Battery Life Is the Only Spec That Matters

Give basically any piece of tech you carry around the time machine test. Jump ahead 50 years, and show off whatever anachronism of a gadget you brought along to a native. They'd laugh, obviously. But within the confines of our traditional tech specs, you know what they'd probably find most egregious? The battery.

Somehow, when talking about gadgets, battery life has become at best the fourth of fifth thing you mention. It shouldn't be. It should be the very first. At this point, it's the only thing that matters.

Battery isn't some one-off feature. You don't fritter entire train rides away worried that your phone doesn't have diamond-cut chamfered edges, or which widgets you should have on your home screen. (Or if you do, that is very sad and you should stop.) Your night has never been ruined because your apps load too slowly. We bitch about annoyances, app availability, syncing issues. But if we accept that reception almost entirely subject to outside forces, you're left with battery life as more or less the only way your phone can totally screw up your plans. It's the only thing you worry about. And we really need to stop ignoring it.

Gadgets are all, basically, pretty good right now...

A few years ago, it was fashionable to explain that specs don't matter, performance does. This was true, insofar as the component wars had ended in an industry-wide tie. Everything used Intel processors, or competing mobile processors that didn't vary too greatly from each other. Build quality and design and integration of software took center stage. And mostly just software.

Now, though, basically every widely used software platform is just plain good. You'll have preferences, of course. And certain areas, like trackpads on Windows ultrabooks or notifications on Android, are creakier than their counterparts. But at some point, you're just debating religions. The Lord of Light or the Drowned God or the Seven? iOS or Android or Windows Phone? Sure, one is probably more right than the others, but it doesn't really matter. You're arguing aesthetics. You'll enjoy owning an iPhone if you buy one. You'll enjoy a Windows Phone or an Android phone too. Just the same as you'll enjoy using OS X on a MacBook Air or Windows 8 on a Lenovo Yoga.

It's not just software. Everything's improved, if not in lockstep, at least toward similar endpoints. MacBook design is wonderful, but so are Acer's S7, Samsung's Series 9, and especially the Chromebook Pixel. The iPad and Nexus and Kindle and yes even the Nook all have wonderful screens. Gadgets are all, year to year, cycle to cycle, remarkably the same. Hardware, components, software, features, even design—all of it more or less on even footing.

...which makes battery life disproportionately important...

There are degrees and there are absolutes. By degree, the iPad is more pleasant to look at than a Kindle Fire, you might say. Maybe the aspect ratio of the Nexus or the iPad is a few degrees more pleasant to use than the other. But in absolute terms, an iPhone in your pocket being a beautiful, black, battery-drained brick is infinitely worse than, say, a RAZR Maxx chugging away after a kazillion hours, design and camera be damned. A big fat iPad 3 is absolutely better than a skinny, dead iPad. Things that work are better than things that don't. A phone that's out of battery has zero features.

This effect is muted on categories like laptops, where usability measures like trackpad hardware and drivers are the biggest factors in how much you'll enjoy your computer. And most people probably have stronger opinions (and ingrained workflow habits) about desktop OS than mobile. But even then, we're grown so accustomed to laptop battery life being so far off from listed all-day expectations that we ignore it as a spec entirely. We shouldn't.

...especially since battery size, life, and capabilities affect—and are affected by—design and features...

It's easy to see how battery needs directly affect design and engineering. Look no further than the fatass iPad 3, or the fact that every LTE phone is relatively huge because of the battery-sucking needs of an LTE radio.

The choice between LTE and other faux-G network speeds is a fine example, actually. We've all pretty much come to the conclusion that Google knows what it's doing with Android. Much more so than carriers and manufacturers. Yet everyone went insane when it turned out the Nexus 4 wouldn't have LTE. Why? Even without a battery-murdering LTE radio, the Nexus 4 still comes in barely middle of the pack in battery tests. Google knew that Jelly Bean 4.2 is a battery hog. It chose features over network.

