When Less Isn’t More – We Need Better Batteries

[Note: This is a re-post from Ploked from 4/28/10]
More, more, more. In the tech world, who doesn’t want more megahertz in their CPUs? Faster and more powerful GPUs for the increasing demand of high definition video from 1080p. Moore’s Law states that every two years the number of transistors on a circuit board can be doubled. Thus, this is the reason why the iPhones or BlackBerry’s in our pocket are nearly as powerful as a computer I purchased ten years ago. The silicon is shrinking and the hardware is getting stronger.

There’s only one problem – the battery. Batteries haven’t improved as fast as the rest of the computing world. In fact, why the hell are we still using Duracells and Energizers? AA batteries should be obsolete by now. There shouldn’t be a single digital camera on the market that has a battery that can’t last through a days worth of picture taking. No buts. End of story. It’s two-oh-freaking-ten. Designers, get with the times, please!

When Apple revealed their iPhone back in 2007 sporting an internal non-replaceable battery, the world cried foul. Then look what happened. Oh right, no one is whining about it anymore (except for all those Nokia fanboys). The rate at which our gadgets are used to their fullest potential and then disposed is so rapid today that it doesn’t matter. I don’t know a single person who owns an iPhone and has used it to its max for two years and has needed to get the battery replaced – they are still holding charges and bobbing along.

Scene from “The Matrix” (1999)

Asutek (Asus) struck on something interesting back when it introduced the first eeePC and practically opened the floodgates to the Netbook category. Their batteries, at the time, sucked. The original 7″ eeePC ran a variant of the open source OS, Linux, and while it was supposed to be the stepping stone to the future, the OS never caught on. Unlike Windows XP, Linux is so un-bloated that a 3-cell battery lasted quite a long time back in the day. We all know what happened to Linux. Consumers demanded Windows XP, and they got it for another couple years until Microsoft shipped Windows 7. Once everyone made the jump to Windows again on their little Netbooks, people demanded more battery. The 3-cell could no longer cut it. We needed 6, 9, and even 12-cell batteries. As the batteries expanded, the slimness of Netbooks became chunky. The Netbook of today is hardly what you would consider ultraportable. At best, a good Netbook is expected to be able to handle a day’s worth of web browsing, because let’s face it, no one wants to be lugging around an AC adapter at all. Lesson: If you’re going to do Linux, make it a competitor to Windows. I’m willing to bet Google’s extremely feather light Chrome OS will be able to jump start what Asus, HP, and many other companies have failed at.

If you asked me which Atom processor is the best for a Netbook, I’d probably have to spend a bit of time on Google. I’ve lost track of all the Intel Atom versions (now there’s dual core Atoms?). The most important thing when considering any mobile device is now, of course, the battery.

With almost every Android phone packing a 1Ghz Snapdragon processsor or iPads with their A4’s and Netbooks with their Atoms, the processor is no longer the cherry on top. Finding a computer that fits your needs, looks good, and has incredible battery life is no easy feat.
One of the companies that have been innovating and putting a larger chunk of R&D into getting more juice out of the old Lithium is none other than Cupertino’s Apple, Inc. Apple may get a lot of attention for their shiny new gadgets from their iPods, iPads, and iPhones, but no one can complain that the batteries that power Apple’s latest gadgets are anything but spectacular.

Last year, Apple completely flipped the laptop industry upside down. Following their iPod and iPhone line, they did away with the user replaceable battery in their MacBook Pros and went with a sealed battery. The result of this is more room for a larger battery. According to their tests, a MacBook could get up to seven hours of battery on one charge. My 2007 MacBook gets almost two and a half hours on one full charge. How’s that for a leap in mobile usability! The way it works is, instead of wasting room with battery latches and other doodads, Apple’s been able to expand the battery surface area. They’ve also designed their MacBooks to have batteries that aren’t cylindrical. In their latest update last week, Apple now claims their 13″ MacBook Pro can get up to 10 hours of battery and their higher end models can achieve up to 8 hours. What other notebook can claim those kind of numbers? Early impressions by various tech heads across the web have already been putting the new machines through various workloads and the numbers are in: it’s damn close to what Apple’s claiming.

Anyone with an iPad now knows how impressive the thing is. Hell, even I’m stunned (although I won’t be buying one anytime soon). David Pogue of the New York Times and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal have both claimed that the iPad can play movies continuously back to back for over Apple’s stated 10 hours. That’s almost the span of a direct flight from New York to China!

Similar to Nintendo’s approach, the time for  bigger, better, faster, and cheaper is slowly whittling away. We are approaching a time where universal access (in industrialized nations) will no longer be a hindrance. We need the energy (preferably clean energy) to power the insatiable digital lives we continue to pursue.

I challenge all electronics designers and producers to herald in more battery efficient gadgets. It’s about time batteries evolved. Whether they be sealed into our devices or not, it doesn’t matter. It only matters that the batteries last long and don’t explode!

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