It’s not your imag­i­na­tion: Phone bat­tery life is get­ting worse.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - GE­OF­FREY FOWLER ge­of­frey.fowler@wash­

Phone­mak­ers prom­ise “all-day bat­tery life.” Sure, and you haven’t stolen any of the kids’ Hal­loween candy.

If you re­cently bought a new flag­ship phone, chances are its bat­tery life is ac­tu­ally worse than an older model.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been per­form­ing the same bat­tery test over and over again on 13 phones. With a few no­table ex­cep­tions, this year’s top mod­els un­der­per­formed last year’s. The new iPhone XS died 21 min­utes ear­lier than last year’s iPhone X. Google’s Pixel 3 lasted nearly an hour and a half less than its Pixel 2.

Phone­mak­ers tout all sorts of tricks to boost bat­tery life, in­clud­ing more-ef­fi­cient pro­ces­sors, low-power modes and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to man­age app drain.

Yet my re­sults, and tests by other re­view­ers I spoke with, re­veal an open secret in the in­dus­try: The lithium-ion bat­ter­ies in smart­phones are hit­ting an in­flec­tion point where they sim­ply can’t keep up.

“Bat­ter­ies im­prove at a very slow pace, about 5 per­cent per year,” said Nadim Maluf, the CEO of a Sil­i­con Val­ley firm called Qnovo that helps op­ti­mize bat­ter­ies. “But phone power con­sump­tion is grow­ing up faster than 5 per­cent.”

Blame it on the de­mands of high-res­o­lu­tion screens, more com­pli­cated apps and, most of all, our seem­ing in­abil­ity to put the darn phone down. Lithium-

ion bat­ter­ies, for all their recharge­able won­der, also have some phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, in­clud­ing ca­pac­ity that de­clines over time — and the risk of ex­plo­sion if they’re dam­aged or im­prop­erly dis­posed.

And the phone power sit­u­a­tion is prob­a­bly about to get worse. New ul­tra­fast wire­less tech­nol­ogy called 5G, com­ing to U.S. neigh­bor­hoods soon, will make even greater de­mands on our be­lea­guered bat­ter­ies.

My test has lim­i­ta­tions. Your ex­pe­ri­ence will de­pend on how you use your phone, and there are steps you can take to make your phone life stretch.

We’re not with­out hope. Two phones that per­formed well in my tests, Sam­sung’s Note 9 and Ap­ple’s iPhone XR, of­fer ideas about how to de­sign phones to last longer — at least un­til a to­tally new bat­tery tech comes along.

Why your phone bat­tery dies

My re­sults made me do a dou­ble take, so I called a squad of other tech jour­nal­ists also ob­sessed with test­ing, at CNET, Tom’s Guide and Con­sumer Re­ports. “Our over­all av­er­age bat­tery life is com­ing down,” said Mark Spoonauer, edi­tor in chief of Tom’s Guide, who also found that the iPhone XS bat­tery died sooner than the iPhone X.

Many of the phones with the long­est bat­tery life, he added, are a year old.

But not all re­view­ers have no­ticed the same de­clines — and the dif­fer­ences in our re­sults help shed light on what’s go­ing on.

Larger phones of­ten last longer, but it’s not as sim­ple as the size of the bat­tery in­side. Re­mem­ber the Black­berry? Those had much smaller bat­ter­ies than to­day’s smart­phones but could go days with­out be­ing charged.

There’s no per­fect bat­tery test. Mine, which I bor­rowed from an in­dus­try group called the Em­bed­ded Mi­cro­pro­ces­sor Bench­mark Con­sor­tium, par­tic­u­larly stresses the screen.

I use a light me­ter to set all the phones at the same bright­ness and then force their Web browsers to reload and scroll through sites I serve through a lo­cal WiFi net­work. I re­run the tests as many times as pos­si­ble, and then av­er­age the re­sults.

CNET, which like me found con­spic­u­ous dips in bat­tery life be­tween the iPhone 8 and iPhone X (and Sam­sung’s Gal­axy S8 and S9), tests screens at 50 per­cent bright­ness play­ing a loop­ing video with Air­plane Mode turned on.

What we both dis­cov­ered: Phones with fancy screens that are es­pe­cially high-res­o­lu­tion or use tech such as OLED per­form worse. (That tech can re­quire more power to push out light.) So if you want your phone to last longer, turn down the screen’s bright­ness. Or stop look­ing at your phone so many times each day, if you can break our na­tion­wide spell of phone ad­dic­tion.

Tom’s Guide throws an­other fac­tor into the mix: the cel­lu­lar con­nec­tion. It makes phones run through web­sites streamed over LTE. Un­like me, it also saw a big bat­tery life hit to the Pixel 3 XL vs. the Pixel 2 XL.

