Monday, October 20, 2008

4 tips to extend the life of your laptop battery

On a recent stopover at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, I flipped open my laptop PC, hoping to chip away at the 7,000-some e-mail messages that had accumulated since leaving Anchorage, Alaska, four hours earlier.

"Don't even think about it," my laptop screen flashed back at me contemptuously (I'm paraphrasing the error message a little here). "I'm out of juice."

And then, before I could find an electrical outlet — Sea Tac has recently increased the number of available outlets, by the way; finally a reprieve for business travelers whose budget for airline club membership has been cut — the laptop expired.

The irony, of course, is that I had spent most of the previous week researching this column on how to extend your PC's battery life while you're on the road.

In a 2002 survey by chipmaker Intel, 57% of laptop users said they wished their batteries lasted longer. And that is wishful thinking, according to Isidor Buchmann, president and founder of Cadex Electronics in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He suggests that although batteries become about 10% more efficient every year,the average PC's power needs also increase by about the same amount. Result: The average battery life is still painfully short (just three to four hours for most laptop models).

But you don't have to end up sitting in a waiting area, staring at a darkened screen, like I was. Here are four tried-and-true tips to extend the life of your laptop battery. Why should you take advice from a guy who couldn't keep his own unit charged? Read on if you want to hear my sad excuse.

1. Power down all nonessential functions.

Switch it off if you're not using it. Many business travelers already know that you don't want to take the DVD player for a spin on the plane, and that every time you hit "save" it can set the hard-drive whirring, which devours even more power. "But users often also forget to turn off their wireless card when they are no longer using it but are still using their computer," notes Mike Fuller, executive vice president of PC Laptops, a Sandy, Utah, laptop manufacturer. "When the wireless card is on, it still continually searches for networks." In Windows XP, click on "Power Options" in your control panel. It allows you to reduce the power consumption of any number of your computer devices or of your entire system.

2. Stay out of extreme temperatures.

The technology that powers you battery isn't terribly complicated. But it's important to understand a little bit about the chemistry behind batteries, and how that can affect your work. Specifically, temperatures can affect the performance of your battery. It's best to use (and especially charge) your batteries at room temperatures. Extreme conditions can drain your battery quickly. Also, avoid partial charges and use the battery until it is dead. Battery experts liken partial charges — and discharges — to eating a cup of lard every day. It significantly shortens your battery's life. Considering that a lithium-ion battery can explode if it's improperly used, it could also shorten your life.

3. Let your laptop do the saving.

Not every computing device handles a power source in the same way. Some of the more sophisticated laptops, which are designed with business travelers in mind, are misers when it comes to using power. And that's a good thing — if you can remember to take advantage of it.

"Most users make the mistake of simply not choosing to use a product's built-in ability to conserve battery life," says Dan Coffman, a senior product manager for PC manufacturer ViewSonic. How do you harness your PC's built-in ability to save? Consult your user manual. Often, calibrating your laptop is as easy as double-clicking on the battery icon in the toolbar.

4. Always, always carry a spare device that uses batteries.

How obvious is that? Well, if you're trying to keep under the onerous new airline weight-limits, it isn't. But as Rick Thompson, director of engineering at Valence Technology in Austin, Texas, observes, "the availability of 'free' power outside of your hotel room is not predictable." That's a nice way of saying it. In fact, I sometimes think airport terminals, car-rental facilities and hotels try to hide the power outlets from us to keep us from accessing their free power. Thompson recommends a system that can simultaneously charge a second portable device such as a cell phone or PDA, allowing you to multitask your battery operations.

If you've stuck with me long enough to hear my pitiful excuse for running my
laptop battery down, here it is: My 2-year-old-son, Aren, uses my laptop to watch "The Wiggles" while I'm on the road (if you don't know who "The Wiggles" are, consider yourself fortunate). Aren decided to pull the power chord while he was watching an episode and used up all the power to run the DVD player. By the time I got to the PC, all the juice was gone.

I should probably thank Aren. He taught me how fast a DVD can run down a lithium-ion battery (in almost no time). Incidentally, he's also demonstrated how impact-resistant a battery
can be (surprisingly) and that at least some of those warnings about the battery coming into contact with liquids are exaggerated. You'd be amazed at how well a battery holds up to liquids, especially whole milk.

Reality (battery) check

If you rely on a battery to get work done while you're away, you should, however, give yourself a reality check. Because while batteries can extend your productivity while you're on the road — in a plane, at a remote site or sitting in hotel lobby — they won't last you long enough. And if Buchmann is correct, they never will last you long enough.

I mean, even if you've taken all of these precautions, you can probably still think of several instances where you had a brilliant argument on the tip of your fingers, only to have the laptop power down under a faltering battery. I took the steps, and even without my toddler's interference, it was probably only a matter of time before my battery ran dry at an inopportune time.

The point is, while these tips will help extend the life of your battery, they won't make them last indefinitely. PC manufacturers may make it seem as if their laptops will run forever, but most of us know otherwise.

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