Low battery anxiety and how it relates to our mental health

We’ve never been more dependent on our smartphones – and never more powerless to prevent their screens going blank. But where does the fault really lie?

FILE - In this Sept. 22, 2017, file photo, customers look at iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus phones at an Apple Store in San Francisco. Retailers are taking back some control of the store experience with smart phone app features that let customers do things like scan and pay and download digital maps. It marks a big difference from just a few years ago when retailers viewed the smart phone as their enemy - customers often whipped out their device to compare prices online and walked out of the store to buy elsewhere. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Powered by automated translation

We complain about battery life more than any other aspect of our smartphones. The depleting charge seems to pose a threat to our very existence; if it reaches zero, we could be disconnected from our friends, disorientated on our travels and left without access to our money.

That fear can lead us to behave strangely; one viral Facebook post from 2015 described how an audience member in a New York theatre left his seat and attempted to charge his phone in a (fake) electrical outlet onstage.

To combat the anxiety, we tend to leave spare chargers in handy locations, lug around battery packs and purchase bulky cases to keep the things running, while cursing the bars that inform us of our battery's slow death. This frustration is coupled with a fading trust in the information we're given about battery life; last week, Apple and HTC were both accused by consumer advocate group Which?, of making misleading claims about the amount of time their phones last on a single charge.

Why you shouldn't blame your battery

Thanks to the memory of old-school mobile phones, which had batteries that lasted for a week, there's a common perception that batteries are getting worse at their job. But the battery is often the blameless scapegoat for a problem that bedevils mobile technology: if consumers want a device that's small, slim and packed with features, they have to decide how little battery life they're willing to put up with. As a result, we seem doomed to be forever running out of juice, as new smartphone and tablet technology quickly uses up any improvements that the battery industry manages to make.

"It's like a conflict of interest," says Ulrich Stimming, senior researcher at the Faraday Institution, an independent institute for battery science. "Batteries are becoming better and better with time, there's no question about this. And the power demands of various components has actually gone down, but battery performance depends very much on the way a mobile phone is designed: how large should it be? Which functions do you want to have always available? All of these are decided by the manufacturer." In other words, every improvement to the aesthetic and feature set of a mobile phone becomes a test of our patience – and it's possible that our patience is being tested a little too much.

Phone usage plays a big role

Towards the end of last year, an investigation by The Washington Post, in conjunction with a number of technology websites, concluded that newer smartphones simply don't last as long as older ones, with OLED displays and cellular connectivity contributing significantly to the problem. The fact that lithium-ion batteries are finding it harder to power the newest smartphone features was described in that report as an "open secret" in the industry, and the accusations levelled by Which? at Apple and HTC show that secret to be a closely guarded one. In other words, we're told that a device will operate for a certain length of time, but in practice – it may not.

Apple and HTC have stood by their claims, noting that variations in testing methods easily explain any variations in results. It brings to mind a famous advertisement from the 1980s for Duracell, where a number of identical toy rabbits were filmed as their batteries ran out – but the complexity of smartphones makes that kind of experiment impossible; whatever happens in the lab, our own experiences may be very different. "The complete picture depends on the way people treat their phones," says Stimming. "For example, Wi-Fi places huge demands on a battery, so when you're not using Wi-Fi you should just shut it off – but people don't usually do this."

The tech industry has long sold us the dream of always-on, multifunctional devices that are sleek and as light as a feather. But ultimately we're complicit in this situation. We've quietly accepted the inability of those devices to remain powered for as long as we'd like, and we know, deep down, that when we upgrade in the hope of things improving, we're likely to discover that things remain the same, or get worse. But there are options for consumers who are willing to forego big names and carry around something that's perhaps a little more substantial.

Back in 2015, a brand called Innos unveiled the D6000, which they claimed to be the world’s first smartphone to be equipped with two batteries, one of them removable. (The fact that hot-swappable batteries are now a rarity in phones is a strong indication that manufacturers don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.)

Making a decision

More recently, Energizer’s Power Max P18K Pop showcased earlier this year at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, received attention for its staying power: 90 hours of calls, 100 hours of music or 48 hours of video on a single charge, and 50 days of battery life standby mode. The ­downside: it’s enormous. “An absolute unit,” said one review. “Remarkably heavy for a phone,” read another. But we can’t have it both ways. It’s one or the other.

It's a great idea. but it'll be another five to 10 years before you have it in a phone. Bosch recently gave up a solid-state research programme, because it cost too much money and it wasn't clear that it would result in anything better.

Research into lower-powered components may improve matters. Intel’s Project, Athena laptops, and Huawei’s high-end phones both boast of their reduced burden on batteries. Thanks to improvements being made with Bluetooth chipsets, new models of wireless headphones should also see marked improvements in battery life.

This almost seems like an admission from the industry that battery technology will never improve as fast as it would like, but progress is being made: last year, scientists at Aston University in the UK displayed a way of offloading power-hungry parts of apps to the cloud, reducing consumption by 60 per cent. The solid-state battery, a higher-capacity, safer ­alternative to lithium-ion, is also on the horizon – but still a way off, according to Stimming.

"It's a great idea," he says, "but it'll be another five to 10 years before you have it in a phone. Bosch recently gave up a solid-state research programme, because it cost too much money and it wasn't clear that it would result in anything better."

As mobile devices have wormed their way into our lives and made themselves indispensable, the resilience of batteries and their complex chemistry has become critical to society. It’s evidently true that if we used our devices less, the batteries would last longer. But the tech industry has never urged us to refrain from using their products, and has never been in the business of selling modest workhorses that quietly get on with the job for years on end. Cynics would contend that making devices innovative, beautiful but ultimately frustrating is a sure-fire way to keep sales ticking over – and who’s to say they’re not right?