Consumers sleepwalk into buying decisions that benefit the makers – it’s time to vote with your wallet
The only feedback manufacturers care about is dollar-shaped.
Every time a new smartphone comes along, I immediately inquire about the battery. Then, almost inevitably, I start tearing my hair out. As the picture to the left illustrates, this is becoming a problem.
The source of my exasperation is this: phone manufacturers seem to think that a battery only needs to get you through a single day’s moderate use – a judgement that most certainly does not square with my own. That’s partly because the idea of “moderate use” is somewhat alien to me, but also because I resent having to put my phone on charge every single night of my life. If I’m paying hundreds of pounds for a smartphone, it can darn well run to my schedule, rather than vice versa.
Indeed, as long-term PC Pro podcast listeners will know, I’ve more than once declared that if anyone had the sense to put together an Android phone with a multi-day battery, I’d buy it in a flash, more or less regardless of other considerations. And so last month, when the Lenovo P2 came along with its exceptional 5,100mAh cell – double the capacity of my old Samsung Galaxy S6 – I had little choice but to put up and buy the thing. And frankly I think you should all do the same.
Before I get into why, let’s acknowledge that, all things being equal, a brand-new phone will always yield better battery life than a two-year-old one. Lithium ion cells don’t suffer from the “memory effect” that used to plague old nickel-based cells, but they do lose capacity each time they’re recharged. One study saw commercially-available lithium ion cells lose as much as 17% of their capacity over the course of 250 cycles. I hardly need to point out that if you charge your phone every night, you’ll get to that stage within nine months. After two years, your battery may well have less than half the capacity it did when it was new.
This is why it drives me mad that you can no longer buy a smartphone with a user-replaceable battery. Too many times I’ve heard friends declare that it’s time to upgrade, not because the new generation of phones offers any particular benefit over their old handset, but simply because their battery’s shot. They end up paying £700 for a new phone when all they need is a £35 battery. The cynic in me suspects that this is the very reason why manufacturers prefer to seal the battery in.
And there’s a corollary to this. A bigger battery doesn’t just take longer to run down: since it can go much longer between charges, its capacity erodes more slowly. It’s a double win – and one we should all be demanding.
This is why I’d love to see the Lenovo P2 become a huge success. To be clear, I’m not claiming it’s the most beautiful Android smartphone on the market. Actually it’s a rather boxy thing – though, in fairness, it’s barely any bigger than a Samsung Galaxy S8. The camera is also a disappointment: I didn’t expect to care about that, but once you’re used to a Samsung camera, it’s hard to go back to soft and grainy snaps.
Even so, if the smartphone industry sees that a sensibly-sized battery trumps the millions they spend marketing their flashy flagship devices, it sends a message. Perhaps it will inspire them to upgrade the battery in their next wave of high-end phones. Frankly, if it doesn’t, I don’t know what will.
I mean that, incidentally, in the most pessimistic sense. It feels like a very long time since the big technology companies paid much attention to what their customers really wanted. They must know on some level that consumers are crying out for certain features, but it seems those are no longer imperatives; just minor inputs into the overall money-making process.
Tiny, non-replaceable smartphone batteries are one expression of this sad situation, but it’s repeated across the whole industry. Apple is an obvious example of a company that likes to tell users what they’re getting, rather than asking them what they want. Microsoft has a history of railroading users in its preferred directions, as several court cases attest. And don’t get me started on Google, which launches, revamps and closes services seemingly without the slightest reference to what works for users.
With all the technology giants seemingly sticking their fingers in their ears, the idea of changing anything might seem forlorn. In truth, we perpetuate the situation ourselves, because it’s a lot easier to accept what we’re given than to switch to rival platforms and services – which are probably just as unresponsive anyway.
But, as it happens, smartphone hardware is the one area where that inertia can’t be taken for granted. Most of us switch phones every few years as a matter of course, and while I’d hesitate to call the process painless, it’s realistic in a way that migrating away from Windows or Gmail probably isn’t. Best of all, this is a relatively cheap stand to make. While the Samsung Galaxy S8 sells for £690 SIM-free, the Lenovo P2 can be had for just £200. All right, that’s not pocket money, but to an idealist like me it’s a small price to pay for the possibility of changing the world. Plus, you know, you get a phone out of it too.
Perhaps you think I’m making a fuss over nothing. But increasingly, on evenings out, I see friends and colleagues in the pub with flashy high-end smartphones sitting out on the table – hooked up to bulky external batteries. Is that really what we’re aspiring to in 2017? By contrast, when I take my own phone out and see I still have 70% charge remaining, it feels like a triumph for sanity. And heaven knows, these days we need as many of those as we can get.
It feels like a very long time since the big tech companies paid much attention to what their customers really wanted
Darien Graham-Smith is PC Pro’s associate editor. Tweet him day or night: his phone will be on. @dariengs