The single biggest constraint for mobile devices today is batteries, and this budding problem is emerging very obviously in Apple’s new iPad (casually called the iPad 3). The bottom line is that if Apple wants to continue to deliver constant cutting-edge improvements for tomorrow’s always-on, slim and lightweight tablet, it will have to double down on its attention to breakthrough battery technology.
The iPad’s battery dilemma
Battery innovation moves very slowly. Conversely, Moore’s law allows lightening-speed innovation for chips and consumer electronics. Apple’s new iPad, for example, is at the cutting edge when it comes to new features and connectivity: Most notably the new iPad has a high-resolution display, a 4G LTE network connection and another graphics core.
But all of those functions suck up battery life. Apple knows this, so it essentially just added in more lithium-ion batteries for the new iPad. According to a teardown by iFixit the new device uses a battery that is 70 percent larger than the iPad 2’s, a jump from a 25 watt-hour lithium-ion battery to a 42.5 watt-hour lithium-ion battery in the new iPad.
However, the new iPad isn’t being advertised as having more battery life than the iPad 2; it’s being billed as having the same battery life: 9 to 10 hours, depending on usage. As GigaOM’s Kevin Tofel explained, the battery life of the latest mobile gadgets isn’t all that different than older gizmos’, but the newer devices can do a whole lot more on a single charge. This is important, because gadget makers have identified there is a certain acceptable limit for battery life for tablets.
But there’s also a drawback to those extra batteries in the new iPad. Because of them, it weighs noticeably more — 0.11 pounds — than its predecessor, according to reports. The new iPad is also .6 mm thicker than the iPad 2, though Apple says that’s largely due to the new display. The device also seems to be running hotter than the iPad 2, at a solid 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (and hotter than normal skin temperature). While the heat is likely largely due to a beefed-up processor, more batteries also expel more heat.
Yet according to some sites that have tested the battery, like PCWorld, the battery in the iPad doesn’t seem to be delivering up to the 9-hour range. PCWorld says in its own tests the new iPad lasted just 5 hours and 41 minutes, almost 2 hours less than the iPad 2, which ran for 7 hours and 37 minutes under the same test conditions.
So the new iPad is heavier, fatter, hotter and potentially has less battery life than the iPad 2. And this was supposed to be the next generation? It remains to be seen how consumers will react to sacrificing some of the weight and time to plug in for tomorrow’s must-have features like faster connectivity and a better screen. Already Apple chat sites are filling up with comments on weight and heat, but the new iPad is also selling faster than the iPad 2 did. Three million new iPads were sold in the first weekend it went on sale, which is the same number of iPads Apple sold in the first 80 days after the original iPad went on sale in 2010.
The emergence of LTE-connected devices, in particular, will continue to be a battery drain for gadget makers, as the radio — one of the biggest power hogs on the handset — is doing a whole lot more for LTE phones than previous phones. As Kevin pointed out in his article, most of the LTE-connected devices out there haven’t really offered more than 4 to 5 hours of battery life while using LTE networks, with the exception being the iPad 3 and the Motorola Droid Maxx. A study by Nokia Siemens Networks found LTE-connected devices consume from 5 percent to 20 percent more than previous-generation phones, depending on the application used (GigaOM’s Kevin Fitchard tells me he thinks this study is conservative).
The new iPad isn’t employing any special chip technology to help it boost its battery life. It’s using pretty standard Qualcomm MDM9600 3G and 4G baseband chips, which have been in use in a variety of devices since last year. However, I’m sure Apple could employ even greater power-management technology for its next-gen tablets to help combat the battery problem.
But eventually keeping devices small, slim and lightweight while also boosting connectivity and features just becomes a science problem. The current crop of low-cost lithium-ion batteries have a certain energy density — the amount of power they can deliver for a given volume — and standard lithium-ion batteries have a typical energy density range of 100 watt-hours per kilogram to maybe 300 watt-hours per kilogram at the high end. To deliver more battery power using this current tech, the only answer is to just add more batteries.
The perfect tablet
For Apple to create tablet perfection, it has to eventually tap into a new battery breakthrough. The problem with that, as I stated above, is that battery breakthroughs are scarce and take a long time. For example, a startup called Envia has been working for the past five years on cathode, anode and electrolyte battery tech (the building blocks of batteries) and hit a milestone earlier this year: a lithium-ion battery that has an energy density of 400 watt-hours per kilogram.
But Envia is a small Silicon Valley startup, and it hit that milestone in testing (using a grant from the Department of Energy). Also, the tech is still in the development phase and won’t be commercialized for another three years. There are at least two dozen of these types of startups and lab projects out there, but they take time, money and partners to scale and deliver low-cost commercialized batteries. In comparison, the growth of mobile computing and devices is explosive: Apple saw a 96.2 percent yearly growth in 2011 for its shipped smartphones.
Other battery innovation can come from the battery materials companies, like 3M, which announced a lithium-ion battery breakthrough recently. 3M has developed a silicon-based anode that can deliver 20 percent greater energy density for a battery and when combined with its cathode can deliver a 40 percent jump in performance. While 3M wouldn’t disclose which battery makers it is working with, the company told me its first applications would be for batteries for consumer electronics.
The logistics of Apple using a next-gen battery tech has to do with cost and scale. The massive gadget maker will only use the above technologies once they have gotten cheap enough to not add much cost to the tablets, and low cost in the battery world only comes from a battery maker’s reaching a large economy of scale.
At the end of the day, it will likely be one of the massive Asian battery conglomerates that discovers and decides to implement a battery breakthrough into its supply chain. The breakthrough will then have to become commoditized to reach your iPad.
And it’s not just a problem for Apple and the iPad. As computing turns ever mobile, as the growth of tablets surge, and as smartphones proliferate, all mobile gadget makers that are looking to increase connectivity and performance in ever smaller devices will be caught in this catch-22. But with Apple’s focus on design, cutting-edge features and slim gadgets, odds are the company will be able to lead in solving this battery conundrum.