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Laptop Battery Truth, Lies and Propaganda

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 9/30/2009

Computers are wonderful devices, but they are rather prone to frustrate even the most knowledgeable of users—especially when it comes to battery lifetime. This article outlines some basic care to lengthen charge and lifetime, as well as discussing why your battery isn't performing as advertised.

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    How Batteries Live Their Lives

    Even the best of batteries has a lifetime, over which it will naturally degrade—at least with current technologies. Most current laptops are made with lithium ion batteries, usually abbreviated Li-Ion. They can typically last between 300-500 charges, and have about 4 to 5 years of shelf life. This is a limitation simply built into the chemistry of the battery: there is no changing this, at least until better technologies develop. A reasonable expectation for your battery is that it will last somewhere between 2 and 4 years.

    Of course, this will vary considerably by use—and abuse. You can considerably lengthen the lifespan of your battery by following some basic battery care steps.

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    Battery Care

    Many people simply don't take good care of their batteries, which can result in poor battery performance which is no one's fault but their own. To avoid this, here are a few simple tips:

    Don't let your laptop overheat. This means making sure that the fans can properly ventilate at all times, and that you don't run it on hard surfaces that won't wick heat away. Even while not running, avoid using your laptop in hot environments—the optimum temperature for laptop batteries is at the freezing point! The cooler the better (but don't be putting it in the fridge.)

    Know Your Charger. There are a lot of different types of chargers out there, all of which require startlingly different care for maximum utility. Most old computer chargers allow a small trickle of charge into the battery of your computer which then trickles out into use for the rest of your computer, as opposed to going directly into your computer's functions and bypassing the battery. This trickle wears down the battery over time, slowly but surely, just by using it up. Most newer “smart” battery chargers, however, send power when plugged in directly to the computer and bypass the battery, which helps extend battery life somewhat.

    Charge Only When Necessary. If you have one of those older batteries, when you do need to charge your battery, make sure that your battery is completely drained before charging. Remember, the lifetime of lithium batteries are determined by a set number of charge cycles, not by the amount that the battery is charged - you want to avoid that trickle charge effect that was mentioned earlier. Smart batteries conveniently avoid this issue, so keep it plugged in when possible.

    Power Management Programs. It's a good idea to get some sort of specific power management program on your computer. While what's available varies by distro, the more options it has, the better. Linux users can adjust everything microscopically via command line, and also have many open source options available; proprietary distros have default apps, which have limited functionality, but are also open to many freeware programs. Check out what's out there!

    For the nuances of lithium battery care, refer to the manufacturer's user manual specific to your battery.

    If your battery is not lithium, such as NiMH and NiCad, then make sure to look up the optimum care steps that are particular to your type of battery: each of them must be treated differently than lithium batteries.

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    Longer Charges

    But how do you make an individual charge last longer?

    Dim The Screen. In most laptops, the LCD screen is the biggest powersap of the whole machine. Dimming the LCD screen may take some getting used to, but it's the single best way to save on charge. Also, make sure to have options set to dim your screen automatically when idling.

    Disable Non-Essential Functions. Bluetooth and wifi are huge powersaps. When not in use, it's best to have these disabled. If your laptop uses a spinning disk hard drive, then try to cut down on activities that require those deep-memory functions. Don't run CDs or DVDs except when necessary. Decrease speaker volume. Really, just try to run the most minimalistic operating that you can. Though it might be a pain at first, eventually it will become habit and you'll see your battery life improving.

    Stand By, Sleep & Hibernate. If you're idling for too long, it's a good idea to set your computer so that it either goes on stand by, sleep, and/or hibernate. Most laptops have options so that it can do any of the three within various power profiles, so it's quite customizable.

    For more tips, check out this article on maximizing laptop battery power.

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    Misadvertising in the Industry

    That being said, it's not all your fault if the battery doesn't do as operating. Indeed, there are vast misperceptions that are propagated by the computer industry, specifically as to how long their batteries last.

    Companies test battery life under minimum power using conditions: minimum CPU use, no wi-fi, no anything you're likely to use. Playing video games is going to cut down on battery life significantly, as is surfing the Internet and reading articles on how to extend your battery time. If you practice some of the battery care tips explained above, you will approach the manufacturer's number, but most users aren't going to be getting anywhere near it.

    For some details of the battery testing process, check out this NYT article on battery life tests for laptops.

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    What To Do

    While people have general just shrugged and accepted such low quality and propaganda from laptop manufacturers, there are people trying to get this changed. There are countless bloggers out there calling for reform on part of the businesses, particularly of providing multiple power profiles with the laptop packaging. Seeing that people are getting increasingly upset on this matter—and options for quality laptops are expanding every day—this probably won't last. That is, as long as people continue to make a fuss on the matter