More Juice Please: All Lightweight Laptops Should Last 10+ Hours

Lightweight Laptops Don't Last Long Enough

In the rush to hook know-nothing consumers mindlessly scannning the shelves at retail, looking for shiny objects, too many notebook makers have forgotten the true meaning of “ultraportable” as they manufacturer systems that get little more than half a day’s battery life. Sure, everyone wants a notebook that’s wafer thin, blinged out with brushed metal or soft-touch rubber, and lighter than Kodak’s bank account, but not when that $1,000 system takes a siesta first thing after lunch. There’s only one solution: higher-capacity batteries.

With the noteworthy exception of the HP Folio 13, which lasted a solid 7 hours and 50 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, all of the Ultrabook notebooks we’ve tested have gotten less than 7 hours of battery life, with ASUS’s UX31 lasting just 5-hours and 58 minutes and Acer’s pitiful S3 dying after only 4:23.

Ultrabooks aren’t alone in trading precious minutes of productivity for a smaller chassis. While not officially labeled as “Ultrabooks,” the MacBook Air 13-inch lasts just 6.5 hours while the new Samsung Series 9 endures for only 4:48. In LAPTOP’s tests, the average thin-and-light notebook (14-inches, less than 5 pounds) endures for a little over 6 hours while the average ultraportable (13-inches or less, lighter than 4 pounds) lasts just 6:39.

Why You Need Battery Life

If those numbers don’t sound bad to you, let me put them in perspective. The LAPTOP Battery test we used to get the above runtimes measures a common, but not very taxing use case, surfing the web at 40 percent brightness and loading up a new page every 30 seconds. If you’re pushing up the brightness level or you want to do something more intense like crunching a video, viewing an HD movie, or playing a game, you can expect less endurance than we encountered. But even if your usage habits allow you to  get a full 5 or 6 hours of life, that’s simply not enough endurance for real all-day use.

The standard battery life for any laptop that weighs less than 5 pounds should be 10 hours or more. Whether you’re working on an international flight, going from meeting to meeting at the office, or sitting on the couch at home with your lightweight notebook,  you need that amount of time to avoid battery panic. Even if you’re not using the notebook for 10 consecutive hours, you ought to be able to use it on and off throughout the day, without even worrying about its charge level. 

As I write this article, I’m sitting on my couch with my 13-inch notebook unplugged. In this location, I have relatively easy access to a wall socket, but I don’t plug in, because being tethered to the wall is still unpleasant as I have to worry about yanking the wire, sitting on the wire or watching my cats knock over the adapter. Though the system gets a full 5 hours of battery life under optimal conditions, I’m down under 50 percent after just a couple of hours of work and must start thinking about either plugging in or lowering the brightness to uncomfortable levels. I shouldn’t have to deal with that distraction.  

When I’m in my office, carrying my notebook from conference room to conference room, I often have to carry my AC adapter with me and sit near an outlet or string my power cord across the room and hope nobody trips on it. Trade shows like CES are the biggest battery challenge of all, as I spend 12 to 14 hours a day running to a series of hotels and conventions centers writing articles and editing videos with no time at all to stop and recharge. I’ll often have to go out of my way or crouch down on a hard floor, just to find an outlet I can sit next to. 

Smartphones Set the Example

Smartphone companies are starting to get it. After a 2011 year in which manufacturers released a slew of 4G handsets with anemic endurance, Motorola recently showed its competitors the right way to build a device when it released the Droid RAZR Maxx with a high-capacity 3300 mAH battery on-board that allowed it to last through over 8 hours of continuous use. Compare that to phones like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, whose 1850 mAH battery only gave it enough juice to last 3 hours and 40 minutes on our test.

Notebook makers need to learn from Motorola’s example and beef up their battery offerings, even if that means charging more money for their products or increasing the chassis size.  The longest-lasting notebook on the market, Lenovo’s ThinkPad X220 lasts a whopping 12 hours and 39 minutes with its extended 9-cell battery. The trade-off for moving up from its default battery is a 1-inch battery bump in the back and an additional .2 pounds of weight, well worth it for nearly 5 additional hours of battery life and the ability to leave your .5 pound AC adapter in the hotel room.

If you get the right kind of battery, you can even pack a lot of juice into a very small space. The RAZR Maxx, for example, is only .07 inches thicker than the original RAZR, yet gets nearly double its battery life. Sure, Motorola is charging $100 more for the thicker battery, but it’s worth it.

With phones, users expect to be able to leave their chargers at home, spend 16 hours using them on and off, and then plug in when they sleep at night. You ought to be able to do the same with a notebook and you could, if notebook makers would stop racing to make their products 0.2-inches thinner, 0.2 pounds lighter, and a few dollars cheaper and focus on what users really need from a lightweight laptop. As consumers, we need to support this effort by purchasing longer-lasting notebooks.

What You Can Do Today

Fortunately, if you’re in the market for a notebook today, you don’t need to wait for the industry to get its act together. You just need to make the most of the long-lasting choices available today and be willing to purchase a system that’s available with an extended battery or a battery slice. In many cases, your best choice is a business-oriented notebook, but that doesn’t mean consumers should hesitate. For example, the corporate-minded Lenovo Thinkpad T420 with 9-cell battery costs less than $850 but lasts over 10 hours on a charge. The $1,399 Sony VAIO S lasts nearly 11 hours with an attached battery slice.

In the end, every extra penny you spend on a notebook with a high-capacity battery will be worth a dollar saved in therapy costs for low-battery phobia. If only vendors understood this.


AUTHOR BIO
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
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  1. StickMan Says:

    Agreed — but with current technology and the size requirements of batteries for sufficient juice, I think the only ‘performance’ ultraportable capable of executing this is the [now extinct] Fujitsu LifeBook P series. That thing was really tiny, but with two swappable batteries, I got 10 hours and decent speed with a Core 2 Duo processor and a 160GB SSD. I tried the Fujitsu UH900 for a while — it provided similar endurance in an even smaller form factor, but I had problems with the device not waking from sleep at times, and the speed of the Atom Z530 required more patience.

    I’m now trying a Macbook Air 11, and definitely agree with your comments. With a Hyperjuice battery, my best time is 9.5 hours (total), but my total carrying weight is now 3.3 pounds — larger and heavier than my previous Fujitsu setup. OSX is nice, but depending on how Windows 8 fares, I may certainly consider switching back.

    I think some netbooks are almost there — let’s see how much juice the Intel N2600 and N2800 processors consume. An 8.9″ form factor with a 1280 x 768 screen is enough real estate for me, especially if anything that small can break 10 hours on a single battery. C’mon Fujitsu!

  2. Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director Says:

    Don’t forget the ThinkPad X220 that gets 12 hours of endurance with its 9-cell battery.

  3. Jason Dunn Says:

    Ah, the Fujitsu Lifebook P series. My favorite laptops of all time…I owned the 5000 series and the 7000 series. Really expensive – I paid around $2500 for each one back in the day – but so worth it to get 10+ hours of battery life. I was so ticked off when they gave up on the second battery bay. :-(

  4. CarolPin Says:

    My MacBook’s battery power isn’t nearly as good as I had hoped. But my iPad? I can go all day AND all night without fear of battery drain. I wish every other rechargable device of mine was as good–including my hand vac.

  5. eBatts Says:

    Higher capacity batteries with more efficient electronics will lead us to a longer lasting laptop / cell phone device off of one full charge. It’s ideal for our laptops to be used during the day, and charge them at night. Cell phones fall in this same pattern. Play during the day, charge at night.

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