Are Traditional Phone Batteries Still Viable?

Phone Batteries... Is It Time For Change?

Tell me if you’ve ever been in this situation. You’re at work, right in the middle of a business call and bam your phone dies. Has this ever happened to you? Well, even if it hasn’t, it’s happening to plenty of people around the globe on a daily basis.

As I’m sure you are well aware, there have been quite a few solid guides and how-to videos made over the past couple years that go into the general questions as to why your phone is always dead, and things you can do to help prevent the battery from draining so quickly. (Close some apps people) That’s all fine and dandy, and most definitely not the reason we are here today.

Today RepairLabs is going to present the technical reasoning behind your phone always being dead. We’re going to cover the different types of batteries on the market today and how they compare, then we’ll have a throw down between three of the hottest phones on the market, with each one having a specific role to play in the testing of the batteries held within. Last but not least we’ll talk about the future of batteries; what’s out there, what’s the next logical step, things of that nature.

Strap yourselves in, because you’re about to get a crash course in phone batteries!

Lithium What?

Most of you probably don’t know what type of battery is in your phone. Perhaps you know the mAh of it, (that’s milliamps per hour) but don’t actually know what type of battery you have. Don’t worry; it’s not relevant knowledge to a large percentage of people. But for those of you who have wondered into my little slice of Tech paradise, you’re about to get the deluxe package when it comes to batteries.

What types of batteries are prevalent on the market today?

There are truly only two options when it comes to batteries in your phone today. Lithium-Ion and Lithium-Polymer.

Lithium-Ion: Li-Ion batteries are the most commonly found type of battery in phones today. They’re older technology than Li-Po batteries, but have also proven themselves to be reliable. Though they may be phased out eventually — the fact that we’re able to stretch them up to 3,500mAh at this point in time, while still being slim enough to fit in a phone gives credence to the fact that Li-Ion isn’t going down without a fight.

Li-Ion offers the most convenient product to cell phone manufacturers, with its average 5-10% self-discharge rate a month, and components that are environmentally safe. It also doesn’t hurt that they are readily available, and lighter than equivalent batteries.

If these batteries are so great, then why is my phone always dead is what most of you are probably thinking. This is because there are some caveats to Li-Ion batteries, mainly being that the cell capacity diminishes with use, causing the battery to hold less and less of a charge. This is made even worse when you factor in high charge levels and elevated temperatures, both of which cause hastened degradation of the battery.

They are also flammable, which is most definitely a con for any product that you hold near your face.

Lithium Ion Battery
Lithium Ion Battery

Key Interior Difference Between Li-Ion & Li-Po – “The primary difference is that the lithiumsalt electrolyte is not held in an organic solvent but in a solid polymer composite such as polyethylene or polyacrylonitrile”  Wikipedia  Lithium-Polymer Batteries

Lithium-Polymer: Li-Po is the younger, more advanced brother to Li-Ion batteries. In theory they are nearly identical in design, as can be seen in the diagram above, but there are some key differences between the two.

For starters, the Li-Po offers a more predictable self-discharge rate, which also happens to be lower than that offered on the Li-Ion batteries in general, clocking in at 5% a month. They also are more adaptable than Li-Ion, offering up the ability to use them in a wide variety of packing and shapes. And I can’t forget to mention that they are more reliable and rugged than the Li-Ion they hope to fully phase-out.

The downside to the Li-Po is that it holds less of a charge than that offered on your standard Li-Ion battery. This reason alone is why they haven’t fully phased out the Li-Ion. Though the technology used is newer and more advanced, it just doesn’t offer the power necessary to reliably power these crazy big devices hitting the market today in its current form.

One of the biggest backers of Li-Po batteries is Apple, including the Li-Po in each iPhone dating back to the iPhone 4. Though the mAh (1440mAh on the iPhone 5) numbers are far below that of the competition, we still see the power necessary to competently power the device for a full day of usage. That may lead you to believe that the battery is indeed in a position to compete with the Li-Ion, but the numbers can be misleading. Though the specs on the iPhone 5 are similar to that of the competition – the biggest deciding factor in battery drain is pixel density and resolution. The pixel density and resolution on the iPhone clock in at 640×1136, giving us a pixel density of 326ppi across its 4” screen. This here is a huge difference from what you get from the Android offerings, which come in at 1280×720 or 1920×1080, stretched across 4.7”+ displays.

