One of the highlights of interviewing Larry Page this week was geeking out with Google’s (GOOG) chief executive officer over our matching Android-powered Galaxy Nexus smartphones—and getting to whine directly to the über-Android boss about one of its shortcomings, feeble battery life. Page started our chat by marveling at all the technology packed into the oversize handset. “Eight years ago you would have killed for having a computer that good,” he said. “We have forgotten that we’re walking around with that in our pocket and it’s battery-powered. It’s just amazing.” He also acknowledged, after I complained, that the thing practically gulps down electric juice.
The conversation got me wondering why the Galaxy Nexus seems at certain times to be such a power hog. It must be bitterly ironic for the folks at beleaguered Research In Motion (RIMM). My old BlackBerry could go days without recharging. Then I dumped it for a sexy newcomer whose battery indicator, as it drops, seems to have the inverse effect on its owner’s blood pressure. In fact, taking it to the SXSW conference recently was like bringing a slingshot to a gunfight. I was searching for power outlets by noon each day.
So what’s going on, and why are Galaxy Nexus owners lugging phone chargers everywhere they go? I asked Craig Mathias, an engineer and wireless communications expert at the Farpoint Group. Mathias said the science of mobile-phone battery consumption can be difficult for mere mortals to comprehend. “I’d love to tell you there’s an easy way to determine what’s going on here, but there isn’t,” he said. “You may find your battery has astonishingly good life sometimes and other times not. Different carriers, operating conditions, and loads on the network all can have an effect. It’s impossible to say under any given condition what you are going to get.”
The easiest culprit is my wireless provider, Verizon. Its wideband CDMA network has historically been more demanding on phone batteries than the GSM standard used by rivals AT&T (T) and T-Mobile, but Mathias said that’s actually no longer the case, as the other carriers have moved to the equally as resource-intensive third generation of GSM, called UTMS. He says there are some obvious factors—including how much time you spend talking on the phone, browsing the Web, or using apps. Clearly the Galaxy Nexus’s oversize 4.65-inch HD screen is a major drain. One easy way to extend the battery is to turn off the phone’s location services, which constantly ping the network to triangulate a position.
There are also more important variables, he said, like the distance of a user to the carrier’s transmitter. The farther the distance, the harder a phone’s internal “power amplifier” has to work to broadcast its signal. Another complicating factor is the time of day and traffic on the network. During peak traffic times, carriers perform load balancing, assigning some signals to towers that are farther away, which means the amplifier has to do more … amplifying. That’s probably why the battery on my Galaxy Nexus performed so pitifully at the SXSW conference. Austin was packed full of people toting smartphones, so signals on average had to travel farther, consuming more battery.
Mathias says manufacturers such as Samsung (SSNLF) have been working for years on improving power amplifier designs, and they constantly comb through the handset looking to improve the efficiency of each component. Incidentally, that is one area where Google can innovate with its new Motorola division, investing in the science of maximizing a phone’s power budget. For now, though, there’s always Larry Page’s solution: He says he carries around a spare battery.