Normally, battery life would fall farther down the list, an afterthought in the grand scheme. But as the phone manufacturers and platform providers pack more features into the phone, asking it to be the navigator, the social hub, the music maestro, the e-mail machine and message system unifier, the camera and video recorder, the personal assistant, the omniscient, the all-knower, there will have to be both an evolution in battery technology and an addition of more intelligence to the phone.
That last item is coming, and is evident partly in the Windows Phone 7 devices I tested and in the Samsung Galaxy SII; if Apple would only…let's say "borrow" Samsung's ideas here, the entire BatteryGate mess would fade to the background for a while.
Specifically, users can set Samsung power saver mode automatically when the battery falls below 50% (or at 10%, 30% or 70%.) This will shut down many of the features that drain power, like GPS, BlueTooth, WiFi, and the brightness of the screen. At any time, users can choose to take advantage of each of these features, say turning off the GPS if no application is using it. In contrast iPhone users are incessantly sharing tips in forums, many of which might or might not work. And many of them disable some of the more compelling features of the phone, like location-based reminders. Samsung's feature shuts down features too, but it does so automatically, and during a user-set interlude.
Samsung's software also shows the user data on battery usage, for example how much battery life phone, display, operating system and e-mail have consumed. Drilling into e-mail, for example, displays the amount of CPU utilization and lets the user force stop e-mail.
Windows Phone 7 has a battery saver mode as well (Microsoft doesn't allow alterations to the underlying OS, so these features should be available on any phone.) Power save mode stops the phone from automatically receiving e-mail (the user must ask for manual retrieval), and apps won't run in the background, for example. It's not quite as powerful as what Samsung offers, but it's a good start.
I set up all five phones I tested to be as reasonably close to one another as possible. Because each runs slightly different apps (more on that in a moment), and accesses external services (like location) differently, it's impossible to run a completely evenly matched test. Most of my testing was as close to real world use as I could make it, with all of my e-mail accounts running at full throttle, and various notifications enabled as equally as possible. I ended up eliminating the Nokia Lumia 800 from the testing because it couldn't access a mobile network, only WiFi.
During one quiet weekend day, when all e-mail had ceased, I ran iHeartRadio over whatever cellular connections each phone accessed (in other words, I shut off WiFi) non-stop until battery life was fairly well drained; a simple, if unrealistic test, but after about three hours, the Samsung was down to 10 percent, the HTC Radar was at 25% and the iPhone 4S was at 30%. If anything, the iPhone 4S was busier with other tasks, but it still fared better… and this is a phone that so far has been troubled greatly by BatteryGate; on the other hand, it was also running on AT&T's 3G network, whereas the other two were using T-Mobile's "4G" HSPA+.
In more realistic tests, the iPhone 4S fared much worse. On one particularly busy day in which I made sure to use each phone equally for phone calls (about two hours each), after 14 hours of use, the iPhone 4S was down to 8%. The Windows Phone 7 on the HTC Radar was at 20% and the Samsung Galaxy SII was at 24%. Normally the iPhone drains much quicker, but I only made phone calls and pushed e-mail via ActiveSync on each phone. I may have fetched a web page or two. Had I used the iPhone 4S exclusively, it would have drained in half the time, or even quicker given the volume of phone calls.
Meanwhile, Windows Phone 7 and the Samsung Galaxy SII each kicked into battery saver mode. That may seem a bit unfair to the iPhone 4S, and it probably is. But those are settings turned on by default, and frankly, most users are likely to use them.
As always, your mileage may vary.
If you're looking for ways to improve battery life, there are plenty, including our quick roundup of a few iPhone 4 cases/battery packs. I've been using Mophie's JuicePak, which has doubled battery life, and, frankly, saved me more than a few times.
Put bluntly: Get used to battery challenges. The first vendor to solve this problem will win big.
Fritz Nelson is the editorial director for InformationWeek and the Executive Producer of TechWebTV. Fritz writes about startups and established companies alike, but likes to exploit multiple forms of media into his writing.
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