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09:49 AM
Mike Feibus
Mike Feibus

Smartphone Battery Life: Back To The Future

Three innovations could help you squeeze a full day's work out of your smartphone battery. Many of us haven't seen that since 2007.

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A few months ago, I dug out an old cellphone for a friend to use in a pinch. It was an LG Shine, a circa 2007 slider that was one of the glitzier feature phones in its day, albeit nothing to write home about in 2013.

Or so I thought. With all that's packed into our smartphones today, it's difficult to imagine the Shine as anything more than a quaint relic, an artifact harkening back to the days when consumers stole music but paid for 15-second ringtones of the same songs. Surprisingly, my friend was thrilled because the Shine lasted all day on a single charge. Many of us haven't seen that since, well, 2007.

I scanned a few reviews from when the Shine was first released, and the phone was generally well received -- though poor battery life was a common complaint. Apparently, consumers at the time didn't like having to charge their phones every evening.

I guess the smartphone era has worn us down. Most of us these days understand that our devices will have to be plugged in each night. And on the way home from work. And after every meal. Good battery life, it seems, depends on which side of 2007 you're sitting.

As it turned out, 2007 was in fact the year that the market began downplaying battery life in exchange for performance, features and flexibility. Of course, the catalyst for the shift was not the LG Shine, but Apple's iPhone -- the device that ushered in the modern-day smartphone era.

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Could 2013 be the year that the tide turns, and battery life becomes more important again?

It's possible. There are some display innovations now emerging that, directly or indirectly, should go a long way toward helping us return to the days when we needed to charge our phones only at bedtime.

It's good that these new concepts are tied to the screen because when it comes to reducing smartphone power consumption, the display is the branch that bears the low-hanging fruit. And the branch has been edging lower as the market trends toward larger screens. Back in 2007, the iPhone's 3.5-inch display was more than 50% larger than the Shine's. Today, displays on new smartphones are approaching 5 inches, dwarfing the original iPhone screen.

I just peeked under the hood of my Samsung Galaxy S3, and the 4.8-inch display has burned 71% of the power used since I pulled the phone off the charger 90 minutes ago. Sometimes, on heavy talk days, the cellular radio rivals the display's power consumption. But the rest of the time, the display in my phone stands alone as the dominant consumer of power.

So turning on the display less often is a great way to eke out more battery life. Here are a few advances that enable just that -- and they're coming soon:

-- Smartwatches: It's starting to sound like everyone who's anyone in the smartphone market is readying one. The suppliers are more interested in selling us yet another device as the smartphone and tablet markets mature. But a side benefit is that a smartwatch can help extend smartphone battery life by offloading email, text, social networking and other alerts. That way, the big, bright, colorful display only lights up when you need a big, bright, colorful display.

-- Dual-screen phones: The novel YotaPhone turned a lot of heads at Mobile World Congress earlier this year. Designed by Russian mobile products supplier Yota Devices, the phone similarly offloads tasks from the power-hungry color display. But the secondary display isn't strapped to your wrist. It's a very low-power electronic paper display that resides on the back of the phone.

-- Tablets: A recent survey from Deloitte found that more than one-fourth of U.S. consumers own a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop -- and all that overlapping screen real estate is catching the eye of developers. Most of the work thus far has produced apps that extend the PC desktop to one of the other devices. But once developers see consumers snap up watches and dual-screen phones to save power, watch for apps that offload to the tablet display to gain momentum.

There are other ideas being bandied about, such as standalone pocket-able displays. Yes, they'd take up space in our already crowded pockets. But consumers apparently don't mind carrying their personal-device trifecta around -- so why not throw one more into the mix?

I'll tell you what: if I'm going to tote a fourth device, it might as well be the Shine. Then after my Galaxy S3 calls it a day, I can slip the SIM card into the feature phone and talk like it's 2007.

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User Rank: Strategist
4/4/2013 | 6:59:19 PM
re: Smartphone Battery Life: Back To The Future
The electronic paper displays are far more rugged than the front-facing color displays. So the challenge is to build a case that has a rear cut-out for the e-paper display and that is still sturdy enough to protect your primary display.

There's no shortage of ingenuity in the after-market plastics segment, so I have no doubt that it's attainable. Really, the only hurdle is for Yota and others to sell enough dual-screen smartphones to entice the case makers to apply their ingenuity to the problem.
User Rank: Author
4/1/2013 | 6:07:33 PM
re: Smartphone Battery Life: Back To The Future
Dual-screen phone sounds interesting, but what kind of case does it reside in? I have become rather attached to my hardened iPhone case after a few hard drops. Screens on both sides does not sound terribly sturdy. Did this come up in your discussions at MWC, Mike?

Laurianne McLaughlin
User Rank: Strategist
3/29/2013 | 11:24:34 PM
re: Smartphone Battery Life: Back To The Future
In the event of an earthquake in the Bay area, millions who otherwise escaped harm would be irreparably damaged by their inability to use as their expired cell phones. The psychological trauma would deepen as they were unable to recharge batteries the second or third day or until power was restored. I'm sure in the end, most people would cope, but under some scenarios, battery life matters more than features, and I for one would like to have longer battery life. That's one reason to invest in a spare battery and shop for phone features that include battery life. Charlie Babcock, InformationWeek senior writer.
Cara Latham
Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/29/2013 | 7:52:56 PM
re: Smartphone Battery Life: Back To The Future
Honestly, if a company like Apple, Samsung, etc. came out with a phone that could guarantee a full day or more of battery life -- for the long term (how many new batteries did I have to purchase for my Samsung Charge? Three, and none of them last a whole day), I would jump on it in a heartbeat. Also, thanks for the chuckle about the consumer complaints at the time -- that the battery had to be charged every evening. If we could only be so lucky today ...
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