The secret behind poor smartphone battery life

The secret behind poor smartphone battery life

Summary: That shiny new smartphone has a battery that easily lasts all day. Then it all goes downhill from there.

SHARE:
Dead Battery

Rapidly deteriorating battery life has long been tolerated by smartphone owners, mainly because they have no choice. Phones usually meet the holy grail of battery life, the ability to last all day, at first. Then it starts getting worse quickly, until many phone owners end up plugging in during the day. It seems it's always been this way, and there's no incentive to the smartphone makers to make this better.

Battery has long been the focus of the mobile segment. In the early days of mobile the possible time away from a power outlet was not very long. This prompted OEMs to do what they could to make batteries in mobile devices last longer.

This is why we now have decent battery life with most laptops and tablets. The eight hours needed to go all day no matter what comes up is now met by many mobile devices. Except the smartphone.

Pick any smartphone in the top ranks and talk to those who've owned one for a while. Odds are, you'll hear a familiar tale — the phone easily lasted all day when new but that didn't last. If they've owned the phone over a year you'll probably hear about the antics they go through daily to have a phone that is still working at day's end.

See relatedFalling tablet sales: The problem is they're just too goodNecessary battery life for laptops: 8 hours

So why hasn't smartphone battery life improved like that on tablets and laptops? I believe the reason is obvious — there is no incentive for OEMs to improve this. In fact, there's an incentive to keep things the way they've always been.

In a recent article I explained that tablet owners aren't upgrading because current devices are good enough. There's no compelling reason for tablet owners to get the latest and greatest because the one they have is good enough.

Special Feature

Wearables: Fit For Business?

Wearables: Fit For Business?

The explosion of interest in wearable computing is one of tech's fastest rising trends. While big moves from Google, Apple, and Samsung will likely attract a lot of attention, we're going to examine the broader potential that wearables hold for driving innovation in business.

Good battery life is a big part of that satisfaction with tablets. Most of the top tablets get 10+ hours of battery life, and that's enough for just about everyone. Even over time when those tablet batteries start deteriorating, resulting in shorter battery life, they still last all day given the long life they start with when new.

With smartphones it's a different story. Many are on the edge of all-day battery life to start, and they fall short as the battery ages. This is common. Take a stroll around the web and you'll find hundreds of articles with tips for "how to extend the battery on gadget X". Owners are trying to get through the day with a smartphone that's only a year old, and they'll do anything to make that happen.

That includes trading in that phone when their US contract is up. I believe it's not just a hankering for the latest shiny smartphone available, it's also to get rid of their old one. They know from experience that their battery life issue will go away with a new phone, due to that new battery inside.

This is why there is no incentive for smartphone makers to come up with a new battery technology with the same improvements we've seen in laptops and tablets. They need that two-year replacement cycle the phone contracts push, and the dying battery syndrome fuels that upgrade process.

I'm not suggesting there's some hidden conspiracy behind the smartphone battery situation. I am pointing out that from a business perspective there is no incentive for smartphone makers to improve battery life as they have on other mobile devices. They are happy when you trade that phone in for a new one. They just hope you don't figure out what they are doing. If something's not broken, why fix it? 

See related: 

Topics: Mobility, Laptops, Smartphones, Tablets

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

23 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Get a phone with a big battery.

    3-4 day battery life is available on several top tier phones. Just not the lightest ones. There are various battery tests run on more thorough review sites like Anandtech. Or the simple check is to see if the battery capacity is rated above or below 3000 mAh (many popular smaller phones are even below 1500mAh) - below is not good, above is not bad.
    Sacr
    • You are very much correct.

      I had a moto maxx and a maxx hd and was pretty peeved when they ceased with the mega batteries!

      As for this arrival I feel that it really rather missed the point with the tablet battery.

      What is the tablet battery lasting longer?

      Well because you 7-10 inch tablet has the same mother board (close enough not to matter) the only bit that's bigger is the display, and the battery - much, much bigger. Inside tablets like the ipad, the board of the ipad is about the same as that of the phone, then under the screen is just a massive battery.

      Oh and then there's how you use it. Seriously who uses tablets as much as phones? Nobody.

      So why does the tablet battery last 4+ years and the phone less than two? Capacity and use - your phone battery is doing ALOT more charge cycles than the tablet.
      It's charge cycles that kill batteries. (And heat/being left uncharged)

      It is exceptionally unlikely that after 6 months you've done enough charge cycles to take hours off you battery.

      What you did was install a buch of apps that serve adds and track location services all day.

      I really want bigger batteries for phones, but I've kind of accepted that the general masses want skinny phones.
      MarknWill
    • Go on Ebay, buy a new battery. Problem solved.

      New batteries for most Samsung phones cost around $5. Keep the old one as a backup.
      Schoolboy Bob
  • Processing speed and bettery life

    Any techies and those in the know will always point out that the charged lifespan of battery (in hours) is at the mercy fo processing power. Make your smartphone slow, and it will have 5 days of battery life. I remember during those old days where a Nokia 2210 can last 5 days on each recharge. Powerful CPU needs lots of juice.
    Martmarty
  • Games

    We all know games are the top downloaded apps on smartphones. Games are both processor and display intensive. I can use my Lumia smartphone all day, but as soon as I start an xbox game, battery life "game over".
    Sean Foley
    • No check for you today Sean.

      Barely rates a 1.5
      NoMore MicrosoftEver
  • Phone and Tablet battery life is the same :-|

    How can you say tablet battery life has increased? It's always been 8-10 hours, it's just you don't use one the whole day like you do a phone. So the problem isn't noticed so much.

