Tech Tips #3 - Maximizing Battery Times on Notebooks - part one

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to time constraints and length, this is the first of a two-part article on lgp On The Move.

My recent experience with the HP dv4t CTO and it's impressive run time with the 12-cell battery got me thinking a lot about just how important battery power is for notebooks. True, some notebooks never get out of the house and spend their whole operating life tethered to a desk, much like my veteran zd7000. But there are quite a lot of folks out there for whom a notebook has become a take-it-with-you-every-morning must-have companion - a tool that is used far away from any office desk or power outlet, sometimes for hours on end.

But while battery times are indeed important for many notebook users, it's not the only thing that will impact your productivity. When you are going mobile, notebook weight will also be a big factor. You may think your svelte 1 inch thin notebook is light at 3.95 pounds, but if your "uber capacity" battery adds another pound and a half to it's weight and you need to carry that around all day in one hand, suddenly it isn't so fun any more.

Likwise, your usage habits will have a strong say in what's best for you - whether you spend 30 minutes getting to point A and work untethered for 8 hours straight or you're traveling for 8 hours to point A,B,C,D,E in your workday and need only 30 minutes of power at each stop. How you get there is also worth consideration, since many notebooks can now be powered/charged from car 12V or airline seat power with the proper adapter.

Finally, the amount of gear you have with you will play a big part in how flexibile your mobile power choices will be. Are you one of those guys who takes just a spare battery along and swaps midway through the day?, or prefer to carry a road warrior's arsenal in one of those multiple-compartment notebook bags with mouse, security lock, spare batteries, auto adapter and 2nd charger? While it's great when you have a choice of what you can take along, sometimes you don't get that luxury, either because you don't have the room or ability to take extra gear or your notebook lacks the options.

So how do you get the most battery time from your notebook investment while on the move? Since your ultimate decision will depend on different variables, let me go over these one by one and offer suggestions for each:

1. Determine where and how you will need to use your notebook

Your work (or play) will more than likely already define how you spend your day, and throwing a notebook into the mix will certainly change things for you. You may be a totally mobile person with no physical office who spends the day roaming the city. Do you work at home and just need a notebook you can take from room to room or outside to work by the pool? Perhaps you're stuck on the 89th floor somewhere and go from one conference room to another all day long. Or you've been sent on assignment across the country/globe for weeks/months and need a reliable solution for that time. Everybody's needs will be different, but understanding your situation will better prepare you and make choosing your solution a more educated decision rather than a mere impulse purchase.

Take the mobile web warrior as an example - since he is on the move all day he will most likely be traveling with a 12"-14" notebook that is light, small and easy to carry. If his notebook will be powered on for extended periods his main focus will be long battery life, most likely from a large battery with the run-time to get him through his day. On the other hand, if he is going from place to place and only needs sporadic power, he may choose a smaller battery that saves him weight as he moves around all day.

For the stay-at-home worker, weight will be a secondary concern since he is only steps away from a power outlet and won't be carrying it all day. He may choose a 15"-17" notebook with a larger display that is more powerful and offers more features, much like a desktop replacement. And if he keeps his notebook at his desk constantly he may even already be using a docking station, with his notebook connected to a separate display, keyboard and network/storage hub.

For the guy stuck in the high rise office moving from room to room, one thing he won't be needing is a case to take it around in. Modern conference desks have power hubs as well so he may not even need to worry about battery life. But not all offices have fancy projectors, so he may opt for a notebook with the largest 17"-18" display, especially advantageous for making presentations and getting his pitch across. It will also serve him well as his office desktop replacement - he can take it home at the end of the day and continue his work, or take it to his company's booth at the trade show and use it to demo their product/service.

Deployed long distance for extended periods? You'll most likely be taking more than just your bare notebook and a spare battery. You'll probably have a 14"-17" notebook that is packed with performance and features, along with a notebook case that contains all the support gear to keep you going while away - spare batteries, mouse, AC adapter, auto/air charger, wifi finder, USB thumbdrive, retractable cables, locks, recovery disks... You may even be carrying a rechargeable printer.

2. Set your budget

Once you've figured out how you will be using your notebook and where you will be using it, set aside the dollar amount you're thinking of spending. And I don't just mean the price of the notebook. You may think that sexy white 14" HP you saw at Best Buy is a steal for $549, but factor in the price of accessories you end up buying with it - spare battery, adapter, case, extended warranty, sales tax - and the price can easily double! The same thing is true when you are configuring a notebook online - the price may start at $799, but see what happens when you begin configuring all the high-end options, adding items and get to the part where it asks for your credit card number - suddenly you've gone over not $1000 but are approaching $2000. Being mobile is still an expensive proposition for some - I've seen notebook bags stuffed with over $3000 worth of gear, yet the starting price of the machine inside was under $1000. You may first want to look around, compare prices and get an idea of how much what you're going to need is going to cost before you set your mind to it.

Of course, if money is no object, your focus can remain on getting what you like, comparing brands, options and features that are of importance to you. Likewise, if your requirements need to be met regardless of cost, you may just get the first thing available to you or look around until you find exactly what you need.

