The impossible dream: perfecting smartphone battery life

When are we due a significant step up?

So, when will that coveted week-long smartphone staying power finally become a reality? Well, unless you’re happy to plump for the new Nokia 3310 over the upcoming iPhone 8 or next-gen Samsung Galaxy, sadly not anytime soon.

“It takes roughly about 10 years and £100 million to develop a new chemistry, so the economies of scale aren’t comparable with microprocessors,” Dr. Wu said.

This is just phase one, too, with a lengthy development period followed up by another decade needed to get these new technologies safe and stable for widespread commercialization.

He added: “Each time you make a new chemistry, it takes about 10 years to commercialize that. If you look back at the original patent for the lithium-ion battery, it was first published in Oxford University in 1980. Sony first commercialized it in the 1990s.

“On the horizon we have other chemistries that will take a bit longer. People are talking about substituting sulphur into the battery or silicone and behind that, something called a lithium-air battery which is seen as the holy grail. That will take more than a decade or two before we perfect it.”

Just because new battery chemistry is still a long way off doesn’t mean advancements aren’t being made, however.

Filling the void

While a generational change in battery technology is still some way off, smartphone battery lives are improving, albeit very slowly.

Incremental improvements are being made, and regularly, but with increasingly power-hungry components such as expansive QHD displays, these are largely only helping smartphone manufacturers tread water in terms of overall staying power.

It’s not just battery experts that are looking to optimize performances of current technologies either. Smartphone manufacturers and component suppliers are also going to extensive lengths to eke out every available percentage point from the batteries currently available to them.

“Whilst innovation in battery life is always a long-term goal, we have been focusing on making the power consumption of our products more efficient,” a HTC spokesperson said, speaking exclusively to TechRadar.

“The HTC 10 for example features a PowerBotics system that improves the phone’s hardware and software efficiency to deliver up to 30% longer battery life by auto-detecting and shutting down apps that use excessive power.”

With the wait for a step change in battery technology expected to be a lengthy one, this managing of expectations and optimizing efforts looks set to continue.

They added: “Software such as HTC Sense Companion has also been incorporated to let users know in advance if they are running out of power based on their consumption and personal schedule, and we see this technology developing in the coming years.”

HTC is far from alone in this pursuit. While rival smartphone manufacturers are all finding ways to extend the battery life of their devices, component suppliers such as chipset maker Qualcomm are also working on solutions.

“Qualcomm is doing a number of things. The Snapdragon 835 is the first processor to use the new 10nm technology. Every time you push the processor technology forward, you have less leakage and a much more efficient operation inside the system,” Paparrizos explained.

“Every year we improve at taking battery power and converting it to system power. Our goal every year is to become more and more efficient at doing that.

“If you look at the efficiency improvements, it’s always going to be incremental numbers because you can only be up to 100% efficient eventually.”

The dangers of battery experimentation

There’s another stumbling block in the road to the perfect smartphone battery, a big one at that - safety.

The difficulties in experimenting with battery technology were drawn into sharp focus last year as a result of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fiasco. After a number of power units exploded, the phone was hit with a global recall. Changes were made but the explosions kept coming, an aggressive battery design was to blame and a second, permanent global recall was issued.

With the phone banned from aircraft over safety concerns and Note 7s responsible for burnt out cars and minor owner injuries, it has caused the entire industry to take a cautious look at the need to squeeze every single percentage point out of the battery units.

“As we put more energy in the battery, it inherently gets more unsafe,” Dr. Wu told us. “As we are doing this, we have to keep an eye on will it explode, which has obviously been something of a topical discussion point with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 batteries.”

The Note 7 issues were more than a PR disaster, they could further slow the progression as manufacturers are forced into being increasingly cautious.

“The Note 7 incident did bring more attention to the battery. We don’t always see how OEMs use the batteries, certain people might have pushed it more than others,” Qualcomm’s George Paparrizos added.

His comments were backed up by Dr. Wu, who added: “I would hazard a guess that they tried to push the envelope for energy density a bit too much without considering the safety. It is one of the key concerns and it is potentially one of the things that could hamper battery technology.”

While Samsung’s issues have reverberated around the entire industry, the manufacturer itself is already looking to move past the well-publicized problem, most notably with the Samsung Galaxy S8, a phone that has somewhat cautiously switched to a rather conservative 3,000mAh battery.

“It was a very newsworthy item, so it’s not something that people will forget,” Samsung’s European Head of Product Management, Mark Notton told us recently.

“Certainly, with the announcement that we made back in Seoul, and what we talked about at MWC, hopefully we’re able to close that chapter and move on.”

The future of smartphone development

While your annual chipset bumps and camera tweaks are set to continue - manufacturers have to offer something new - smartphone batteries will catch up. Soon? No. But the focus being heaped on them continues to grow.

“Battery is one of the focus areas of the industry,” Paparrizos said. “If you look at all of the technology in the phone, battery is the one that’s lagging. Every time a technology is lagging, people focus on it and eventually bring it up to match the rest of the stuff.”

Battery technology will be forced to catch up. It won't be anytime soon, but it will happen. Until then... can I borrow your charger?