Living With An Android (1)

Enhancing Your Battery Life

It's the button that was missing

As phones have got bigger, brighter and more sophisticated, so their battery lives seem to have reverted to the stone age. Any decent one will of course still have sufficient to make and receive calls all day, but will it leave enough to also do the things you actually bought a smartphone for? A couple of hours browsing in the afternoon, maybe some handheld GPS navigation around town, and suddenly it’s looking like you may not make it home to your charger in time.

What’s to be done? Well Android does present a lot of power-saving options, but it’s not at all clear to the user just how much these will save or what functionality they sacrifice.

OK, some are no-brainers. You will extend battery life very significantly if you don’t turn on Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS until you need to connect to a network, link your phone to some other device, or find out where you are, respectively. (And remember to turn them off again after!) It’s worth mentioning too though that Wi-Fi needs less power than a 3G connection, so use it to go online when you have the choice. Of course, that will also save you data charges.

That huge vivid screen drinks power like a power alkie falling off the power wagon. If you’re not trying to impress anyone with its shininess just now, set the brightness as low as you find usable. (Settings > Display > Brightness; Your phone’s automatic brightness setting, which allows it to adjust to the ambient light, may be the best compromise.) While you’re here in Display Settings, you can adjust the screen timeout – the length of time it stays lit after you stop touching it – to be as short as you can tolerate.

Those are the biggies; after that it’s all fiddling with minor adjustments that might or might not make a noticeable difference. What would be really nice to find is some hidden setting that dramatically improves battery life, a sort of magic button if you will. Not too much to ask, is it?

Well no it’s not. There is one simple thing you can do, and it will save you buttloads of electricity¹. You can turn off Packet Data.

Packet data is what’s more loosely referred to as “3G” – Internet over the mobile network. Your Android phone, by default, keeps a data connection going all the time. This means you can constantly receive things like emails, calls over Skype and other VoIP systems, MMS messages, and fresh new adverts for your ad-supported apps. Nice stuff – well mostly – but not exactly necessary. Especially not when you consider that the time you’re spending online without really meaning to is deducted directly from the time you can be online when you want. Simply maintaining that data connection is eating your power, even when nothing is being transferred.

One problem: Android is kinda designed around the always-on data connection, they don’t really mean you to turn it on and off easily. So the option is a little buried, under Settings > Wireless and network > Mobile networks. There you check and uncheck “Use packet data” depending on whether you want mobile Internet access right now. Four clicks down – pretty irritating for something you might want to change several times in one day.

But fear not – there is of course an app for that. Or to be more precise, a widget – a simple button you can stick on your home screen to turn packet data on and off handily. There are a great number to choose from on the Android Market Google Play in fact; some though are ugly-looking, some have ads, some other features that you may or may not want. One I found that seems to work just fine, looks nice and is both free and ad-free is called Data Switch. I can’t promise this one will work flawlessly for you (try restarting your phone if it doesn’t seem to at first), but it seems to work perfectly on the Galaxy Note.

While the Note’s battery is very reasonable by smartphone standards, this could make all the difference between worrying if it will last, and being relaxed about it. So if you really want to Skype me, call me first to let me know OK?

  1. Electricity used to be sold from large barrels called butts, each equal to two hogsheads or seven rundlets.  
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11 thoughts on “Living With An Android (1)

  1. Note: A link in the “Related Articles” section earlier triggers a virus warning from Microsoft Security Essentials. As the article was itself a virus warning, on what seems to be a legitimate site, I suspect it was a false positive. But better safe than suckered.

    For what it’s worth, the article warned that there is an infected clone of Angry Birds Space (for Android) in circulation.

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  2. On my phone, what eats up 75% or more of the battery is the display, and that’s at the lowest possible brightness at all times. It’s silly.

    Ever since I upgraded my Samsung Galaxy S 4G from Froyo to Gingerbread, it has been randomly freezing and restarting itself. Even when I’m not using it. I should have known better than to tinker with the defaults… and here I was thinking of actually taking the plunge and rooting it… maybe I should reconsider.

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    1. Interesting. How do you know the screen uses 75%?

      On a 4G phone, that always-on packet data connection would have easily been my prime suspect. Especially if it makes a 4G connection when it can, as opposed to when you really need mobile data at that speed.

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  3. Settings>About Phone>Battery Use.

    Lhyzz, 75% display doesn’t necessarily mean a bad thing. If you have trimmed all of the phone’s demand for power then the display ends up with a higher share of the usage. For example, my display is set on Auto, which is more power being used than when fixed to the lowest setting. And yet the display is merely the third power drain on my phone at 16%. And this is despite my addiction to a game with bright visuals that makes the processor so hot you feel it on the top of the phone. In the end I use 37% listening to music and 18% on more audio (podcasts, which surprises me). So 75% may be a high percentage but it can be the sign of very frugal use of the smartphone.

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    1. Oh yes, I’d forgotten that screen. What I’m not sure about there is what the measurement period is. Since the last start? If so then the fiures I have are all without packet data switched on. The screen seems to be usually second-hungriest at around 19%. (After Android OS, which eats around 50%.)

      Today has been interesting as I deliberately avoided putting it on charge while I was driving, so it’s been the best test yet of the difference that turning off packet data makes. It has been a low-use day in fairness, just making and receiving some calls and texts. Also playing audio (at max volume) while I was driving, for perhaps an hour altogether. No web browsing at all though, so no 3G or Wi-Fi. So after 13 hours of what could be described as light use, the battery is still at 83%.

      That’s a hell of a difference.

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  4. What I’m not sure about there is what the measurement period is.

    I never bothered to check this before. Looking at it now I think it is since the last charge. That’s not very useful. No wonder my podcasts were so high; it has been a very recent binge.

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    1. It seems that every time the phone is connected to a charger, even momentarily, it resets. (Or to be precise, when you disconnect the charger. While actually on charge it freezes.) So you can get crazy figures like 90% for the display immediately after disconnecting. But that will steadily drop – in normal use at least.

      Incidentally, I left one thing out from this article. In the power-button menu of my phone there is a “Data network mode” setting, which toggles the 3G connection in precisely the same way that the widget I praised does. It isn’t quite as convenient, but it is far less irritating than drilling through the menus as I described.

      I didn’t mention this in the article for two reasons:

      A) Not all Android phones have this in the power button menu, and
      B) I forgot.

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  5. One of the nice things about my Motorola Droid Razr is the Smart Actions function that reads a list of trigger conditions you program, and when they’re all true it changes some state of the phone. I have one programmed called “Battery Extender” that waits for the display to turn off, and for it to not be moving while it’s not plugged in, and at that point it turns off the GPS, Wifi, Bluetooth, Packet Data and Background Sync. Since programming that my battery between leaving for school and my third class (4.25 hours) only uses 35-45% of the battery when before it was 60-70%.

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    1. That sounds very good, I hope there’s a downloadable equivalent. Would be nice if you could integrate it with an alarm clock so it could go online to get your emails, etc, before waking you up.

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