One thing that can influence greatly your choice (and budget) are the deals and promos that retailers will offer from time to time. HP for example regularly posts coupons for use on their online store good for notebook purchases. Consider you're ready to order your notebook with all the extra gear, the final price showing $2112. Now apply a 30%-off coupon - a deal that HP likes to run often. Your final price is now $1438 - that's a saving of almost $700!!! Many other shopping websites also offer stackable codes that you can use, making that $700 saving go even higher. It's worth the effort to search for these, since if you don't take advantage of them you not only end up paying more, but could be missing out on a notebook perfect for your needs that may have just been too expensive for you earlier.

One more thing - check for financing offers. That sexy white 14" HP notebook on sale at Best Buy for $549 can be picked up with 18 months interest free for $0 down, with your first minimum payment of $16 due in 30-45 days. Deals like those may definitely appeal to folks who can't shell out big bucks up front, or prefer to pay off their investment over time with steady monthly installments.

Finally, keep in mind that you may get better pricing on batteries when you purchase them together with your notebook. HP for example may offer you a discount at purchase when you configure your notebook with a second battery or a higher capacity version. And while a 6-cell battery may cost $100, you will find that a 12-cell battery costing $150 gives you double the run time for less than double the price.

3. Choose a notebook fit for the task

Here's where things can get real tricky - even confusing if you're not careful. You've set your budget and figured out what you will be needing, but are now faced with a myriad of notebook models, manufacturers, configurations and specifications. How do you start? Where do you start? What can you do to make the choice easier? Let's explore the possibilities.

Since our focus here is maximizing battery run times, we'll be looking for notebooks with "power friendly" components. That means we need a CPU/GPU combination that uses minimal power, a low-power display, high-capacity battery, low power hard drive and turn off other unnecessary components.

Let's start with the CPU. Going with Intel's mobile Core 2 Duo lineup, we notice the T series and the P series. Speed and cache aside, the big difference is that while the T series runs at 35W, the P series are designed with a 25W TDP. 10 watts less power equals saved battery energy, but the benefits will also show elsewhere. Since the processor heatsink is dealing with less heat output, the heatsink fan will run less often, giving you a quieter and also cooler notebook.

For the GPU you may be presented with the option of integrated versus discreet graphics. We know that discreet graphics are more powerful and offer better performance, but integrated graphics have the upper hand in power savings. Integrated graphics offer a more relaxed feature set that is less power-hungry than the more feature rich and faster discreet offerings. Because the graphics chip is most often soldered near the CPU and is cooled by the same heatsink/fan, such an integrated solution will also result in cooler operation and a quieter notebook.

With the display, you will likely see two distinct options - LED and non-LED. The term refers to the backlight used to illuminate the screen. Non-LED displays use a cathode tube which typically draws 10W to 15W power or more. With an LED display the power draw may be as little as 2W, making power savings significant on battery times. Such low power draw may also allow you to work with a brighter screen when on battery, minimizing eye strain. One more thing to keep in mind is that a smaller screen will also use less power than a larger screen, in addition to the obvious advantage in notebook size and weight.

Battery options will certainly play the greatest part in how long your notebook runs unplugged. When looking at the HP dv4t and it's batteries, you will find three options - a 6-cell standard battery rated at 2.2 amp hours, a 6-cell high-capacity battery rated at 2.55 amp hours, and a 12-cell battery rated at 8.8 amp hours. More amp hours means more run time, but which one you choose will depend also on your needs. The two 6-cell batteries are both the same size and weight, but the 12-cell adds 0.7 lbs to your notebook weight and an extra inch in thickness along the rear - something to keep in mind if you intend to carry your notebook around in one hand for more than an hour.

With hard drives, finding the most energy efficient can be harder because drive power specifications are not always listed with notebooks, or drives themselves. Take my 500GB Western Digital - it draws 2.5W active and 0.85W idle. Why I mention this is because you can get much better efficiency using the newest solid-state SSD drives. While expensive and limited in capacity, SSD drives typically run at only 1.5W active and 0.15W idle. That can make a big impact on battery times. In addition, SSD drives run dead silent, and with no moving parts, run cooler with no risk of damage from drops or head crash. And while using dual drives will consume more power that using one, opting for a 5400rpm drive in place of a 7200rpm drive will not result in any measurable power gains.

Finally, one last way to conserve power on your notebook is to turn off unnecessary hardware. Wireless radios can be turned off when you're not using them, USB devices unplugged, Express Card devices removed and any disc removed from the optical drive to prevent spin-up. Some notebooks will have BIOS settings to enable/disable certain motherboard hardware.

This would also be a good time to check your Windows power settings, and I don't just mean looking at the power settings feature in Control Panel and tweaking what's in there. If you go into device manager, right-click on a particular hardware item and select properties, the windows that pops up will most likely contain a tab labeled Power Management - here you can specify whether your computer will turn off a device to save power, and also if that device can wake up the computer from sleep. For notebooks, you most likely will want your devices to be able to turn off, but not wake up your computer from stand-by and drain it's battery.

That's part one of the story for now, and should give you a good start on what to think about. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for part two of this article where I continue with the remaining sections:

4. Be realistic about what gear you can take along and need with you

5. Set a comfort level that works for you

6. Re-evaluate your mobile routine every 8-12 months.

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