Battery Life is The Most Important Thing When Buying a Phone, Here’s Why

Battery Life is The Most Important Thing When Buying a Phone, Here’s Why

2024 will bring a host of shiny new premium smartphones, each one selling on amazing new features – but it’s the detail of battery life and capacity that you really should pay attention to when buying a new phone.

Most consumers look to design, maybe cameras and possibly processing power when considering a new smartphone, but few put battery life first in their thought processes when selecting a new phone. That’s a mistake.

In Australia, the market is split pretty neatly between Apple and Samsung when it comes to premium smartphone sales numbers, with Google, Motorola and others fighting for the crumbs.

We’re probably – if the rumours pan out – a matter of mere weeks away from the reveal of the Galaxy S24 family, while the rumours are already swirling around what the iPhone 16 family will look like, even though the smart money says Apple won’t announce that until around the September/October 2024 timeframe.

It’s all well and fine to be excited about the new features of a smartphone, whether it’s one of the big two finally (sigh) bringing mmWave 5G to the Australian masses, ever-better still and video capture capabilities or processors that start to rival a PS5 when it comes to polygon-flinging activity.

However, while those factors are important when you’re buying a new phone, especially at the pointy end of the price scale, they’re not the most important factor. What’s more, the most important factor is one that most new phone launches, and nearly all the marketing material that you’ll ever see tends to gloss over.

You’ve read the headline, you know what I’m about to say: It’s the battery that’s important.

This is a pretty simple equation: Show me a smartphone with a working battery, and that’s a smartphone I can work with, whether I’m taking photos, doomscrolling on social media, playing games or even answering all those pesky work emails that keep filling up my inbox.

Show me a smartphone with a flat battery, and that’s either a phone that needs a charger if the battery still works, or something I can jam under a wobbly table leg to keep it flat for a while if it doesn’t.

Actually, that’s a very bad idea; a fully dead smartphone should either get a battery replacement if it’s financially prudent to do so, or be responsibly recycled if not.

Over the years, I’ve tested hundreds of smartphones, many of which have made claims about multi-day battery life – though they’re rarely the headline claims – but I’m yet to meet a phone that can absolutely last out the day under most circumstances, and especially for heavy users. If you’re going to spend premium money on a smartphone, you should be able to drive it hard, right?

Most of the time, you simply can’t.

The real issue here is that it’s incredibly difficult to tell realistic battery life just from manufacturer claims.

On the Android side of the fence you’ll often be hit with a battery capacity figure, with most – but not all – tending towards 5,000mAh.

That sounds like a big number, but I’ve tested 5,000mAh Androids that can last a good long time, and others that are pitifully crying out for electrons before the end of the working day if you use them for much more than being a digital clock.

Trusting just in the big number is not enough to ensure that you’ll get a phone that meets your power needs.

What about Apple?

The good folks at Cupertino buy their batteries just like every other manufacturer does, but Apple never actually mentions battery capacities in any consumer-facing way at all.

Instead, it’s typically unearthed through a mix of regulatory filings and outfits like iFixit quite literally tearing iPhones apart.

Apple’s track record in battery efficiency typically means that it can get by on considerably smaller batteries than its Android rivals, but the numbers comparison there wouldn’t look good for Apple in a straight line way, so it omits to mention them.

So what does Apple say to consumers?

It gives use case scenarios, which sounds great – real world testing! – but not in a way that’s really all that useful.

Let’s use the iPhone 15 Pro Max as an example.

According to Apple’s iPhone 15 Pro Max specs page, the iPhone 15 Pro Max is good for up to 29 hours of video playback, up to 25 hours of streamed video playback or up to 95 hours of audio playback.

There’s two challenges there when you’re trying to work out if an iPhone is what you want, battery-wise. Apple does lay out rather clearly what its testing parameters are for phones – you can read them here — and that’s good, but the reality of how we use our phones goes a little wider than just video – and a lot wider than simple audio playback, unless for some reason you buy an iPhone 15 Pro Max to purely use like it was an iPod Touch.

The bigger issue here is that any figure that says “up to” has instant variability to it. That’s natural enough for any phone to a degree, but in terms of being compliant, a single minute is heading “up to” 95 hours of playback in the same way that 94 hours and 59 minutes would. You’d want to hope that Apple’s actual figures were closer to the latter than the former, but there’s no real way to know and it’s not really in Apple’s interest to tell you.

So when you’re phone shopping, what can you really do?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, because everyone’s mobile usage is different.

Whether or not you’re happy to use features that extend battery life but limit other features, whether that’s through specific phone “battery saver” type features or more manually by dimming screen brightness, limiting volume and switching off selected radio functions such as Bluetooth can also affect battery life.

What you can do – and what you should do, optimally – is read as many reviews that do some level of decent battery testing as possible. Manufacturers are never going to come out and say “Yeah, well, this year’s model doesn’t do so great” about their phones in any way at all, but ethical reviewers who properly test phones – and not all do – very much will as part of serving their readers.

I’ll probably get in trouble for writing this, but honestly, It’s wise to read around too, taking in multiple reviews across a number of reputable publications, because different test scenarios and even just different units of the same type of phone can react in different ways to battery stresses.

That should at least give you a broader picture of expected battery life; if every trustworthy reviewer says that a phone’s battery life is suspect, then it’s best avoided; if everyone’s very happy then you probably will be too.

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