[Op-Ed]It’s the battery, stupid.

One of the motto’s of Bill Clinton’s successful Presidential campaign in 1992 was “it’s the economy, stupid.”  It was a reminder of what was really the most important issue to voters and what the election would ultimately hinge on.  In the fight for smartphone buyer’s dollars, Android manufacturers(OEM’s) need to learn “it’s the battery, stupid.”

Ask the average smartphone owner what the biggest complaint about their phone is, and you’re going to hear “the battery life” at or near the top of the list.  For a long time poor battery life was a function of technological limitations.  But that’s simply not the case anymore.  So why are OEM’s still producing phones that can’t easily make it through a full day?

As smartphones were evolving manufacturers used cutting edge technology to differentiate themselves.  More CPU cores, more megapixels, more ram, more memory, and higher resolution screens.  Then late last year the spec race hit a wall.  All flagship phones suddenly had powerful quad-core processors, large 1080p screens, high megapixel cameras, and plenty of RAM.  Hardware features weren’t a differentiator anymore.  In response more emphasis was put on software.  Software innovation is great, but battery life is more important than customized software.

There are two paths to better battery life.  The first path is greater efficiency.  Smaller die sizes have allowed CPU’s, GPU’s and even smartphone modems themselves to operate using less power. Android power management has also improved.  However, because screens have continued to grow the net gain in battery life has been minimal.

The second path to increased battery life is a very American concept – just put in a GIANT battery.  Efficiency be damned, sometimes the answer to a problem is brute force.  It’s fitting then that Motorola, an American smartphone manufacturer, was the first to employ the massive battery solution.  On January 26, 2012, Motorola released the Droid Razr Maxx on Verizon.  The Razr Maxx featured a massive 3300mah battery.  For comparison’s sake the other flagship phones on Verizon at the time were the HTC Rezound with a 1650mah battery and the Samsung Galaxy Nexus with an 1850mah battery.  For the first time users could get through an entire day without hitting the charger.  This was unheard of at the time.  So, since this was such a great idea surely all the manufacturers took notice and copied the Maxx’s giant battery, right?

Well, not exactly.  Here is a list of all the flagship phones for every OEM released in 2012 with battery capacity noted in parenthesis:
Google Nexus 4 (2100mah)
HTC One X (1800mah), One X+ (2100mah) and Droid DNA (2020mah)
LG Optimus G (2100mah)
Motorola Droid Razr HD (2560mah) and Razr Maxx HD (3300mah)
Samsung Galaxy S III (2100mah) and Galaxy Note II (3100mah)
Sony Xperia TL (1850mah).

Care to guess which three get the best battery life?  If you guessed the Motorola Droid Razr HD twins and the Samsung Galaxy Note II pat yourself on the back.  It turns out the phones with the biggest batteries get by far the best battery life.  Who knew?

Samsung Galaxy Note II
Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD

The technology exists to produce a smartphone where you don’t have to worry about battery life, and let me tell you, it’s wonderful.  I upgraded from a Motorola Droid X to a Samsung Galaxy Note II back in November and the battery life is incredible.  I stream music and podcasts all day over LTE and in three months I’ve never managed to get the battery below 50%.  In fact, I never even think about battery life anymore.  Nothing I throw at this phone will drain the battery all the way during a normal day, and that’s the way it should be.

Over the last couple months rumors about the supposed Motorola X Phone have leaked out and been hyped to near ridiculous levels.  Yesterday Google’s CFO, Patrick Pichette, seemingly squashed some of the hype when he said “Motorola has a great set of products, but they’re not really like ‘wow’ by Google standards.”  Mr. Pichette was referring to still unreleased products that were already in the Motorola pipeline before the buyout, one of which would presumably be the X Phone.

From a hardware standpoint Mr. Pichette may be right and the X Phone may not elicit a “wow” from consumers.  In fact I would wager the hardware will be very similar to the HTC One and Galaxy S IV, only the X Phone will come out three months later than its competition.  But it will be able to do something the One and GSIV won’t, and that is get a user through a heavy day of use without having to worry about the battery.  In the post spec race era, that may be just the “wow” consumers are looking for.


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