when. This is crucial for managing both power and data usage. However, my very first impression of Android was that I couldn't close down any programs. This induced a certain geek-like anxiety about my battery life, given that all the applications I had running required a data connection. There are of course third party task-killers, but a basic function like killing a process should not require a third party application!

"Oh, and blame yourself for cranking up a 100mW WiFi radio, routing packets through your 3G connection that juices about 2W, powering up a GPU to process over a MILLION instructions and driving a 300mW-sucking 4” screen just so you can watch an YouTube video of a dancing baby."

Somewhat harsh on the poor unsuspecting users who do just want to watch a dancing baby! However, there is certainly a case to be made that mobile technology is being pushed beyond the limits of current battery technology. Even if a platform did have a fantastically optimised Operating System, the likes of 4" screens and Giga-Hertz processors are incredibly power-hungry things and one could argue that they are unnecessary for what a mobile phone needs to be able to do. In fact, what with the drive to tablets, it's clear that companies are now heavily blurring the line between tablet devices and mobile phone. As a result we are seeing more "Superphones" (see Ewan's editorial), although there is a lot that can be done with the current specification level of devices, rather than trying to push specifications ever higher.

David Gilson for All About Symbian, 6th September 2010.