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Growing "power gap" could force smartphone tradeoffs

Mobile users face a fast-growing gap between their smartphones' increasing power needs and battery capacity.

That gap could force users to make tradeoffs in how, and for what, they use their phones, even as vendors at all levels work even harder to reduce power demand in mobile devices, according to Chris Shreck, a research analyst with IMS Research.

Users are embracing an array of mobile data services and applications, doing more with their phones, even as the newest devices require more power to support new technologies. But batteries are not keeping pace, Schreck says.

Schreck estimates that a 1500 mAh battery, the industry's current “high water mark,” yields for many smartphone users a battery life of about 6 hours. That's highly dependent on what applications and on-device technologies, including Wi-Fi, users are running. The latest and greatest tech advances, including faster CPUs, higher data throughput, and improved displays all crank up the demand for power.

That combination of user behavior and technology is boosting power demand faster than battery capacity can keep up. Shreck estimates power requirements can grow 15% a year.

And that's where the gap starts, because battery technology improvements are more limited. Battery power and life is “by and large a function of the chemistry in the battery,” Schreck says.

In response, silicon makers, component designers and device builders are working to minimize the power used by mobile electronics, either by making them more efficient or by turning components on and off quickly, or both. Schreck says he expects vendors to become even more demanding, creating an end-to-end retooling of the supply chain to make handsets ever-more power efficient.

The power gap puts users between a rock and power outlet. “Effectively, you'll see a slowdown in the connected and mobile lifestyle that everyone is predicting,” Shreck says. “People won't sacrifice the telephony features of their handset for other things like Web browsing or gaming.”

At the same time, more users are being smarter about power management, turning off Bluetooth, GPS and Wi-Fi until they're actually needed, for example.

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