Why Consumers Shrug Off Lousy Battery Life
At this point, pretty much every tech publication has reviewed the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus and found them to be an improvement over the last models in every way.
Except one: battery life.
Some reviewers, such as Geoffrey Fowler of The Wall Street Journal and Brad Molen of Engadget found the iPhone 6’s battery life was worse than the iPhone 5S. (The elephantine iPhone 6 Plus did better on this score.)
It’s not surprising that mediocre battery life has failed to torpedo the new iPhones.
In surveys, consumers say the attribute is a big concern when it comes to buying a phone. In practice, though, consumers have shunned phones with superior battery life — such as the LG G2. Rationalizing that middling battery performance is the price you pay for bigger and better screens and greater connectivity, most consumers seem content to live with charging anxiety.
The limits of chemistry
That’s not to say we don’t expect better. We’ve all gotten used to Moore’s Law, Intel Cofounder Gordon Moore’s dictum that the number of transistors in a circuit doubles every two years or so. This has meant dramatic increases in processor speeds over the years. Alas, Moore’s Law doesn’t apply to batteries.
Battery technology doesn’t progress at nearly the same rate. The biggest breakthrough — lithium ion — occurred two decades ago. There’s also no getting around the fact that the only way to get more battery life is to use a bigger battery.
“The capacity is limited by the chemical reactions. It’s chemistry,” says Tim Probert, editor of Batteries & Energy Storage Technology. “And chemistry is no cakewalk.”
Despite some talk of new technologies that might change the equation, Probert says he doesn’t foresee anything that will dramatically increase battery life in the near future. Iain Gillott, an analyst with iGR, agreed.
“I don’t think there’s any answer to it in the next five years,” he says.
The primary problem is that new phones keep getting bigger, better and brighter screens. Gillott estimates that screens suck up 30% to 50% of battery life. The radios used in the devices account for some of the remaining use. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for instance, include not only 4G, but Bluetooth, NFC and Wi-fi, all of which drag on the battery. Finally, popular apps, including Spotify and Snapchat, are known to drain your battery as well.
“By demanding more and more of phones, we’re making it harder to meaningfully extend battery life,” says J.P. Gownder, an analyst with Forrester Research. “Oh, and we want the devices to get thinner and lighter too.”
The good old days
While smart phones represent a quantum leap in functionality over feature phones, the latter still offer a much more lasting charge. As Gillott recalls, phones in the 2000s that ran on 2G could go a couple of days without recharging. In contrast, iPhones last about 10 hours on a charge while some Android models — including the LG G2 — can go about twice as long.
In the pre-smartphone era, when mobile phones were used mostly for making calls and texting, a two-day charge was seen as the industry standard. A 2005 survey, for instance, showed “two days of active use” topped consumers’ wish lists for mobile phones in 14 of 15 countries. Chinese consumers opted for more memory.
That all changed with the first iPhone in 2007, which sported around seven hours of battery life. As smartphone adoption crept up — it’s now at around 70%, according to Nielsen — consumers got into the habit of charging their phones daily.
There’s only one segment of the population that’s happy about this development: makers of external chargers.
At least those are getting better. Wireless chargers, such as Powermat are just hitting the market and may alleviate the pain somewhat.
Still, it may be ten years or so — if that — until we enjoy the battery life we enjoyed a decade ago.