Rhodri Marsden: Why are the batteries on smartphones so unreliable?


One thing is even more astounding than our ability to carry around a lozenge-sized device that can make calls, receive emails, pinpoint our position on a map and play Kate Bush albums: we don't need to wheel along a petrol-driven generator to power it all. But complaints about the rate at which the current crop of feature-rich smartphones wear down their over-worked batteries is becoming louder and louder. No-one who owns the T-Mobile G1 (including myself) would dare to recommend it without also issuing a substantial caveat over its tendency to leave you without a working phone after 10pm of an evening out and about, while iPhone users are also prone to indignancy over the fact that TV ads for their super-slick phone don't feature the muffled voice of someone desperately asking if anyone has a spare USB charger.

We're wising up, of course. We know that using a phone to direct our orienteering expedition will leave us stranded and helpless in some godforsaken forest. And we know that any new bells and whistles trumpeted by Apple, Google or Nokia need to be regarded with suspicion until we know exactly how many minutes said feature will operate before grinding to a halt. But the demand for mobile power – partly driven by us, partly by phone manufacturers – is estimated by research analysts ISM as rising by some 15 per cent a year, and batteries are having trouble keeping up. While you'd think that the need for more efficient batteries would drive scientists to come up with some ultra-slim, gently pulsing source of perpetual power, it ain't gonna happen. Not imminently, anyway.

In the meantime, what are the options? Well, this month sees the launch of the V-Man Power Pack, which you use to charge mobiles, satnavs and MP3 players until it, too, runs out of juice. Another company, TCL, revealed this week its prototype for a cranking device which offers the quaint pleasure of manually winding up our phones – although as one minute of winding gives just four minutes of talk time, it could quickly become a bit irritating. But my own deeply unscientific poll amongst online acquaintances reveals that many of us would happily put up with our phones being a bit bigger if it meant an extra hour or two of battery life. A friend of mine recently modified his G1 with a substantially bigger, thicker battery. It looks utterly preposterous, but he's happy. And he's never had to ask to borrow any of my electricity.

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