September 09, 2008, 2:23 PM — It's difficult enough to keep plain-vanilla cell phones charged for a busy day of just talking. But these days, we also use our smartphones for e-mail, surfing the Web, editing documents, accessing corporate networks, text messaging, enjoying music and video, playing games, managing our personal information and much more -- making it all the more catastrophic when our devices run out of juice.
The problem is that while smartphone capabilities have increased dramatically in recent years, batteries have not kept pace. "Phones do so much more now, but battery technology hasn't advanced that much," says Scott Riddle, digital sales supervisor at BearCom, a retailer of mobile equipment. Riddle regularly hears from customers about their struggles to keep smartphones charged. "Everybody has this problem," he says.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do to significantly increase the time between charges, although no one solution is a silver bullet. "It's a lot of little things that help," according to Riddle.
We asked Riddle and other experts for their best tricks to extend your smartphone's battery life. Here's what they told us.
Remember the basics
First, some basics. You may already know these tips, but if you apply them diligently, they can help increase battery life.
1. Find -- and use -- your phone's energy-saving settings. A little time exploring your smartphone's interface will reveal where to go to change settings to preserve battery life. Remember that these settings cover multiple aspects of your phone use, so they likely will be in different parts of the interface. But on many phones, such as Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices, a logical first place to look is in the Settings menu.
Be sure to turn down the default screen brightness, since brighter displays use more power. Also shorten the interval before the display's backlight automatically goes off. The occasional annoyance of the screen going blank before you're done using your smartphone is worth the benefit of longer battery life.
2. Find online tips for your specific phone. For instance, Apple has a page dedicated to preserving battery life on its new iPhone 3G. In addition, there are nonvendor sites with useful battery tips. Here's one for BlackBerry and one for Windows Mobile.
3. Plug in your smartphone whenever you can. Since it's perfectly OK, even desirable, to "top off" today's lithium ion batteries, look for outlets in meeting rooms, airport terminals or wherever you are and plug in. It's also smart to charge up while you're driving. Car chargers for your specific phone are available directly from your phone vendor or cellular operator, and universal chargers are available from vendors such as APC.
4. Talk, don't e-mail. Cellular data connections use between two and four times as much battery power as voice connections, according to Isidor Buchmann, CEO of Cadex Electronics, a vendor of battery testing equipment. For simple communications, call and leave a message instead of e-mailing, he advises.
Manage your software
Many of us are loyal to a specific mobile operating system. And applications make your smartphone useful and fun. But both the operating system and the applications drain the battery, so manage them so they sip, not gulp, power.
5. Update your operating system. "The biggest battery drain is the operating system," notes Kristi Lundgren, Motorola's product manager for the company's Q smartphone. She said that vendors tend to improve power consumption from version to version, so update when you can.
6. Use simple ringtones. "Musical ringtones use the phone's processor, which uses more battery," says Derek Meister, who has the title of double agent with Best Buy's Geek Squad. Simpler, standard ringtones don't require such processing power.
7. Push less. Perhaps the most popular smartphone application is push e-mail, which requires your device to check for messages nearly constantly. That guzzles juice, but settings are available on the server side (you'll need to talk with IT) and, often, on the phone itself that enable your phone to check for messages, say, only every 10 minutes or half hour. Admittedly, this will require an adjustment for those who are used to constant communications, but it's worth it in terms of battery savings.
Besides push e-mail, many other applications and Web services such as instant messaging, navigation tools and stock, news, sports and weather checkers periodically update information. "You may not realize that ESPN, if it's set to update every five minutes, will drain your battery," says Motorola's Lundgren. Close these apps and sites when you're not using them.
8. Ease off alerts. Do you really need your phone to vibrate when any old message comes in? Turn off visual or audible alerts for newly arrived messages or, at the very least, be selective so you are notified of messages from only your boss or spouse, for instance.
Manage your hardware
In the old days, cell phones had only one radio for making voice calls. Besides a radio to handle regular cellular voice and data services, today's smartphones can also have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and sometimes GPS radios.
9. Turn off unused radios. Switched-on radios use power even if they're not being used. Learn where on your smartphone to turn off each specific radio. On most Windows Mobile devices, for instance, if you press and hold down the Home button, a dialog box appears in which you can easily turn radios on or off.