An­other les­son: If you want the bat­tery to last longer, use WiFi when pos­si­ble — or Air­plane Mode when you don’t need to be reach­able. Ap­ple and An­droid phones also of­fer low­power modes (not re­flected in our test­ing) that re­duce some drain­ing data func­tions with­out tak­ing you off­line.

The coun­terex­am­ple is Con­sumer Re­ports, which found the new iPhone XS lasted 25 per­cent longer than last year’s iPhone X. Its test uses a fin­ger ro­bot — yes, you read that right — to make phones cy­cle through lots of dif­fer­ent func­tions and apps, in­clud­ing pauses in use where the screen turns off.

Con­sumer Re­ports is prob­a­bly bet­ter test­ing the phone’s pro­ces­sor, an area where a number of com­pa­nies — but par­tic­u­larly Ap­ple — have made ef­fi­ciency gains.

So over­all, are bat­tery lives de­creas­ing or in­creas­ing? “You can’t make a straight trend,” said Maria Rere­cich, di­rec­tor of electronics test­ing at Con­sumer Re­ports.

I wish com­pa­nies had more stan­dard­ized ways to talk about bat­tery life. Since the ear­li­est days of the iPhone, Ap­ple has de­scribed bat­tery life through spe­cific mea­sures, in­clud­ing “talk time” and “In­ter­net use.” Re­cently it’s also taken on more squishy lan­guage: The iPhone XS “lasts up to 30 min­utes longer than iPhone X,” it says, a mea­sure based on data about how long peo­ple go be­fore plug­ging back in.

How phones are deal­ing

So what about the two 2018 phones that did bet­ter in my tests?

Sam­sung’s Note 9 suc­ceeds by stuff­ing in more bat­tery. It con­tains a bat­tery ca­pac­ity of mAh, up from the al­ready huge 3,300 mAh in the Note 8. (The iPhone XS bat­tery is only 2,659 mAh, and ac­tu­ally slightly down­graded from the X.)

Lots of phones have fol­lowed the big­ger bat­tery trend. IFixit, a re­pair com­mu­nity that per­forms tear­down anal­y­sis of phone com­po­nents, says bat­tery ca­pac­i­ties have al­most dou­bled in the past five years.

How much fur­ther can the size game go? Huawei just in­tro­duced a phone called Mate 20 Pro, not sold in the United States, with a 4,200 mAh bat­tery. Larger, denser bat­ter­ies can be more dan­ger­ous (re­mem­ber Sam­sung’s ex­plod­ing Note 7?), not to men­tion heav­ier. The Note 9, which also has a gi­ant screen and a sty­lus, weighs 7.1 oz — more than twice a deck of cards.

Ap­ple’s iPhone XR, the new phone I rec­om­mend to most peo­ple, has a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. It scales back on the screen tech — lower res­o­lu­tion, less bright and lower-qual­ity color — in ways that ben­e­fit bat­tery life tremen­dously: The XR lasted 3 hours longer than the top iPhone XS, even though the its screen is a smidgen larger. (Bonus: It also costs $250 less.)

“Con­sumers have to start get­ting ready for com­pro­mise,” said Maluf, the CEO of the bat­tery op­ti­miza­tion com­pany.

Per­haps the mar­ket will frag­ment fur­ther, mak­ing phones more like buy­ing cars. That mar­ket was even­tu­ally up­ended by fuel-econ­omy mod­els; in­stead of the gas­guz­zling Cadil­lac, you could choose the Honda. Ap­ple’s iPhone XR is the Civic of smart­phones.

Our near-fu­ture choices are prob­a­bly ei­ther to get an econ­omy phone, or plug in more of­ten. Faster and more con­ve­nient charg­ing is the strat­egy for some mak­ers. Lots of phones sup­port wire­less charg­ing, though few cafes, of­fices and air­port lounges of­fer it.

And then there’s the plug it­self. Ap­ple, which has shipped the same 5 watt charg­ing brick for years, could take a les­son from Google, which sells its Pixel phones with an 18 watt charger and claims you can get 7 hours of use from just 15 min­utes of charg­ing. The one thing that’s al­most as bad as run­ning out of juice is be­ing teth­ered to an out­let.


Ge­of­frey Fowler


TOP: The new Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smart­phones are seen at a re­lease event last month. In a bat­tery test, the Pixel 3 lasted an hour and a half less than the Pixel 2. ABOVE: The new iPhone XS is launched in Septem­ber. It died 21 min­utes ear­lier than last year’s iPhone X in the bat­tery test.


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