Thursday, December 15, 2011

The next problem with smartphones: Energy efficiency

This is a guest post by Joe Pawlikowski, editor of

In the past few years we've seen smartphones make big leaps. Formerly a business tool, it now seems that everyone has one. That is in large part because smartphones perform more functions than they did a few years ago. With two huge players, iPhone and Android, trying to out-duel one another, and with another major player, BlackBerry, trying to get back into the game, we could see smartphones do even more in the next few years. There's just one obstacle in the way.

We can actually turn to a story about the former smartphone king, the BlackBerry, and the iPhone for a clear picture of this. When Apple announced its first smartphone in January, 2007, Research In Motion was incredulous. They had been in the smartphone game for nearly a decade by that point, and they thought they knew what worked and what didn't. What didn't work, they thought, was high-powered device that consumed a lot of battery life. The iPhone, with its fully capacitive touchscreen and state of the art processor, would eat a battery in a matter of hours, thought RIM.

Of course, that turned out to be a false assumption. BlackBerry users might have gotten a bit more length out of their batteries, but iPhone users got the superior functionality. Even after Apple proved that a smartphone could have a fast processor and a vibrant screen without killing too much battery, the BlackBerry continued to pump out more of the same. Only recently has Research In Motion improved the BlackBerry hardware. Unsurprisingly, users have no problem getting a full day's use out of their devices before requiring a recharge.

Apple made strides in energy efficiency, and Android continued trend. Today we have devices far more powerful than the original iPhone that still get a full day's use from a single battery charge. Yet it seems we're reaching the limits of the current energy efficiency standards. Both Android and Apple have created smartphones with dual-core processors, and quad-core processors aren't that far off. Those processors, combined with battery draining 4G data signals, will create an unprecedented level of strain on batteries. We're going to need another breakthrough.

Simply making batteries larger is not a viable long-term solution. It might work for the here and now, when consumers absolutely need more battery life. But there's a reason why extended life batteries are not popular. They take thin, sleek smartphones and turn them into brick-like objects. They're harder to tote around, especially in pockets, which defeats the purpose of having a smartphone. What we need is a breakthrough in battery standards. Yet it's one issue that we don't hear much of from the mainstream press.

The upshot is that cell phone manufacturers surely know this. They test their devices rigorously, and battery life is a big test. As they continue transforming cell phones into mini computers, they'll see battery life slipping. It is in their best interest, then, to start investing in new energy efficiency standards. Whether this is new battery technology to replace lithium-ion, or having the smartphone handle power in a completely different way, remains to be seen. But it is definitely a development on the horizon. Without it, maintaining the pace of smartphone progress will be difficult, if not impossible.

About the Author
Joe Pawlikowski is the editor of BBGeeks, a site that helps BlackBerry users get the most out of their devices.