Outlet addicts: Laptop owners who don't get the concept

A familiar scene: A laptop user in a coffee shop or airport terminal with a power cord stretched out dangerously to the inconveniently placed outlet. Odds are that the laptop is already fully charged.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
Power outlet
Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet

In the early days of laptops, battery life was horrible. Many of them would struggle to get two hours on a charge — and that was freshly out of the box. As those batteries aged, and it didn't take very long, those two hours would turn into one, or less. This short battery life conditioned users to never get too far from a power outlet, and we rarely used the laptop without plugging it in.

Fast forward a few years and the situation has vastly improved. Most laptops can last at least five hours on a charge. The days of racing from one power outlet to the next are behind us.

So why do so many laptop owners still plug in no matter where they are?

Outlet addicts admit to me that they get downright anxious if they can't find an outlet, even if their battery is full. They go from venue to venue, plugging in the laptop everywhere they land.

It's that conditioning in years past that turned a lot of laptop owners into what I refer to as outlet addicts. These folks immediately scope out a power outlet when they go mobile and arrange their work space around it. Even if they have to precariously perch their precious laptop to reach the outlet, then that's what they do. They will even string the power cord dangerously (often for fellow patrons) to reach the far-flung outlet. It doesn't matter how short a time they plan to work in a particular place, if the laptop is out of the bag, it is immediately plugged in.

You've no doubt seen this quite a bit if you work in public venues a lot. Like me, you've probably assumed that their battery was nearly empty and they desperately needed to top it off to get through the day. That's the only reasonable explanation for going to all the trouble to get plugged in, even exposing the laptop to possible accidents. Some will even ask patrons close to an outlet to change places with them.

I'll bet when traveling that you've seen more than one laptop user sitting on the floor next to what seems to be the only power outlet in the entire airport terminal. They've got the laptop propped on their knee or luggage, with the cord tethered to the precious outlet. Appearances are that they are charging their depleted battery so that they can work on the plane.

The truth is often quite different. I regularly ask these laptop owners in airports or other public venues if their battery is running low. More often than not, I am told that the battery is in fact full. They are just plugging in to keep it topped off just in case they can't find an outlet somewhere later.

Reality is that they rarely use the laptop in the manner for which it is designed, to work untethered on battery power. That conditioning mentioned earlier is in full force in outlet addicts, and they always have an overwhelming need to plug in. Some of them admit to me that they get downright anxious if they can't find an outlet, even if their battery is full. They go from venue to venue, plugging in the laptop everywhere they land. Just in case.

To be fair, those with older laptops may need to plug in as their old battery probably doesn't last very long. When I mention that my laptop gets six or seven hours on a charge, these folks get a wistful look and invariably comment that if theirs could do that, they'd never need an outlet. When I confess I never bring a power adapter with me on day trips, some of them get a look of panic at the thought.

I suspect that many of these laptop users are true outlet addicts, though. I'll bet they'd be plugging in all the time, even if they had a new laptop with six-plus hours of battery life. I see it happening all the time with new laptops tethered. Anxiety is an angry master.

I am convinced that this fear of running out of power on the laptop has been a driving force behind the rapid adoption of tablets. It's very uncommon to see any tablet user plugging in at public venues, thanks to the extended battery life the devices provide. When asked, a common reason given by tablet owners for switching to the tablet from a laptop is the battery life. The tablet has relieved the anxiety caused by the laptop. No outlet required.

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