Growing up there was really only one bullet point on computers that I cared about: clock speed. I knew that the faster the CPU, the faster the computer. This drove my buying decisions (rather, my guidance of my parents buying decisions) for many years — this also lead the buying decisions of many consumers during this time as well. CPU speed was the horsepower benchmark for the computer industry. Yet, as true car fans know, horsepower is only one component of a fast car, but it is — none-the-less — an important factor.
In college I learned about the magic of 512mb of RAM and as the clock speed boom slowed (as did my income), RAM became my go to benchmark — if the CPU was decent I knew that juicing the RAM would lead to a nice performance pay-off. I laughed at anything with less than 512mb of RAM — what a joke to use any less RAM. Of course RAM is more like a good car suspension — like horsepower it is important — but not the determining factor of the race, it’s what helps you get that horsepower down to the road. It also just so happens that both suspension changes and RAM changes are a bit cheaper than adding more horsepower.1
Later in college, and post-college, it came down to software. I switched to a Mac with less RAM, a slower CPU and yet the computer still felt faster. The only explanation had to be the software I was running — Mac OS X now instead of Windows 2000 — all the hardware was the same, if not slower.2 If we stick to the car metaphor I think the software aspect of computers best represents the driver. Where a good driver can make a slow car faster, just as good software can make slow hardware faster3 . We inherently know that Michael Schumacher can drive our car faster than we ever could4 .
A year or more ago I discovered SSDs and just how much faster they can make your machine. It is, still, the biggest performance boost you can do to your computer. If I had to be forced to put a car analogy on SSDs I would have to say that it is akin to switching from an automatic gearbox to a sequential-manual gearbox used in F-1 cars, it helps in all instances of racing.
With Intel busily trying to obscure the true speed of their chips, GPUs satisfactory for all but the power users, SSDs starting to become main-stream5, most computers coming with plenty of RAM from the factory, and most software reaching excellent optimization levels (certainly on the Mac side of things) — what now is the benchmark upon which a nerd can fixate?
I give you: Battery life.
If you go to buy a new phone, laptop, tablet, or gadget today, I would guess you are pretty concerned with how long that battery will last and less so about CPU speeds, and RAM sizes. The really interesting thing about battery life is just how dependent it is on every single factor I talked about above. To get good battery life you need optimized hardware and optimized software (a large battery cell helps as well). Everything that we have cared about in the past has now lead us to the point where we can care about the one thing that is more annoying than memory swapping and slow boot times: carrying power cords.
Why This Matters
Battery life matters because we need to be able to use our computing devices when and where we want — tablets with a 2-hour battery life makes doing so, very challenging. Battery life matters because we don’t want to be the guy in the meeting unravelling the extension cord and power brick. Battery life matters because if your cellphone dies, you are — effectively — cut off. Battery life matters because both airplanes and coffee shops have too limited a supply of power outlets.
Battery life is the new benchmark — it’s the first thing that I look at on any new piece of hardware. We can now, finally, make the reasonable assumption that both the hardware and software is fast enough on most devices — so now what matters is portability — with battery life being the bullet point at the top of the list, set in bold.
When I read reviews and I see that a MacBook Air competitor struggles to get 6 hours of battery life, I chuckle and dismiss the product. Crazy right? I bet you do the same — when you heard that the HTC 4G phone only gets 4.5 hours of battery life — I bet you thought: “no way I want that”.
The real change that has happened is that all software is pretty decent at this point (Yes, even Windows 7), all hardware is pretty equal6 and most all machines come with enough RAM to do most all but the more serious work. That really only leaves design and battery life to compete on — well pricing too I suppose.
Having the battery life I do on my MacBook Air makes me feel like I got a two-year old F-1 race car with the fuel efficiency of a Prius — in other words: awesome.
In fact, we are so intrenched in our feelings that batteries are just not good enough, that more than 50% of my Twitter followers charge their phone nightly, regardless as to whether they need to recharge.7 I don’t think this is really representative of the actual device’s battery performance8 instead I think is has to do with something that Liam over at Remacable touched on:
When my iPad tells me it has 40% battery remaining, I get anxious. I start wondering where the charger is. If I’m watching video, I wonder whether I should turn off the wifi radio. If I’m reading, I consider turning down the screen brightness. I can’t help myself. This is, after all, decades of learned behavior.
We have been so used to crappy battery life for so many years, that now we freak out when a battery that lasts for 10 hours shows only 40% remaining (meaning 4 hours battery life left). He’s not alone, last night my iPhone 4 was at 10% battery life and I only had another 20 minutes before I went to bed — yet the prospect of the battery reaching single digits before then was very unnerving.
This is why, when I look at the mobile computing space (Laptops, Tablets, Smartphones), it is hard to see anything but Apple as the clear winner. People are going to realize that with Apple they only need to charge their devices, at most, while they sleep (for the most part, perhaps not quite yet for some iPhone users). Thus far it is hard to make that case with most any other mobile computing device on the market — certainly not at the price points of the iPad, iPhone, MacBook Air and in their corresponding size.9
Apple isn’t doing anything magical with battery life — they just make it a priority, and it needs to be top priority. No one really cares about how much RAM your phone has, or how many megapixels the camera shoots — what people care about is if, when they go to use the device, it works like they want and need it to. They care that they don’t have a depleting battery and have to start shutting off “features”.
I think the new plateau, the new bullet point, is becoming battery life. Notebook manufacturers, tablet manufacturers and phone manufacturers want to build and sell devices that have a battery that will last all day with continuous use. I want that too.
I think we all do.
This, as I am sure I will get emails about, is an over generalization. I am simply saying that adding performance shocks, lowering springs, strut braces and the like can be bought at different times for less money each time — whereas most upgrades that truly boost HP cost a great deal all at once. ↩
I am omitting the obvious difference between PowerPCs and Intel, because in the end I think the PowerPC architecture was actually slower at that time. As somewhat evidence by the tremendous speed boost when Apple moved to Intel. ↩
More of a feel faster than actually making the hardware faster. That it is, the software is fully utilizing the hardware. ↩
Most of us, that is. ↩
Thanks MacBook Airs. ↩
For the average user, they don’t notice the small speed difference — unless you are thinking netbooks, those still suck. ↩
I started only charging every other day, unless I have less than 50% battery life left when I go to bed. ↩
Except for Android, as respondents often said multiple times a day. ↩
Extended battery packs are a joke and they are a reason not to buy a device — if the manufacturer sells an “extended” battery, walk away. ↩