    Both tablets and phones should be better.
    bradavon
  • I don't agree with the article

    I don't think batteries are different from smartphones and tablets. I agree that not all batteries are the same, and cheaper smartphones and tablets tend to have batteries with shorter life - as expected.
    I consume a lot of batteries for other applications and it's clear that not all batteries are the same, some batteries deteriorate faster and some even run into malfunctions - the you get what you pay is true many times.

    Makers of smartphones are the makers of tablets, why not use the same strategy for both devices, why would samsung put batteries with less quality in their smartphones compared to their tablets? I think we could found some more or less objective reasons but I don't think that happens.

    Maybe smartphones are having charging cycles more frequent, smartphones are charged daily, maybe tablets are charger every other day... I really don't know.
    AleMartin
  • That is one reason why

    people should insist upon user-replaceable batteries. There was a reason that Motorola StarTac phones had such easily replaceable batteries - they had crappy battery life, so it was necessary to carry a spare, and have it easily swappable. It was a great thing, and when digital versions of the StarTac came, those who had a spare battery were able to go for days without a charger.

    The fact that so few phones these days have an easily replaceable battery further shows that the vendors of the phones and the services are running a game on the public.

    If the battery was easily replaceable, people wold buy a second battery, or a "fat" battery, to keep going daily, and also keep that phone that works fine, but simply needs a new battery, well beyond the upgrade cycle, replacing only the waning battery, instead of the entire phone.

    A hidden secret of today's phones is that they are not built to the same degree of durability as those phones of ten years ago. Many of these bloated with features, but lacking in robustness phones are only skating to the finish line of upgrade cycle replacement, and begin showing small problems, if not outright failure.
    chrome_slinky@...
    • that's what I do

      when shopping for a new device, it has to allow me replace the battery (and the SD card). LG and HTC are making interesting devices but you're stuck with the internal battery and memory card, just like the iphone. So, I gotta go with the big S.
      esadajr
  • I've never owned a device with an Li Ion battery

    actively used, that didn't deteriorate noticeably by a year or 18 months. This has applied to laptops, cameras, and smartphones, though laptop batteries last much longer if unused and stored separately while on AC power.

    My current LG phone is getting there - BUT I CAN REPLACE THE BATTERY, getting a branded OEM for around $20 at Amazon. I cannot imagine buying an expensive device for something approaching $1k with the built-in obsolescence of a non-replaceable battery. Consumers are sheep.
    I2k4
  • Perspective: Right motive, wrong business

    From a business perspective, there are strong incentives for battery makers to improve battery life. The battery race is building, and an aftermarket super battery in an older phone may very well extend the trade in period.
    skypilota72
  • Look at the low end devices targeted for developing countries

    Phones like the Nokia 520 have removable batteries along with sd cards. People in these countries cannot afford the 2 year replacement cycle so it makes sense that they need access to replace/upgrade these components.
    Rann Xeroxx
  • Samsung?

    So why does Samsung continue to offer phones with replaceable batteries - or is that about to change with eh September announcements?
    dksmidtx
  • Not a technology issue. It is simply a matter of size and processor load

    tablets and laptops have a lot more space for battery.

    The hunger for quad and even octo core systems running at increasing clock speeds with fast GPUs - all needed for gaming and not so much for simple productivity - are why smartphones eat the battery in a space constrained configuration. Tablets do better because they can host larger batteries.

    Another reason is that unlike Tablets cell phones have to stay connected.

    I suspect usage also impacts things.

    I don't think it is a simple matter of companies not doing more. The technology is about the same for smartphones, tablets and laptops.
    MeMyselfAndI_z
  • The explanation is actually very simple.

    You can stick a bigger battery in a laptop. The limitations on battery technology have much more to do with the realities of physics than some corporate conspiracy.
    baggins_z
  • I think you totally missed the point here James

    "Odds are, you'll hear a familiar tale — the phone easily lasted all day when new but that didn't last. If they've owned the phone over a year you'll probably hear about the antics they go through daily to have a phone that is still working at day's end."

    that's not a bad battery to start- that's a good battery coming to the end of it's life. chemicals in batteries precipitate. the battery loses it's maximum charge ability. this happens to every battery and to small batteries faster than large ones. the answer is easy- get a phone you can replace the battery on after 1-2 years when it craps out. they cost like $5 on amazon.
    theoilman
  • Demand a user-replacable battery

    As a matter of personal preference, I will never purchase a device in which I cannot replace the battery myself. I generally keep computers and phones until something fails. However, you should beware of cheap replacement batteries. Although only a few dollars online, as another commenter noted, they can last as little as 3 months.
    oldnuke69
    • I've had no problems

      so long as I look at reviews before buying
      theoilman
  • True and Not Necessarily True

    I think the point of the article - that there is no incentive to improve (or to an extent, an incentive to limit) battery capacity and other factors is true. Manufacturers have realized that if a phone isn't very durable or the battery doesn't last too long, that people will upgrade eventually, despite OS, feature, etc., upgrades. At least I'm sure they're not blind to this fact.

    On the other hand, we're not manufacturers and not completely sure of the limitations. I'd have to assume that phone battery technology hasn't progressed proportionately with laptop battery technology. I could assume that the power usage in a laptop is more than the size/capability of the batteries in phones. But it is possible, as everyone tries to design the lightest and thinnest phone, that it simply isn't yet possible to design a long-lasting battery to meet those specs.

    I can see an argument though where, if the technology does exist, that manufacturers would be hesitant to invest in it.
    tech_e