Someone has calculated that mobile phone capability seems to mimic Moore’s Law. Dr Gordon Moore had predicted, 50 years ago, that the performance of a semiconductor chip doubles every 18 months. So it seems, does the power under the hood of your hand phone, with today’s octa-core processor, an eight-fold improvement in 5 years. But there is one laggard inside your phone. It is the battery that fuels your phone — and a pretty lousy job it has been doing — till now.
Remember the simpler times when your phone did just calls and text messages? Once charged the device was good to go for ne week. These days the battery in a 5 or 6 inch handset with fairly typical multimedia usage won’t last the working day. And consider the technology: it has always been Lithium Ion for as long as we remember: very similar to the Leclanche cell we studied in school — but with a compound of Lithium as the positive electrode, carbon or graphite as the negative pole and a salt of Lithium as the semi fluid in between, to drive the electric current.
There’s plenty of talk of new and alternative materials — but mostly they remain just that: talk. IBM made headlines last year suggesting one could replace the heavy carbon rod with air, except that the normal air we breathe is just not pure enough. At Loughborough University, they are working on fuel cells using hydrogen, which theoretically should power a phone for a week. Three years ago Eesha Khare, an Indian-origin student in the US took a top prized at the Intel Science Fair with her invention, a Super Capacitor that could charge an existing phone battery in 30 seconds. She is now a student at Harvard and no one knows if she was able to commercially market her brainchild.
With no radical new battery technology in sight, the best the industry can offer us is one of two options: bigger batteries or a faster way to charge. In other words, feed and fatten the Li-ion — or twist his tail to wake him up faster.
These days the bigger battery brigade has gone way beyond the typical 2000mAh – 3000mAh of a year ago: By month end Xiaomi will be launching the Mi Max with a jumbo 4850mAh battery that promises to keep you going for 2 days between recharges, not bad considering this 6.5 device is more phablet than phone. The Gionee M5 Plus sports a 5020mAh battery and claims 47 hours of talk time and 12 hours of video playback. The Asus Zenfone Max which we reviewed on this page, has a 5000mAh battery and power saving circuitry that controls processor performance as well as screen brightness to assure at least 2 days on a charge.
Another school of thought believes it is better to accelerate the recharge cycle than beefing up the battery size (which will inevitably make the phone bulkier). Phones which run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor can deploy that company’s Quick Charge technology, now into version 3.0, which promises to charge the phone 3 times faster than with a normal charger. The recently launched One Plus 3 phone offers its own patented Dash Charge technology with its 3000mAh and claims to offer one day’s normal usage with 30 minutes of charging. And at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Oppo unveiled what it called Super VOOC Flash Charge, which charges a 2500mAh battery in 15 minutes. The Le Max 2 which was reviewed earlier has a 3100mAh battery backed by proprietary technology for a very short charge cycle.
We may greet these stop gap solutions — beefed-up on board batteries or reduced charge cycles — with muted applause. We will reserve a full throated ‘three cheers’ till batteries become as clever at their job, as the phone itself.