10. Watch the time. Cellular radios work harder when a lot of people are accessing the network. "Calling at three in the morning uses less battery than calling at supper time," says Cadex Electronics CEO Buchmann. Granted, calling at 3:00 in the morning probably isn't convenient for you or the person you're calling, but if you're an early bird on the West Coast, 7 a.m. might be the perfect time to call a contact on the East Coast.
11. Know where you are. Buchmann notes that radios work harder in areas in which there is a lot of electrical "noise." That means you'll use less power in an outdoor park than in a shopping mall or hospital, where a lot of electrical devices are in use.
Radios also work harder to find signals in areas with spotty or nonexistent coverage. If you are in an area with poor coverage and you aren't expecting messages, turn your radios off.
12. Slow down. Using 3G services such as HSPA or EV-DO requires more power than older, slower 2.5G services such as EDGE or 1xRTT. Not all applications require the utmost speed; you're unlikely to notice much difference between 2.5G and 3G service, for instance, for checking e-mail. Some phones, such as Apple's iPhone 3G, enable you to switch to slower access to save battery power. Learn if your phone has that option, and if so, use it when appropriate.
13. Use a corded headset. Bluetooth headsets have their own radio, which uses up battery power. Switching to a corded headset, which doesn't use a separate radio, and you'll be talking after others' batteries have run dry.
While you may not look as cool, Best Buy's Meister points to one additional benefit. "Some people think you get better audio quality with wired headsets," he says.
14. Use auto shut-off. Some devices, such as BlackBerries, have a setting that shuts off your device at a specific time. "It'll automatically power the phone off at, say, 11 p.m. and turn it back on at 7 a.m.," says Andrew Bocking, director of handheld software product management at BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. "That way, you don't have to remember."
Battery care and feeding
Buchmann notes that some out-of-date notions persist about how to care for your battery. "With the old nickel-cadmium batteries, the advice was to let them run down from time to time and then fully charge them," Buchmann says. "That's not the case with today's lithium ion batteries, but people still have it in their minds. Even the user manuals are often wrong."
Still, Buchmann provided a few tips to ensure both longer charges and greater overall life for your battery.
15. Recharge early and often. Try to not let the charge run down too far before recharging, Buchmann advises. "There are many more charges in your battery if you recharge from 40% (used capacity) than from 80%."
Buchmann notes one exception to the above rule: Once every few months, discharge your battery completely (i.e., use the device until it's out of juice) and then recharge it. This doesn't actually result in longer battery life, but, rather, it resets the built-in software that tells you how much charge remains so that it provides more accurate readings. "It's just some digital housekeeping," Buchmann says.
16. Keep it cool. Don't leave your mobile device in a hot place. Buchmann says that diminishes the battery's ability to hold a charge.
Throw money at the problem
If all else fails, spend money. In particular:
17. Carry a spare. If you regularly push the limits of your smartphone's battery, buy a spare and carry it with you. A quick check with Froogle found that these batteries typically cost between US$10 and $30, depending on your particular phone.
18. Swap in an extended-life battery. These batteries, typically sold by cellular operators and phone vendors, are a bit larger than standard batteries and may cause your svelte smartphone to bulge a bit. But they last longer, and you don't have to worry about carrying -- and losing -- a spare.
Expect to pay between $10 and $30 for an extended-life battery, again depending on your model. The increase in talk time varies widely, but you can expect a 25% to 50% boost.
Note that the previous two tips won't work with Apple's iPhone, which doesn't feature replaceable batteries.
19. Carry a portable power supply. There is a lot of innovation going on right now in this category of products. For instance, the Medis 24-7 Power Pack ($40 for a starter kit, $23 for refills) uses fuel-cell technology to recharge your battery, while Solio offers solar-powered rechargers that range from $80 to $170. Portable power supplies using more traditional battery technology, such as Big Wave Power's $100 EnergyPORT, are also available. Fully charged portable power supplies can provide your phone anywhere from three to 30 hours of talk time, so be sure to read the fine print and get the one that's best for your needs.
20. Buy an emergency power supply. As a last resort, emergency power supplies from vendors such as Cellboost and Turbo Charge are available. These are lighter, cheaper and don't pack as much of a charge as portable power supplies -- they really are meant just to fill the gap when you run out of juice. Disposable emergency supplies like those from Cellboost cost typically less than $10, while the Turbo Charge device is a bit more expensive and can be "recharged" simply by popping in a new AA battery.
Of course, if you follow the other advice in this article, you probably won't need emergency assistance. By paying attention to the needs of your phone's battery, charges will last a lot longer.