Why Battery Life is the Smartphone's White Whale in 2012

By Norman Chan

I don't want to have to use a weird third-party battery case for my phone.

I really believe that the most impressive feature of the new iPad isn't just its new display, LTE capability, or spec bumps in memory and camera--it's the battery. The fact that Apple crammed a 42.5 watt hour battery into essentially the same chassis that previously held a 25 watt hour battery is pretty amazing; it's how I'm able to use the new iPad for hours on end and not have to think about plugging it into a wall between use sessions. In fact, I find myself rarely glancing at the battery indicator, though it's funny that Apple turned the battery percentage indicator on by default on the iPad, and not on the iPhone. Unfortunately, the iPhone is the device where I feel like I have to monitor battery life the most. It had gotten so bad that I had even made a game out of my daily use--giving myself mental points if I could stay above 90% battery life by the time I got to the office, 70% by lunch, 30% by the end of the work day, etc. It's actually quite pathetic.

Turns out, it's not a problem just for me. At last week's South by Southwest conference, numerous tech writers pointed out the ridiculousness of an apparent battery life crisis. Push email, sending texts, looking up map directions, and location tracking--all important for the check-in crowd--sent attendees swarming to power outlets, chargers and battery packs in hand. Techcrunch even singled out the Mophie battery pack as the big winner of SXSW, not any startup app (though friend of the site Brian Lam of the Wirecutter identifies the Phonesuit Elite as the best iPhone battery case). But a battery case is a compromise, and if the amazing battery on the new iPad is any indication, I don't think Apple will want to make battery life a compromise when considering LTE in the new iPhone expected later this year.

LTE in the next iPhone feels like it should be a given, now that both network coverage and radio hardware has matured. Verizon has even already stated that all its new phones this year will be LTE capable. Apple may also decide to bump the iPhone's memory from 512MB to 1GB. This wouldn't be to put it on parity with Android smartphones, since that's not how performance is measured, but the next major iOS version could bring new features that requires more memory. And more memory means more idle battery drain. Apple's mobile hardware strategy has been to optimize its software to make the most out of the hardware--efficiency is more important than pure specs.

But the power drain of an LTE connection is undeniable. Existing LTE phones, like the Galaxy Nexus, have been shown to perform poorly with LTE turned on in battery tests. GSMArena's tests show that it's not talk time or video playback that caused the biggest drain--it was browsing the web. Part of this is obviously due to the massive 720p resolution AMOLED screen, but the Galaxy Nexus also has a sizable 1750 mAh battery. The iPhone 4S, by comparison, only has a 1432mAh battery. An LTE smartphone with comparable battery capacity--the HTC Thunderbolt with a 1400mAh charge--was widely panned for its abysmal battery life.

One thing I've noticed is that almost all of my friends who are enthusiastic about Android (and love their Galaxy Nexus's) actually know the battery spec on their phones. They know that the Galaxy Nexus has a 1750mAh battery, and they know the capacity of third-party replacement batteries. It's something they consider when shopping for a phone, because it's something that they worry about. My friends who own iPhones don't think of battery life in these terms--their phones either last all day or they don't. The battery in your smartphone isn't something that you should have to think about, and I look forward to the day that people don't get excited for weird battery cases like this JuiceTank Kickstarter project.

Photo Credit: JuiceTank

I'm hopeful that the next time Tim Cook or Phil Schiller steps on stage to unveil a new iPhone, they'll be able to say with confidence that the phone has both LTE capabilities, and also retains the same battery life as the iPhone 4S. Some reviewers will dismiss LTE as Apple finally "catching up" to the crowd, and I'll agree with them if battery life takes a dive. But if Apple can somehow avoid making that compromise, they'll have earned the right to call it revolutionary.