Don’t die, phone: my battery-life anxiety

A phone that tracks your eyeballs? Just give me one that lasts a day


In 1999 I went travelling around the world for a few months, and with me came an idea for a novel. When I say idea I mean notion. A half thought. An itch that needed scratching. And, like most itches, it was a rash that was better not shown to strangers.

Nevertheless, something portable and packable was needed to write this great work, so I picked up a Psion 3mx. It was a relatively early model of handheld computer with 2MB of storage, which would make it capable of storing the photographs accompanying this column and little more. But its keyboard was surprisingly usable, its screen good in bright light. It stored a stunning two minutes of audio, and Solitaire on it was superb.

Anyway, the novel went unwritten, my Solitaire skills improved no end, and two years later Psion stopped making these tiny laptops. The future had overtaken them more quickly than planned.

Yet, in one way it was a high-water mark in the technology we now take for granted. In four months of travelling, its AA batteries needed changing just once.

On the laptop I’m writing this column on, a full charge will just about get it through the morning. You can almost see its battery icon draining like a milkshake being sucked by a six-year-old.

It will start gasping any moment, its warning messages splashing across the screen when there is 10 per cent left. Then it will give repeated panicked warnings until the superportable computer is finally tethered to a socket.

Some computers are better than others, and many are better than mine, but, as portable electronic devices have evolved, battery life has been in steady descent.

That battery life remains a selling point among mobile phones, tablets and laptops is mildly perverse. Their makers are effectively just selling you the idea that you’ll be slightly less frustrated with their products.

The result is a First World obsessed with recharging, and with access to a charger and a socket. Daily destinations are marked by the telltale trail of wires: phone chargers at desks, in kitchens, in bedrooms. A spare lead in the bag for plugging into the laptop in emergencies.

Hotels have boxes of the things stored behind reception, but never the one you want. All the while there is the relentless countdown of the percentage reading on the screen, the running programme in the back of your brain calculating if you’ve enough charge to get you through a night out.

The reason isn’t a mystery: the battery remains a pretty much unchanged technology that has been asked to power computing that advances every year. It is expected to feed the market’s demands for greater innovation and novelty, and the force-feeding of phones with apps and widgets and bigger, better screens on thinner, lighter devices.

Something has to give, and it has been battery life and our expectations. It is to the credit of the mobile-phone industry that it has so successfully managed the world’s expectations of how long a portable device should last on a charge.

The Galaxy S4 was launched on Thursday, and among its claims was better battery life. But any progression comes from more efficient computing and not marked improvements in the battery itself.

Besides, it will still be, on the whole, poor. There will be consumer tests and reviews and claims and counterclaims, but the truth will remain that, once it is unboxed and loaded with apps and run for a few months, its battery reading will tick away as if it’s counting down to a shuttle launch.

A US survey last year showed that people rated their satisfaction with mobile-phone battery life as just over six out of 10 – which suggests a management of expectations rather than the crashing disappointment that could be expected.

But it’s not about to improve. Much battery life is sucked away by the hunt for 3G, but areas where they already have 4G (that is to say, not Ireland) require even more juice.

So here’s what I want from the next generation of smartphones. It’s not a screen that reacts to the squint of my eyeballs. It’s not an endless search for a 4G network that will exist here only if you wander too close to the Border. It’s not a phone so thin you could slip it under the door of a bank vault.

It’s a battery that lasts. It’s days from full charge to emptiness. It’s a laptop that doesn’t need to be refuelled more regularly than a Formula 1 car. It’s freedom from the stress of wondering how long a battery will last to worry about other matters. Such as whether the wifi signal will hold.