Phone batteries are the industry’s weakest link

Almost every aspect of our smartphones has improved, but battery life has not. The company that can fix this problem stands to make a windfall.

Take a moment to look at your mobile phone and those of the people around you. Now imagine what phones, if any, these people would have had just five years ago. Today’s devices are superior in almost every way, with the technology in them improving every year.

Consumers now have screen technology with resolutions so high that individual pixels are almost impossible to discern, more processing speed than they know what to do with and superior build quality thanks to the use of premium materials and finishes. Likewise, the built-in cameras on these phones now pack some serious power, and for many they are the only such device they need.

However, one element has not been so quick to progress – the battery.

One of the most persistent and frustrating issues that users face with modern smartphones is battery life. Regardless of the advancements in other elements of the typical smartphone, battery life remains a key handicap, and perhaps the only area in which old-fashioned feature phones can boast an advantage over their newer, smarter rivals. IDC’s data suggests that this has not hampered the growth of smartphone sales, but it has undoubtedly caused users to alter their behaviour and led a number of companies to develop solutions to the problem.

Many people can no longer live with a single charger. Instead, most will have at least one extra power source to keep in their office, car or other frequently attended location. Others, meanwhile, prefer to keep their charger on their person, in a bag or purse, to be used wherever necessary.

The issue has also spurred a brand new category of devices – cases with built-in batteries. These cases can add significantly to a device’s weight and dimensions, but they have been welcomed by many consumers.

For those not so keen on the added size of such cases, battery packs are also available that can charge a phone by simply plugging it in. While this is certainly a workable solution, it also adds the burden of carrying around a second device.

Given the inherent pitfalls of such solutions, consumers and companies still seek the technological leap forward that will deliver better battery life. In the meantime, battery life has improved slightly over the years.

Devices were much smaller than today’s norm at the start of the smartphone revolution. A small phone made for a small battery. But with most new phones now sporting a screen size of about 5 inches, the physical footprints of our devices allow for a larger battery.

That said, a larger phone with a larger battery does not necessarily mean more time between charges. The technological advancements of recent years have made smartphones more power-hungry, so this increase in battery size can often be offset by faster consumption. Generally speaking, though, these larger batteries do last longer than their smaller predecessors.

We are also seeing vendors introduce power-saving modes on their latest models. Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and HTC’s One (M8) are just two examples of phone makers recognising the major inconvenience caused to customers by a short battery life. The new options included on these flagship devices essentially turn their screens to black and white, and prevent all non-essential apps from running.

Such on-the-fly changes to power consumption allow users to use their devices even when the battery has little charge remaining.

While features like this will give a phone extended life when a charger is nowhere in reach, there have been some notable advancements in quick-charging technology that the market can expect more of in the near future.

Motorola, working with Google, recently created the Nexus 6, a massive 5.96-inch phablet with an impressive 3,220 milliamp-hours battery that should be able to keep it going through the day. And if that is not enough, the device ships with the new Motorola Turbo Charger, enabling up to six more hours of use from just a 15-minute burst of charging time. Similarly, Samsung says its Galaxy Note 4 will reach 50 per cent charge in about 30 minutes.

Once a true breakthrough in battery technology emerges, it will not only affect smartphones but also trickle down to other technologies, altering their respective landscapes. News of the very latest battery developments has IDC on the edge of its seat, particularly with reports from Singapore of a new lithium-ion battery that can be charged to 70 per cent in just two minutes. Such technology will take several years to become mainstream, but that does not mean we cannot get excited.

We will be eagerly awaiting any further developments that help to free us from the curse of the charger.

Saad El Khadem is a research analyst at IDC MEA

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Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM


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