My single biggest takeaway from SXSW was all the talk about battery life. Every single person. All the time. People changing plans because they needed to recharge their phones. People walking around with chargers. People who were chargers. Mophies galore. People uninstalling apps that would drain power. People putting phones into airplane mode in areas of weak signal. People borrowing other phones so they didn’t have to waste the power on their phone.

Power. Power. Power.

This talk is nothing new of course, but it’s ramping up. As we transition into an LTE world, it’s going to be more and more of an issue, as Farhad Manjoo points out today. One of the most impressive things about the new iPad is the fact that it maintains the 9 to 10 hour battery life even with the addition of LTE. The next question is if they can do that with the iPhone as well. We’ll see. It’s gonna need a bigger battery.

To me, the most impressive thing about my MacBook Air isn’t its size, it’s the battery life. I routinely get 6 to 7 hours on one charge. Just a few years ago, this was unthinkable for a laptop (especially one this size). Part of that is better technology, but a large part is also simply a larger battery.

Manjoo is right that unlike the rest of the technology we use everyday, battery technology hasn’t evolved all that much over the past few decades. It’s constantly being refined and perfected, but it’s still largely the same. Want more battery life? Get a bigger battery.

If someone can truly disrupt this space, it will act as a lubricant that accelerates our already amazing pace of technological transformation. 

I want a laptop that lasts for a week on one charge. I want a cellphone that lasts a month. I want to be able to go to SXSW without a Mophie in each pocket. I don’t want to have to be constantly worrying about battery life every single time I leave my house.

Today’s battery technology is holding back several other advances in technology in major ways. And we are about to see just how bad the situation is in the coming months. Maybe wireless power sources that constantly charge and re-charge devices is the ultimate answer. But it just seems like battery technology is really ripe for disruption.

About Those MacBook Pro Batteries…

So, I bought a new 15-inch MacBook Pro. Intel i7, the new high-res screen, and an SSD. Ever since last year I’ve been waiting to get one of the new sealed battery MacBooks to benefit from the huge battery life. This one promised 8-9 hours.

Over the past few weeks, based on my regular usage (web surfing, a little iTunes, some chat, etc) I was seeing only about 3.5-4 hours of battery life. That’s awful. Well, maybe not awful for a Dell, but awful for a brand new Mac that’s supposed to do the 8-9 hours.

I thought one of two things: either Apple is fudging the numbers more than usual — or I have a defective battery. After some online research, I came across a tool called gfxCardStatus. If you have a new MacBook Pro with graphics switching, you have to get this right now.

Basically, it seems like there is a major problem with battery drain caused by the graphic card switching. The problem may be related to the fact that the switching is occurring way too often, when simple programs that don’t need the NVIDIA board think that they do. With this gfxCardStatus tool, you can see exactly what is going on — and more importantly, stop it.

With it, you can set which graphics card you want your computer to use. When I set it to the Intel card, I’m all of a sudden in the 6 to 7 hour battery range. Considering Apple’s 8-9 hour target is with WiFi turned off, this seems about right.

I haven’t tried with with only the NVIDIA card turned on, but from my understanding, it should be only slightly worse. Again, the issue seems to be the constant switching, not the cards themselves. 

I imagine Apple will have to fix this in a future firmware upgrade. Based on my research, I’m hardly alone with this problem — graphic switching is giving these machines less than half their stated battery life. 

The iPad’s battery life is impressive. There’s just no way around it. I was a bit worried about what it would be like on the 3G model, but apparently it’s still awesome:

we put the Wi-Fi model through a web torture test with repeated 1-minute refreshes of a large, completely loaded page for 10 hours and 21 minutes on 50% brightness over 802.11n. Repeating the exact same test on the Wi-Fi + 3G model with 3G turned on and Wi-Fi turned off, the iPad achieved 8 hours and 38 minutes of continuous reloading and displaying

That’s 8 hours and 38 minutes doing a ridiculous test over the 3G network. That means you can probably expect well over Apple’s stated 9 hours for the 3G unit with regular usage. And you’re probably still going to be using this thing in your home on your WiFi more than on the 3G network. 

I think I may have to get this model.

10 Hours

Of all the things that impress me about the iPad so far, definitely one of the biggest is its battery life.

Most of the time when companies (including Apple) claim a certain battery life, actual product usage never comes close to that because those are under optimal conditions using minimal settings. For example, I have one of the new MacBook Pros which Apple says will get 8 to 9 hours of battery life on one charge. In reality, using it as I normally would (screen about 60% brightness, two browsers open), I’m seeing more like 5 to 6 hours (still great for a laptop, IMO).

With the iPad, Apple claimed it would get 10 hours of usage on a single charge. In my usage this past week, that’s absolutely true. In fact, it might even get more than that.

Other reviewers noted this early-on too, but I had to see it to believe it. Now I have. And now I do. It’s awesome.