Why iPhones Don’t Need Bigger Batteries
The charging paradigm is shifting
In the comments of my post about Apple removing the headphone jack from iPhones, a reader mentioned something that iPhone users and some in the tech press have been saying for a few years now as smartphones have continued to get thinner without significantly increasing their battery life. From reader M.D.(emphasis mine):
My bigger problem with the entire smartphone industry, led by Apple, is that the design decisions are largely dictated by making the devices thin. I believe we are long past the point of diminishing returns with thinness. Thin phones feel “sexier”, but the tradeoff is usability and durability. I would much rather have a thicker phone with a larger camera lens and a huge battery. I would gladly trade some thickness and some of the higher end performance features for a smartphone that could go 3 or 4 days without needing to charge.
This is a more than reasonable request. Worrying about running out of power is something that most of us probably think about at least once a day, and surveys like the one below show that longer battery life is the feature smartphone users want the most.
Apple’s target for iPhone battery life is that they should be able to handle a full day of normal usage on a single charge, but the crowds surrounding charging stations and power outlets at airports are evidence that a lot of people struggle to keep their phones charged on heavy-use days, and external USB batteries are such a needed accessory that they can now be found at most gas stations. However, “make my phone thinner” doesn’t make the list of requested smartphone improvements, and smartphones have gotten so much lighter and thinner since the iPhone debuted ten years ago that most users are probably more than content with their phone’s size by now. If anything, requests for shatter-resistant screens and the explosion in popularity of smartphone “poppers” shows that a much bigger issue for users is simply holding onto their phones, which wouldn’t be improved by making a phone a few millimeters thinner.
So it seems like an iPhone that sacrificed thinness for a larger battery would be a big hit with customers, to the point that it almost seems like a no-brainer. But the more I think about it, the less I think Apple would make a move like this, since there are many ways to increase battery life without expanding battery size. But a reason I’ve heard little discussion about is that, after a decade of primarily charging our phones at night, the charging paradigm might be shifting as we move towards true wireless charging.
The Mystery of the Ulefone Power 5
If Apple won’t give you an iPhone with multi-day battery life, why not switch to Android? One of the big selling points of Android phones is that there is a huge variety of them, providing users with plenty of options to fit whatever their priorities might be. Users have been asking for bigger, multi-day phone batteries for years, so I assumed some intrepid company was making a big, chunky Android phone with a battery so massive that it could hold the title of Undisputed Battery Life Champ, making it the clear favorite for those claiming that extra-long battery life is their top priority. But after looking at several lists of Android phones with the best battery life, it seems like the biggest batteries max out at 5,000 mAh (the Asus Zenfone Max seems to be a favorite), with a focus more on how comfortably you can get through a single day of heavy use than going multiple days without charging.
So what gives? Are people who claim they want multi-day battery life lying? Is the smartphone industry simply choosing to ignore a seemingly large subset of customers?
But wait! By sheer luck, while doing a Google Image search I stumbled upon the Moby Dick of big battery smartphones: the Power 5 from a Chinese company called Ulefone (I hadn’t heard of them either). The Power 5 boasts a downright gargantuan 13,000 mAh battery(!) that Ulefone claims on its website can power the phone for “at least a week on a single charge, or up to 10 days in light use”, can be used as an external battery to charge other devices, yet can supposedly fully recharge in just 2.5 hours. The Power 5 is over three times as big as the iPhone 8 volumetrically and weighs over twice as much at 11.64 oz (iPhone 8 is 5.22 oz).
Sound too good to be true? Maybe it is! The Power 5 went on pre-sale on April 24, 2018 for somewhere around $270, but I can’t seem to find when it is available. I’ve found some unboxing videos and a very unscientific battery test, but no reviews from any reputable sources, only one article from a known website announcing that the phone was coming, and it isn’t available on Amazon. I did find this Power 5 introduction video on Ulefone’s YouTube channel, but the look of it (and some unhappy comments) don’t give me much confidence that the Power 5 and Ulefone should be trusted.
But imagine the Power 5 does exist, works in your country, and delivers on its promise of seven days between charges. Great! But if you’re at home going to bed on night three and you see that your phone has 58% battery left, are you really not going to charge it? Unless you’re fact-checking Ulefone’s claims or trying to prove a point, I highly doubt it, especially if all it would take is putting the Power 5 on a charging pad on your bedside table where your phone probably spends the night anyway. So unless you’re someone who is routinely off the grid for multiple days, simply can’t remember to charge your phone, and/or passionately hates external batteries, battery cases, and charging in general, that seven-day battery will almost never be pushed to its limit. That means you would now be stuck with a chunky phone that is chunky because it essentially has a built-in external battery you’ll almost never use, made by a company with an uncertain track record with little presence outside of China to provide customer support. Not so great.