Putting the Phone Batteries to the Test

Now that you’ve heard about the types of batteries we utilize on a daily basis, let’s get into something a bit more useful to those of you who are visual learners. Below you will find a video that I put together showcasing three of the most popular phones on the market; the Verizon exclusive Droid DNA, the iPhone 5, and the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Each phone is popular for different reasons, and each one has its faults. One thing that sets them all apart though is the battery within. For the Droid DNA you have a 2020mAh Li-Ion battery, while the iPhone 5 has the previously mentioned 1440mAh Li-Po battery. Bringing up the rear of the pack is the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 with its massive 3100mAh Li-Ion battery.

As you can tell, the Note 2’s battery is loaded with power, but is running on the older Li-Ion technology. Will this make a difference when going head-to-head with the iPhone 5’s newer but smaller 1440mAh Li-Po battery? Spec-wise the Droid DNA is the one most set up to fail, and that’s thanks to the design choices made by HTC. They took a beautiful 5” 1080p display, with a quad-core processor and 2 GB’s of RAM and stuck it in into a casing that houses a measly 2020mAh Li-Ion battery. Why HTC wouldn’t spend the extra $$ needed to go with either a 2020mAh Li-Po or a more powerful Li-Ion, I don’t know.

Droid DNA

  • 1080 x 1920 pixels, 5.0 inches (~441 ppi pixel density)
  • Quad-core 1.5 GHz Krait
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Adreno 320 GPU
  • Lithium-Ion 2020mAh Battery

iPhone 5

  • 640 x 1136 pixels, 4.0 inches (~326 ppi pixel density)
  • Dual-core 1.2 GHz
  • 1 GB RAM
  • PowerVR SGX 543MP3 (triple-core graphics)
  • Lithium-Polymer 1440mAh Battery

Samsung Galaxy Note 2

  • 720 x 1280 pixels, 5.5 inches (~267 ppi pixel density)
  • Quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A9
  • 2 GB RAM
  • Mali-400MP GPU
  • Lithium-Ion 3100mAh Battery

Without further ado, let’s get to the video showcasing each phone running the RepairLabs video on loop until they die a horrible death.. You know, by running out of battery life. The test is to simulate a full-day of usage in the span of a few minutes once sped up. Obviously to record actually utilizing the phone all day would be unfeasible, so I went with the next best thing. Will the small Li-Po be able to keep pace with the big and bigger dogs?

Let’s find out!

The results are exactly what I predicted they would be. Coming in at four hours, the Droid DNA finally saw itself to the afterlife. An hour later and we see the iPhone 5 finally crash out. In a position to either succeed, or crash and burn, the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 was most definitely the phone hardest to predict. With that huge battery, I expected it to last the longest, but you also have to factor in the lighting needed to properly light such a large display. In the end, it didn’t matter, with the Note 2 going for a whole nine hours! Surprisingly if you watch the screens once the warning battery indicator pops up, we see that both the iPhone 5 and Droid DNA last roughly one hour before completely shutting down, while the Galaxy Note 2 goes for an additional two hours after we get the low battery warning screen.

The test proved exactly what it is I was trying to show you guys. Even though the Li-Ion is older tech, size does indeed still matter when it comes to phone batteries, but only to a certain extent. The Li-Po showed that even though it was almost 600mAh weaker than the Li-Ion in the Droid DNA, it could outpace it. You can’t do a direct apples-to-apples comparison due to the massive screen differences, but you still get the idea here.

Another thing to keep in mind is that these phones last four, five, and nine hours respectively – but if you used the phones daily for another year and ran this test again, you would be lucky to get even 75% of the performance you got from them when they were brand new, luckily if your battery ever gets to the point where it doesn’t hold enough of a charge to get you through the day, we here at RepairLabs can swap the crummy old battery out for a shiny new battery.

Old Lithium Ion Battery
Old Lithium Ion Battery

The diagram above showcases how the ions inside your battery slowly but surely lose their ability to hold a quality charge. This is why with all phone batteries, they eventually need replaced. The constant charging, discharging, and usage are what cause the breakdown inside the phone. At this point, there is no way to get around this with liquid-based batteries in the state they’re currently in.

What Does The Future Hold?

Alright so now that you’re a bit more comfortable with where we sit right now when it comes to batteries, let’s move into where we’re headed.

Li-Ion and Li-Po can only carry us so far. Eventually here soon we’re going to have to mix up what it is that we use, then we’ll have to either advance the technologies that we use, or start utilizing something completely new.

Updating Preexisting Liquid-Batteries

This is where some of the brightest minds in the field are hard at work. Some of the most feasible ideas that have been floated around include enhancing preexisting batteries with silicone nanoparticles as well as using new types of conversion alloys – both of which could dramatically improve the viability of Li-Ion and Li-Po batteries.

