The Great Smartphone Conundrum: Performance vs. Battery Life

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March 26 2013 6:12 PM

The Great Smartphone Conundrum

The time has come—we’re going to have to choose between performance and battery life.

Samsung's new Galaxy S4 was unveiled on March 14, 2013.
Samsung's new Galaxy S4 is seen during its unveiling on March 14, 2013 at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Smartphones keep getting faster. If you buy a new high-end phone this year, you’ll find it’s noticeably more powerful than last year’s best gadgets. It will let you run much more demanding apps, it will load up Web pages more quickly, and it will deliver sharper, more advanced videos and games.

This might not sound like a big deal—aren’t new gadgets always faster than old gadgets? Yes, that’s true. But what’s striking about phones is how quickly they’re getting quicker. This year’s top-of-the line phones are likely to be twice as fast as those released last year. And last year’s phones weren’t slouches—they were twice as powerful as the ones that came out in 2011. This pace is remarkable. Indeed, if you study the speed increases of smartphones over time, you notice a thrilling trend: Phones are getting faster really, really fast—much faster, in fact, than the increase in speed in the rest of our computers.

If you scrutinize this quickening pace, though, you’re bound to get disillusioned. One of the reasons phones have been getting faster is that they’re also getting bigger. A bigger phone allows for a bigger battery, which allows for a faster processor. But now we’ve hit a wall in phone size: Today’s biggest and fastest phones carry screens of around 5 inches, and they’re not going to get any bigger than that. (If they did, they wouldn’t fit in your hand, and would thus be phablets.)

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So if the size of our phones—and, thus, the size of their batteries—is now fixed, phone makers (and phone buyers) must make a sharp trade-off. Over the next few years, at least until someone develops better battery technology, we’re going to have to choose between smartphone performance and battery life. Don’t worry—phones will keep getting faster. Chip designers will still manage to increase the speed of their chips while conserving a device’s power. The annual doubling in phone performance we’ve seen recently isn’t sustainable, though. Our phones are either going to drain their batteries at ever-increasing rates while continuing to get faster—or they’re going to maintain their current, not-great-but-acceptable battery life while sacrificing huge increases in speed. It won’t be possible to do both.

To understand how incredibly fast phones have been getting, let’s look at some numbers. There are lots of ways to measure the power of computers. One of the most popular is a program called Geekbench, which tests the processor and memory of a machine and spits out an overall performance score. Such “benchmark” scores don’t necessarily correspond to how a specific machine will perform in all situations—if you run a buggy app on a fast phone it will be slow—but they’re helpful in painting a picture of a device’s potential.

Primate Labs, the company that makes Geekbench, has posted a handy database of scores on its site—a way to see how various phones, tablets, and desktop and laptop PCs stack up. According to the site, the first and second iPhones, which Apple released in 2007 and 2008, earned Geekbench scores of 136 and 137, respectively. Compared with PCs, these scores were terrible—the first couple iPhones were slower than any Mac that Apple put out in all of the 2000s. (One of the early clamshell iBooks, which Apple released way back in 2000, scored 176 on Geekbench.)

But then, in 2009, the iPhone began to take off. The iPhone 3GS got a Geekbench score of 276, twice as fast as its predecessor. The iPhone 4 was about 33 percent faster than that, and the iPhone 4S, released in 2011, was nearly twice as fast as that. Then, late last year, Apple released the iPhone 5, whose 1,599 Geekbench score more than doubled the 4S’s mark, and edged out every other phone on the market, too.* Compare that with the original iPhone’s 136, and the progress is remarkable: In the five years between the first iPhone and the iPhone 5, Apple increased the speed of the device by a factor of 12.

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