OLPC battery life: What's the real story?

Dig enough, and you'll finally get a reality check on the claim of 12-hour battery life from the One Laptop Per Child project.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
2 min read

On Sunday night, 60 Minutes reran a segment on the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project originally broadcast in May. I missed it the first time and never got around to watching it online (in Windows video format here, for example; there's a full transcript on olpctalks.com).

Hearing OLPC representative Walter Bender repeat the claim of "10 or 12 hours" of battery life "with heavy use" reminded me of an open question from the last few times I blogged about the OLPC project. What is the battery life of this machine, really?

Back on July 21, the News page for the OLPC wiki (archived here) said this:

We ran battery-life tests on 75 B4 laptops: results will be reported on the OLPC wiki this week.

But I looked around on the wiki during that week and didn't see anything.

So while Andy Rooney was blathering on about kitchen gadgets he doesn't use, I started looking around again, and I finally found results. It was a roundabout search. The OLPC wiki's own search engine can't look for multiword strings, and Googling the site produced no results for "battery testing," but "battery test" gave me a page of test results without any explanation.

That led me to a bug report on the OLPC developer site and an explanation of the results back on the wiki. Whew.

As it turns out, battery life is not very good. The best of the NiMH (nickel-metal hydride) batteries produced a little over 4 hours of operation. Of the two brands of lithium-ion batteries tested, one was about the same as the NiMH batteries; the other ran for a little over 5 hours. (Some of the NiMH batteries died after only a few minutes, but the bug report explains this away as a firmware problem.)

And this was with the machine idling--running nothing at all. Under "heavy use" it's likely the battery life will be less than two-thirds of these figures; maybe half or less.

I am certain that battery life will improve over time as the software and hardware are tuned, but these numbers make it pretty clear that the claim of "10 to 12 hours" is no longer within reach. That's disappointing. To me, this means that much of the long-term promise of the OLPC project can't be achieved until the next major revision of the platform.

I've sent an e-mail to the OLPC project asking for updated information, and I'll pass along whatever I get here on Speeds and Feeds.