How I test smartphone battery life

Back when most people used mobile phones to talk–because any sort of sustained online use would be too painful–it was obvious how you should test their battery life: You’d want to know how long you could carry on a conversation.

So as a reviewer, I would have to stage a talk-time test, preferably without actually speaking for four or five hours at a stretch. For a while, I would call my desk phone at the Post with a review phone, then place the phone on hold and wait for its battery to run down. (I had to take the bus home from work a few times to avoid having the call drop on my way into the nearest Metro station.) Then I switched to a slightly more elaborate setup at home: As you can see in the photo at right, I’d tune a radio to WAMU, call my home line and place the phone in front of the radio’s speaker, where it would have uninterrupted hours of human speech to listen to and relay to the home line.

But once mobile Web browsing became something you might enjoy doing, I had to incorporate that into my evaluation. As I recall, my tests on the first iPhone included setting its browser to either the scoreboard page at Major League Baseball’s site or the Post’s home page, both of which refreshed automatically every minute or so.

Once I realized the appeal of on-the-go Web-radio listening and recognized how it required more data transfer by a smartphone, I decided I needed to test that as well. So I now start up the Pandora app–which has the advantages of being available for most major mobile platforms and of offering an “Auto-Lock” option to keep the screen illuminated for a worst-case test–and see how long it takes for a phone to run down.

Another realization came after I’d spent enough time with smartphones with a habit of fetching data in the background (such as my own Android model): Not all phones have the same standby time. For example, I discovered that while an iPhone 4 would have more than 90 percent of a charge remaining after 24 hours sitting on a desk, one Android model had less than half left.

When deadlines permit, I now conduct a standby test too, as you can see in today’s writeup of AT&T’s version of the Samsung Galaxy S II and Verizon’s Motorola Droid Bionic. (Both showed about 70 percent left on their battery gauges.) Between that and the Web-radio test, I think I have a good handle on a phone’s best- and worst-case performance in most contexts.

But not all. Using GPS for turn-by-turn navigation always runs it down quickly–if your car doesn’t have a USB port in the dash to charge the phone, buy a cheap, generic USB adapter and stash it in the glove box with a spare USB cable–and so does sharing its Internet connection over WiFi tethering. Taking a phone to a bandwidth-starved environment like CES, where it’s constantly hunting for a signal, kills its battery too.

What sort of battery-life tests have you found most useful? Which ones should I incorporate into my own research?

Author: robpegoraro

Freelance journalist who covers (and is often vexed by) computers, gadgets and other things that beep.

29 thoughts on “How I test smartphone battery life”

  1. I want to test battery impact of different apps, or the same app with several different setting combinations, running on a single Android device. And I don’t want it to take days. Got any advice for that scenario?

  2. I don’t test phones, but this iPhone 4s situation has me wondering about core phone functions and their power consumption. While I can appreciate the use cases that you’re simulating, as a smart consumer/user I’d like to be given enough info to balance my own use with actions I can take to maximize battery life. For example, if I knew enableing bluetooch discovery and connection used xx milliwatts per hour, when the battery only has enough charge for 5xx, I could shut BT off. But if I went through a lot of effort and some inconvienience to change my use patterns by having mail fetch only once per hour vice every 15 minutes, I’d sure want to know what positive impact that had on battery life. Be good if manufacturers, or an independant lab, would determine these things and tell us. To paraphrase a journalist I often read, seems like we’re in a kind of ‘smart phone don’t ask don’t tell’ situation these days

  3. Internet browsing is one of the most aspect to be checked. There might be some scripts which auto download the page at interval of some seconds. we need to check how much time does it take to drain battery. gets their battery test this way. If you find any application or script plz inform me.

    Samik Chavda.

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  5. Some apps are so load heavy now it doesn’t even make sense. My battery running some intensive apps crash often. I think some app designers have to be more realistic when designing to ensure the features don’t bog down the app.

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