But design pushes back as well. The iPhone 5, for instance, has crap battery life. But it didn't have to. With the 5, Apple finally got its hands on the thin, low-power screens it lacked for the current iPad. That, paired with the efficiency gains made by the A6 chip, could have driven iPhone battery life into the stratosphere. It would have been a welcome change, given the crap the iPhone 4S dealt with about its battery. But Apple chose thinness and lightness over practicality. And if you own one, you've suffered for it.

...and so, battery life continues to take a back seat...

Again and again, we have chosen form and power over endurance. Skinny iPhone over longer lasting iPhone. LTE radios over perfectly acceptable HSPA+ speeds and better battery life. About the only gadget that's made the decision to not compromise on its battery life, damn the cost, was the iPad 3. And we told it to eat a damn salad.

The two aren't mutually exclusive, of course. Samsung's Galaxy S4 shrunk the imprint of the S3, more or less, while going from 2100mAh to 2600mAh. But that's the exception, not the rule.

Feature bloat doesn't help matters. Stuff like Intel's Smart Connect (Apple calls this Power Nap)—which pulls down email and other files while your computer is asleep—seems like a smarter way to operate our stuff. Except the overhead on that is opening up your computer after a few hours of sleep and seeing it drained of 15 or 20 percent of its battery. Is that worth it? The nerd answer is that smarter sleep states are coming with Haswell, so hold on. The real person answer is "No."

In some ways, this is our fault, too. Us, the reviewers, the blowhards. Every review of a phone or tablet or computer talks about battery. We run a standardized laptop battery test, and mention if phones or tablets make it "all day". When they don't, unless it's criminally lackluster—Galaxy Nexus: guilty—we shrug it off as a problem a lot of phones have. And when when they're exceptional, like the Razr Maxx and Lumia 920, we chalk it up as a positive. But never with the same kind of reverence that we do a thinner, prettier model.

And here we are. It's 2013, and our ultrabooks get two to four hours of battery life. Our cell phones die before happy hour if we don't charge them at our desks.

...but it has to get better—soon.

It can't stay like this. Wearable tech like Google Glass requires enough juice and efficiency for all day use. But comparable products have struggled to hit two hours of continuous use. Or look at the Tesla—for now our best shot at electric cars proliferating—embroiled in heated urinating matches about its battery range. The future is Always On, and it's not connected to a wall charger. So something has to give.

Some of the gains will be from fuel cell efficiency (or supercapacitors; but those have been "coming" for a while). Others from software optimization. But for a lot of reasons, a good chunk of the progress might have to fall on Intel's shoulders, which sounds nuts given the way the company has struggled to keep up with power efficiency demands. Intel has been doubling down on its efficiency the past few years, with dedicated hardware accelerators to make tasks run faster, and active sleep states. But what's coming next is pure muscle.

In simple terms, Intel has the ability to make its future chips smaller, and therefore more power efficient, than anyone else on the planet. Right now it's making them at 22 nanometers. Within a year or two, it's going to be down to 14nm. Then eventually 10nm. That should mean, in theory, unprecedented efficiency in chips—both traditional computer cores, and the SoC processors in phones.

In the meantime, both Samsung and Nvidia claimed they made the most energy efficient chip in the world this year. One of them is probably even right. But how much that means in practical terms is anyone's guess. I asked an Nvidia spokesperson, talking about its new Tegra 4i processor, if Nvidia would ever think about taking a generation to focus only on efficiency, since it's so strong on graphics already. Short answer: No.

"We don't think your phone can ever be fast enough," he said. "Every time you have to wait for an app to load, for a video to load, for a game to load, that's time we want to eliminate. We showed you how strong we are on efficiency, but we're never going to stop giving you the best graphics we can."

Which is a fair point. But sometimes I wish someone would spend more of their energy eliminating the time I'm stuck on the subway with a dead phone.