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Tablets are designed to be portable, able to operate without the need for mains power.

But achieving long battery life in a compact tablet is very difficult, and may be one of the most significant constraints on your tablet usage.

 
 
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A Buying Guide to iPad and other Tablet Devices :  Part 4

Battery Life - Never enough with a power hungry tablet

The dreaded dead battery is potentially a greater problem in power hungry tablet devices that may have much shorter battery life than you've become accustomed to with your phone and MP3 player.

 

 

Mobile devices are becoming more power-intensive at a rate faster than battery technology can provide compact light batteries to power the devices.

Whereas your cell phone may work for days, and your MP3 player for up to 20+ hours, a tablet might have  5 - or even fewer - hours of life.

Considering a tablet's battery life, contrasting that with how much battery life you'll need, and understanding how to manage/extend the battery life - is therefore a key part of determining the relative suitability of different tablets.

Battery Issues

Women might think they can never be too slim or too wealthy (and who are we as mere men to disagree!).  Tablet owners similarly understand they can never have too much battery life.

Tablets are by their very nature portable devices, intended to be used without needing to be plugged in to a power source other than for occasional recharging.  But they are also heavy users of power - the bigger the screen, the more power required to drive it, and the faster the processor, again the more power needed to keep it processing, and the more the bandwidth, yet again, more power is needed to handle the inflow and outflow of data.

On the other hand, in theory, due to their larger size (compared to MP3 players or phones) there is more room in a tablet device for batteries.  But tablet designers need to carefully tread a compromise between size (and weight!) on the one hand, and battery life on the other.  Additionally, some CPUs consume greatly more power than others, and so there is unsurprisingly a massive variation in probable battery life in tablet devices.

Note also that battery life will vary depending on what the device is being used for.  Some applications are more power hungry than others - watching a video being one of the most power intensive, and 3G data generally requiring more power than Wi-Fi data.

Note also that battery life 'estimates' by manufacturers are notoriously optimistic, and finally also keep in mind that each successive charge/discharge cycle slightly shortens the battery's life - another reason to start off with as much longevity as possible, because that both reduces the frequency with which you'll need to recharge the battery and also the speed at which successive rechargings start to appreciably reduce the battery life.

This of course becomes a vicious cycle - the more the battery life shortens, the more you need to recharge it, and so the faster the battery life continues to shorten.

There is good and bad news with Apple's iPad units.  The good news is their battery life is fairly generous - typically you'll get 10 hours of life out of a charge.  The bad news is the battery is sealed into the unit; you can't swap it out and replace it with a spare battery if it dies, and when the battery needs to be replaced, you'll have to send your iPad back to Apple for them to replace it for you, at considerable cost.

Most other tablets will probably have user-replaceable batteries, and so it becomes feasible to consider one approach to extended battery life as being simply carrying a spare battery with you and swapping them over as/when necessary.  This also makes the eventual replacement of a battery easier too.

Which is better?  A unit with a replaceable battery with a five hour life, or a unit with a non-replaceable 10 hr battery?  If the size/weight and cost of a replacement battery is not too substantial, and if changing the battery is easy and quick like in most cell phones, I'd probably prefer the five hour replaceable battery, and would simply carry two spare batteries with me.  But you might feel differently.

Standard Battery Chargers

At long last, the portable device industry is finally and slowly standardizing on a couple of standard connectors for chargers.  These are the micro and mini USB connectors.

You should insist on any tablet you buy having a standard mini/micro USB connector for power charging purposes.

Apple of course does not have this, preferring instead its unique design multi-purpose connector (thereby enabling it to charge a licensing fee and get another small bit of profit any time anyone ever makes and sells any sort of device including an Apple style connector), but due to the market dominance of Apple, this has become a de facto third 'standard' connector.  It also has one saving grace - at least the power cable ends in a regular USB connector at the power charger end, so it is not quite so dependent on the type of charger it is connected to.

However, that does raise another issue.  A typical USB port is rated to supply a maximum of 0.5 Amps as part of the USB standard definition.  These days some will supply up to 1.0 Amps.  But, amazingly, not even a flow of 1 Amp is sufficient to simultaneously power and recharge an iPad - it needs around 2 Amps of power in order to charge at a reasonably fast rate and/or to operate and charge (more slowly) at the same time.

Fortunately other devices that take their power from a USB type connector won't be harmed if the charging device is capable of up to 2 or more Amps of power, so all you need to simply do is upgrade the chargers you travel with, in your car, home and office, so they are all capable of delivering the higher rates of current to charge the more power hungry tablet devices as well as power-sipping devices such as phones and MP3 players.

External batteries

A word of encouragement on the battery life front, particularly for iPad owners or intending iPad owners.  There are starting to appear some external rechargeable battery packs with a reasonable amount of stored charge in them such as to be able to augment the battery life of the iPad (or other tablet device).

The largest we've seen has about 8900 mAh of capacity.  The iPad has a 25 Watt/hour battery, which is more or less the same as a battery with about 6700 mAh, so in round figures, this external battery pack provides just over another full charge for an iPad, and who knows how much extra charge for other tablet devices.

Generally you'd be better advised merely to carry a second battery if the tablet allows for easily replaceable batteries.  This would be (or at least, should be) a cheaper solution, and a battery by itself would be smaller and lighter than this external battery pack which comes complete with charging circuitry, plug sockets, LEDs, and external packaging.

Part of a multi part Buyers Guide to iPad/tablet devices.  Please visit the other parts of this series - links at the top right.
 

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Originally published 30 Sep 2010, last update 28 Nov 2012

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
iPad and Tablet Buying Guide 1 - Basic Issues
2 - Screen Issues
3 - Operating System & Applications
4 - Battery Life and Extensions
5 - Audio & video - recording, storing and replaying
6 - GPS and other LBS type sensors
7 - Data Connectivity, Wi-Fi and 3G
8 - Online and offline memory/storage, CPU
9 - Everything else
Bonus :  Excel Spreadsheet
 
 
 

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