And remember the fiery, embarrassing disaster that happened when Samsung tried to jam a battery that was too big into their Note 7? Maybe the Power 5’s long battery life would be a good thing since I’d probably be scared to plug this thing in. And what are the odds that the Power 5 will get Android updates in a timely fashion, if at all? I also find it hard to believe that the Power 5 has features on par with the best flagship phones from industry leaders like Apple, Google, or Samsung — though Ulefone’s “legal department” felt it was okay to call the Power 5’s facial recognition technology “Face ID”, which I’m sure Apple totally wouldn’t sue them over.
If you need more battery life, why not simply get one of the best smartphones on the market and use a battery case on days you need it instead of dealing on a daily basis with the heft, size, uncertainties, and feature compromises of a phone that holds close to twice as much power as an average laptop, which you’ll probably never fully use? Is that big battery worth having a phone that has an inferior camera or worse security and customer support than the phone you have now? Sometimes people don’t actually want what they think they want, and when it comes to multi-day phone batteries, there may be good reasons why the major (and most of the minor) phonemakers aren’t making them.
Cutting the (Charging) Cord
The current charging paradigm, which we’ve had since the cell phone, is that we use a cord to plug in our smartphones before we go to sleep so they can charge overnight, which gives most users enough juice for the whole day. It’s a pattern we are all accustomed to since it isn’t terribly inconvenient and is considered reasonable for the privilege of being able to carry around a pocket-sized supercomputer. Apple adopted Qi wireless inductive charging for their 2017 batch of iPhones, which hasn’t yet changed the charging paradigm significantly.
However, with a huge player like Apple instantly increasing the awareness, demand, and popularity of wireless charging, the number and variety of wireless chargers has exploded as their prices have plummeted, a trend that will no doubt continue as future iPhones feature Qi charging, other smartphone makers rush to join them, and consumers upgrade their phones. Just as many iPhone users have Lightning charging cables stationed around their homes, we’ll soon have inexpensive Qi charging pads wherever we tend to put our phones down the most, which should be an easy transition considering that Qi chargers can already be bought for about the same price as a good Lightning cable.
This is when the charging paradigm will start shifting, eliminating the need for bigger batteries. Because you won’t need a bigger battery if your smartphone is charging several times a day whenever you put it down.
With enough inexpensive Qi chargers around (or built into furniture), our once-or-twice-a-day charging habits will begin breaking down. Because when you put your phone down on your desk at work, it’ll charge. Put your phone down on the coffee table while you’re watching TV, it’ll charge. Put your phone down on the kitchen counter when you’re making dinner, it’ll charge. Put your phone down on the bedside table before you go to sleep, it’ll charge. Charging will shift from something you have to remember to do to something that just happens with no extra effort and very little thought most times your phone isn’t in your hand, pocket, or bag.
A version of this is in practice today with AirPods. AirPods already get an impressive five hours of use on a single charge, but they effectively get 24 hours of usage when you include the battery inside the charging case. Because I don’t need to live dangerously, I put my AirPods in their case whenever I’m not using them so I won’t lose them, even if it’s only for a few minutes, and would probably still do this even with a non-charging case. So with no extra actions or thought taken on my part, my AirPods are almost always fully charged whenever I take them out to use them, even if I use them several times a day. Because of this, I usually only need to charge the case once a week, and I’ve heard no complaints that the AirPods themselves need bigger batteries. Imagine this with smartphones, but instead of a charging case, it’s a charging pad, and you have a few of them around the house.
It’s true that current wireless charging isn’t too different from using a cord, but the change in mindset (and mindspace) is a subtle but important one — putting your phone down and picking it up (which we do all the time) instead of actively plugging it in and unplugging it (done just a few times a day). The charging paradigm shift will become even more pronounced when true wireless charging that can send power to devices a few feet away (Energous claims to be very close with their WattUp technology) becomes an affordable and popular reality.
