Vista beta sucks up battery juice

Laptops with the Windows update drain batteries faster than with XP--a potential problem for PC makers.

Windows Vista delivers some pretty snazzy new graphics, but all that "wow" can be a real drain.

With the new version of Windows, Microsoft has created an operating system that offers advances in many areas, but laptop battery life is not one of them. Going by internal tests at one hardware maker, which declined to be named, there is noticeably lower battery life when Vista runs in its "average power" mode.

Microsoft has said that the current versions of the update deliver less battery life than Windows XP, but the company has also said it hopes to close the gap in the coming months.

One of Vista's most visible changes is its Aero interface, which offers spiffier graphics when people navigate through the operating system. Its advanced Aero Glass effects include translucent windows and animated transitions, as well as the ability to move between windows and documents by selecting from miniature versions of those items.

"Doing all of those wonderful things that (the Aero Glass effect) allows, you are going to end up burning more milliwatts," said chip analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Even so, any lowering in battery life is a blow to the rest of the PC industry. Manufacturers have found it a struggle to boost the battery life of notebook computers, even as they've made easy advances in other areas, such as disk space and processor performance.

"Just when they thought they were getting closer, now they are further away," Brookwood said. Several hardware makers contacted by CNET News.com declined to comment.

Microsoft acknowledged that Vista's more intense graphics do cause a hit to battery life.

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"The Windows Vista Aero theme and components which implement it can use more resources than previous versions of the operating system," Microsoft product manager Mike Burk said in a statement.

The company said it is working with PC makers to ensure that systems are better able to handle the change. "As a result, the impact on battery life is small," Burk said. However, the company would not say how it might solve the battery woes.

Polishing Vista
Improving Vista's battery life is just one of many things Microsoft is trying to do between today's test version and the final release of the new operating system. The software maker is looking to wrap up its development work this year, though, which means a tight deadline for fixing bugs and improving things like raw performance and power use.

Jim Allchin, co-president of the Microsoft unit that includes Windows, said battery life is not on the top of his list of worries.

"In terms of battery life, no...that's not one that's at my concern level," he said during a recent interview.

The company is still tweaking some settings, such as the degree to which Vista's built-in search engine indexes files while on battery power, and how often it does so. Microsoft has already made some decisions that won't show up publicly until the next major test version of Vista is released.

For those who want more battery life than Vista can deliver in all its glory, Microsoft suggests they switch to the "basic" theme in Vista. "Basic" strips out things like the Flip3D feature (for graphically switching among open windows) and the application thumbnails (which make the icon for a file a replica of the picture or document itself).

Another area that holds some promise is Vista's support for hybrid hard drives. These are traditional hard discs augmented by a significant amount of flash memory, which is less power-hungry than a standard hard drive. Samsung, which is building a hybrid hard drive, has said the feature gives notebook users an extra half hour of battery life.

Microsoft executives also said they hope to get better battery life--near Windows XP levels--by the time Vista is completed. However, the company has set itself other goals that have ended up falling by the wayside.

For example, Microsoft at one time thought it could eventually get Vista to run on machines with as little as 128MB of memory. When the system requirements came out last month, Vista instead required 512MB of memory--the same as Microsoft has called for all along.

Hot topic
Beyond the battery life question, there is also the matter of the heat generated by the graphics chips and other components, which work full throttle even doing basic tasks.

Robert McLaws, who runs Vista enthusiast site Longhornblogs.com, said that his Toshiba Tecra M4 has been generating considerably more heat running the operating system beta.

"A lot of these laptops weren't designed to have all that power all the time," he said.

Microsoft said it hasn't seen significant heat problems in its testing.

"We've been testing Windows Vista-based PCs in real-world 'worst-case' scenarios that push hardware theoretical maximum temperatures," Burk said. "Our tests involved 3D games, CAD applications and the like, and in each case revealed no major problems with hardware heat management."

The company did say it has "received a few isolated reports of bugs in services or applications which cause high CPU or disk utilization in Beta 2." It added, however, that none of the reports "characterize the heat levels as excessive to the point of damaging the system."

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