There have even been recent developments regarding Lithium-Ion batteries by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These new batteries have the power density to charge your phone 1000x faster than standard batteries, the only issue is that what the battery offers in power density, it lacks in energy density, so until they make more progress on these inventive new Lithium-Ion batteries, I will have to hold them off the list of the most promising – for now.

Even if we extend the life of current batteries another four or five years, we’re eventually going to need new types of batteries to further the advancement of smartphones. When it comes to future options, there are two that truly stick out in mind as being extremely strong options; Lithium Sulfide based batteries and Solid-State batteries. There are some less exciting options like Lithium-Air and Lithium-Imide batteries, but until there is better information on them, I don’t feel them relevant enough to be included in this section.

Future Options For Batteries

Lithium-Sulfide is one of the many options that have presented itself as a solid alternative to the Li-Ion and Li-Po batteries we use now.  Li-S not only offers a higher energy density than Li-Ion, but also has reduced production costs due to using sulfur.

Though Li-S batteries are a definite option that we could explore sometime in the near future, like say 2014, there isn’t enough data on the capabilities of Li-S to think that it is the logical next step in batteries. As it stands right now, the engineers who are working on this are still dealing with the fact that sulfur on its own isn’t conductive, which is a massive issue in a product that relies 100% on conductivity!

Solid-State Batteries are definitely the brightest option when it comes to future batteries. Instead of being liquid-based like the batteries on the market these days, Solid-State batteries offer us batteries that are solid inside, much like what you would find inside a solid-state drive for the PC.

Solid State Battery
Solid State Battery

Though engineers would love to have these solid-state batteries in our phones right now due to their greatly increased life cycle over legacy batteries, plus they also happen to be safer with a better energy density to that of other options. The reason that we don’t have these already is because of the massive cost of production, with the price soaring up to as high as a $1,500 for a single phone battery.

Engineers are also still trying to work out a solution to their sensitivity to low temperatures. Recently I spoke with Professor Kevin S. Jones from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Florida, about this very subject; this is what he had to say.

”I do believe solid-state batteries have tremendous potential but there are significant research challenges that need to be addressed. Because you replace the liquid electrolyte with a solid that is much thinner you can achieve a significant weight saving, as well as being much safer. However it remains a challenge to develop an inexpensive manufacturing method that overcomes the challenges of joining solid layers together. In addition, there is a new class of materials called conversion alloys that are being explored for liquid batteries. These materials have the potential to significantly increase the capacity of liquid batteries. Research is necessary to prove if these materials will work with solid state batteries. So the potential is there to revolutionize the cell phone battery, but we have work to do before it becomes a reality.” 

Professor Jones statement holds true to what I’ve been saying all along. There is still potential for liquid-based batteries, but the future is moving more and more towards solid-state batteries. For those of you who have not read his excellent piece on the state of solid-state batteries, I highly recommend it.

The End to a Long Journey

What a ride. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried. Had epiphanies, revelations and probably even a few eye-opening moments.. Ok, perhaps we didn’t quite cover that wide of a spectrum, but we did take a long look at where we’re at with batteries and where we hope to be as soon as possible.

The Li-Ion and Li-Po batteries we use today still prove to be viable options for the time being, but as was made apparent in the time lapse, the more powerful the phone, the less amount of time you will have to enjoy it without a charger. Sure, you can carry around a charger with you, have one at your desk, house, and in your car, but that’s not the point. Phones are portable devices– attaching cables to them defeats the entire purpose of a portable phone.

Though the near future is a bit cloudy on what we’ll do next, with there being a few interesting options floating around. None of them are ready for primetime, that much is apparent, but possibly by mid-2014 we can begin phasing out the old and start ushering in the new.

The future begins to look much brighter 2014+ thanks to the advancements we’ll be making in solid-state technology. As soon as it becomes viable from a price-standpoint, I have no doubt all of the major phone manufacturer’s will begin to use them in their newest devices. (Can anyone say iPhone 9?)

Consumer Electric applications

As it stands right now, the degradation rate on batteries is sitting at a manageable but unacceptable one to two years. (If you’re really lucky) With newer and better technologies, hopefully we can extrapolate that number into the double digits, making the need to buy new phone batteries or even phones less of necessity and more of a commodity.

[i] Discharge Rate – The rate, usually expressed in amperes or time, at which electrical current is taken from the battery.

[ii] Cell Capacity – The maximum total electrical charge, expressed in ampere-hours, which a battery can deliver to a load under a specific set of conditions…

[iii] Charge Levels – The percentage of power in phone batteries at any one point in time.

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