Smartphone: The battery revolution has been here for a long time – just in a different way than we would like

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When it comes to new smartphone features, users always want one thing above all else: a longer battery life. But batteries have long since improved by X times. Just in a different place than expected.

The phone in the pocket, occasionally checking the battery and otherwise getting through everyday life for two weeks without thinking about the power outlet – that is the memory that many people associate with the time of the classic cell phone. And that’s what they want from the smartphone, too: Depending on the survey, between 60 and 90 percent of smartphone users would like a longer runtime. But although the dream of the eternally running smartphone has not yet been fulfilled and there are always reports of a coming battery revolution, this has actually long since happened.

The lithium-ion batteries in our smartphones, laptops and electric cars are worlds better than the ones that used to power our cell phones. Although the name of the batteries has not changed, the way they work has. This is because the name initially reveals little about the battery itself: As long as it stores electricity on the basis of lithium ions, it falls into this category. Although inside, countless other factors such as the materials used, the solid state of the anodes used and many other variables can change – and have done so on a large scale since the first battery on this basis was introduced by Sony in 1991.

From 0 to 100 in eight minutes

The latest example was shown by Chinese group Xiaomi on Monday. In a video clip, the group demonstrated how a prototype of a new smartphone is refueled with high pressure: from 0 to 100 percent in just eight minutes. The company owes this to the extremely powerful power supply unit, which chases the battery level upwards with an incredible 200 watts. In comparison: The charger that Apple included with the entry-level iPhones until recently offers just 5 watts. And charges much slower accordingly.

Fast charging technology is the current hobbyhorse of the cell phone and car industries. The latter in particular is struggling to shrink the charging process of e-cars, which is significantly slower than fast refueling at the gas pump, to an acceptable level. At the same time, they have to manage a difficult balancing act. “It’s about energy density, power density, the cost, the life of the battery in terms of charge cycles as well as storage time, and finally safety,” Argonne National Laboratory researcher Venkat Srinivasan tells Ars Technica. “In the end, it’s always a tradeoff of all these factors.”

Better fast than long

In terms of the smartphone, the decision of most manufacturers is quickly apparent: True, as the average smartphone size has grown, there has also been an increase in battery power. But this was generally eaten up by brighter, much higher-resolution displays, more power and by new usage habits long ago. The first iPhone was advertised by Apple with “all day battery life” – and by and large it has remained that way. Despite tricks like the energy-saving mode, smart battery management and the use of additional processor cores, which take over less performance-intensive tasks to save the battery.

However, this is also due to the users. After all, if you used a smartphone like you used a cell phone back then, today’s models would also last considerably longer. People who made a lot of phone calls or wrote text messages also used to run out of battery power faster – but they still did not spend nearly as much time with the device as we take it for granted today. Since the smartphone has become the main device for many people, the usage time continues to increase. According to App Annie, it was 2.6 hours in Germany last year, with a clear upward trend. However, that is still only half the time of the front-runner: Indonesians are on their smartphones for 5.2 hours every day – on average. If the devices were to last several days, the battery would have to be completely reinvented.

Faster is easier

Or you can make sure that it is filled much faster. Xiaomi is still experimenting with the 200W turbo-charging, and there is no concrete device or even a sales launch yet. The company is also not the only one experimenting with turbo charging. Devices with a 60W power supply have long been on the market, and the processor giant Qualcomm, whose chips are in almost every Android device, is currently developing a 100W model. The technological performance behind this is enormous. If you were to plug older models into such potent power supplies, you would probably risk overheating and possibly an explosion. Just like it happened again and again with the legendary Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Despite considerably slower charging performance.

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