The shift will be completed with the development of “ambient” wireless charging that can provide power to devices throughout your home the way wifi beams the internet to any web-enabled device within range. A company called uBeam showed a USA Today reporter a working prototype of technology that does this in 2017, but there still seem to be a lot of doubts about its viability (some have compared it to the infamous Theranos fraud), its limitations, and what it will take to be adopted. When uBeam CEO Meredith Perry was asked by USA Today when the product might become available, she answered, “I’m out of the prediction game.”
Why I Charge
Obviously, we charge our devices because they need power to work. But this doesn’t explain all of our charging habits.
If you asked me, I’d say that my iPhone 7 needs a bigger battery since I almost always charge it at least once during the day while I’m exercising, showering, or in the car. But when I’ve purposefully avoided a mid-day charge, I’ve found that I can usually get to the end of most days on a single overnight charge, especially if I switch to Low Power Mode when I start running low. Those tests have shown me that I usually don’t need a mid-day charge, I just like having more juice than I need, which makes me itchy to charge my phone any time it is under 60%, even if I’m more than halfway through the day. This informal poll found that over half of smartphone users only charge their phones once a day, and it turns out I’m one of them in spite of my habits. But a charged phone makes me feel like I’m ready in case of an emergency, like if the power goes out or I suddenly have to run from my house. When I see people crowded around outlets at airports to charge their phones, I silently judge them for their irresponsibility and for not having their own external batteries. I love this tweet from comedian Shawn Pearlman:
For me, keeping your smartphone — a tool with almost unlimited uses, and your lifeline to friends, family, and the world — charged and ready for hours of use at all times is a function of being a modern adult. But as I’ve been working on this post, I decided to take some advice I read a while ago and turned off the battery percentage on my iPhone as an experiment to see if it makes me think less about charging.
If my iPhone could go two days without charging, I would probably still charge it every night, especially if doing so (by placing it on a bedside charging pad) took no effort. A fully-charged phone helps me start my day right and puts my mind at ease that there’s one less thing to worry about, since I find the idea of my phone dying to simply be unacceptable. Maybe that’s borne of almost twenty years of habit, an overabundance of caution, a quirk in my upbringing, my years in the Boy Scouts (be prepared!), or because it simply doesn’t seem like too much to ask to plug my phone in at night or when I know I won’t be using it. But maybe I’m wrong, and if/when there is a big advance in battery or charging technology, I and others will look back on this time of plugging into walls more than once a day and wonder how we ever lived like such animals.
However, I also believe that if iPhones lasted two days, you’d still see people at airports sitting on the floor next to outlets. Even when cell phones could go several days without a charge, there were still people having their phones die on them. Maybe the problem isn’t with batteries, but with ourselves. Making charging easier is a good way to extend battery life instead of having to always carry around more battery than you usually need, until ambient charging makes charging truly effortless.
Until then, don’t count on Apple making a product fatter than it reasonably needs to be to give you extra battery. When it comes to increasing battery life, increasing a battery’s physical size is probably the least elegant and creative way to do it, and Apple is all about elegance and creativity. Apple’s preferred method on its mobile devices is to reduce power usage through faster processors that don’t need to run as long or hot, systems on a chip with energy-efficient cores to handle less demanding tasks, moving to less power-hungry display technologies like the OLED screens on the iPhone X, advancing their own battery technology, and using artificial intelligence and machine learning in the OS to proactively find ways to save juice. Apple has gotten so good at increasing power efficiency that the batteries in the iPhones 8 and 8 Plus are 7% and 8% smaller (respectively) than the ones in the 7 and 7 Plus while maintaining the same battery life.
The fact that Apple is actually shrinking iPhone batteries is probably infuriating to people who wish Apple would do the exact opposite. But if anything about Apple is true, it’s that their products tend to get smaller, lighter, and thinner over time, and you can bet that if Jony Ive and his design team can find a way to make an iPhone as thin as a sheet of glass like we see in sci-fi shows while still maintaining “all-day” battery life, they’re sure as hell going to do it. When ambient charging eventually gets here, ultra-thin phones will become even more possible since batteries could become tiny, and maybe non-existent if phones can draw power out of the air the way they receive data over LTE and wifi. And while users aren’t asking for smartphones to be thinner, I suspect that people actually like it when they are, and Apple probably has the research to back that up.
Reader M.D., whose comment started this post, described thinness as being “sexier”, but increasingly impractical, especially if it limits battery life. But every once in a while, I’ll pick up my iPhone 7 and marvel at how so much could be crammed into something so goddamn thin. And the word I think of isn’t “sexy” — it’s “magical.” And I hope that magical feeling never goes away, even for a bigger battery.