Notebooks give life to more powerful batteries

For laptop owners, the days of working while tethered to the nearest electrical outlet may be coming to an end, as longer-lasting battery technology arrives in new systems.

4 min read
Notebook computers are finally going unplugged.

For laptop owners, the days of working while tethered to the nearest electrical outlet may be coming to an end, as longer-lasting battery technology arrives in new systems.

As notebooks drop in price and increase in performance, they've finally become a viable option as a primary computer for millions of users. But those with the fanciest chips and multimedia options typically offer less than stellar battery life--about an hour for many systems--which leaves many nervous users scrambling for an electrical outlet.

That scenario may be changing, according to analysts, because of the inroads notebook and chip manufacturers are making in "power management." There are several aspects to this, but, generally speaking, the components of a laptop are being designed to consume less power, which helps batteries last longer.

Recent events have crystallized industry expectations for battery life in portable devices and notebook computers. Last week, Apple Computer announced its long-awaited iBook notebook, offering up to six hours of battery life.

This week, chipmaker Texas Instruments acquired Unitrode, a power-management component maker, which TI called the fastest growing segment of the analog semiconductor market. In addition, upcoming technology from chip giant Intel further indicates that by next year, battery woes may be a gripe of the past.

"The fundamental issue is that ever since they've designed mobile systems, they've always made trade-offs in the way they ran the processor to extend battery life," said Nathan Brookwood, a principal at Insight 64, noting that Intel's upcoming power management technology, dubbed Geyserville, should make a noticeable difference. "The best is yet to come in that regard."

Geyserville essentially allows notebooks to run with desktop-like performance when plugged into an outlet, and at lower power when relying on batteries. This will allow high-performance machines, which normally are very hard on batteries, to achieve the two-hour battery life of a lower-performance system, according to Brookwood.

"Lower-power modes are a very critical part of mobile-processor design," said Frank Spindler, vice president of marketing for Intel's mobile products group. "Geyserville is a new capability added on top of that."

Improving the battery life of performance notebooks essentially removes one of the major sticking points among consumers and businesses interested in acquiring these more expensive systems, a fact not lost on manufacturers in this age of sub-$500 desktop PCs.

"Generally, the higher performance the notebook, the more power it will consume. The value proposition is that now users don't have to make a compromise on performance and features," Spindler said.

Spindler point outs that rather than extending battery life, Intel's new technologies provide enhanced performance without additional drains on the battery.

Apple is taking a similar approach to power management but is also making other advances in battery life. The company stressed the power-management advances result in up to six hours of continuous battery life for the iBook.

Changes in the "sleep" mode is key, Apple said. The iBook includes new features that let the system conserve energy, including new sleep capabilities that allow the computer to save information before going into a rest state, which continually draws a small amount of power from the batteries.

Although some observers express skepticism until independent benchmarks verify the six-hour claim, an Apple spokesperson says it is a "conservative estimate."

Apple notebooks have historically achieved better battery performance than their Intel counterparts, according to Brookwood, because of the lower power PowerPC chip they are based on. "Battery life has never been as much of a problem," in Apple products, he said, adding that consumers are demanding better overall battery performance.

"My laptop spends a lot of time plugged into the wall. Then I go out, and I curse the fact that the battery dies in two hours. I think a lot of people are like that," he said.

Some analysts are taking a wait-and-see approach on the iBook. "You need to be careful about any particular number if it's not defined," said Spindler, in reference to the iBook. "There's not really any standard methodology for measuring battery life--it's highly variable," depending on what type of applications are running and the configuration of the system.

The upcoming technology advances should come at no extra charge to consumers, according to TI's Alan Roberts, worldwide director of analog products, especially when compared to the cost of adding similar technology to smaller devices like digital cameras, portable MP3 players, and handheld devices.

Lithium ion advances
TI's new acquisition, Unitrode, designs and manufacturers components that control power supply and provide users with more information about their battery usage. "You don't want to run out of battery life at a critical point. Already, battery technology has changed tremendously," he said, pointing to the emergence of the re-chargeable lithium ion battery.

Lithium batteries, which are made from somewhat dangerous chemicals, already include components designed to protect hardware from battery damage, Roberts said. It is a fairly insignificant and inexpensive task to add power-management technology to the existing battery protection, he said, an area Unitrode specializes in.

"Notebook PCs are nowhere near as cost sensitive as cell phones, and the overwhelming number of purchases are corporate. The additional cost in a $2,000 machine is small," he said. "While a few dollars in a discounted cell phone is a big deal."