June 03, 2009, 9:42 AM — The ability to run a netbook all day on a single battery charge is one of the goals Intel has set for itself as it develops the Atom platform.
"We are going to do more integration, we are going to try to reduce the power in order to have sleekest form-factor, the lightest system and to increase the battery life," said Mooly Eden, head of Intel's mobile platforms group, in an interview at the Computex trade show in Taipei on Wednesday. "The idea is to deliver such a product that will be day-long. You'll be able to go with your netbook without the need to carry the power supply."
The target, a sure-fire way to praise from road warriors, is more easily said than done. Most of today's laptops offer between three and five hours on a standard three-cell battery and close to double that on a six-cell battery. But the longer-life batteries are bulkier and heavier, and that negates a lot of the reason for having a slim and lightweight machine.
"We'll either need to have more than a three-cell battery or have some kind of prismatic battery, which is not necessarily a cell, or wait until the chemistry and physics improve and people will be able to give us higher density," said Eden.
Energy density is a measure of the amount of energy that can be held by a battery for a given unit of volume. Increasing it would mean a battery could supply more power without being made bigger. However, achieving significant advances could take years.
Battery life can be extended by reducing the amount of power consumed by components in the PC. Intel has been doing that with successive versions of Atom and the "Pine Trail" chips it just launched consolidate the Atom platform from three chips to two chips, helping cut power consumption.
But components outside of its control, such as the screen, consume considerable amounts of power. There's also the seemingly incompatible demands of users to have higher performance netbooks with more features and longer battery life.
A possible option would be to ditch the battery altogether and switch to a fuel cell. Direct Methanol Fuel Cells (DMFCs) have been under development for use in laptops for many years but have yet to be commercialized. They produce power from a reaction between methanol and air and can be recharged with a squirt of fuel in much the same way lighters can be replenished. However even if DMFCs were realized soon the likely high price of the first models would rule them out of use in netbooks.
"I'll take the risk of predicting there's no question we will be able to have a day-long netbook and notebooks," said Eden. "The question is how fast we'll do it."
Some PC makers are already advertising all-day use but that claim comes with caveats.
Asus, a leader in the netbook market, says consumers can "enjoy all-day computing with Eee PC" but that's with the screen at 40 percent brightness, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth disabled and the camera switched off.