Tech Tips #4 - Maximizing Battery Times on Notebooks - part two

Welcome back to the second part of this Tech Tips installment. You will recall in part one I introduced the topic of maximizing battery times on notebooks, beginning with identifying how varying notebook usage scenarios affect run times, why establishing a working budget for you is necessary, and highlighting the critical points you need to consider when configuring equipment options. In this second installment, I'll wrap up my discussion with the remaining sections.

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

You see it all the time - folks in airports, at trade shows and coffee shops toting around their notebooks. Most carry them in a separate case that screams "notebook inside", but some may not. Some have just their notebooks on them, others bring an arsenal of gear to the party. One guy's bag may be a light 3 pounds, another guy's bag may be a hefty 17 lbs. Big or small, you will bring it with you because you need it.

And therein lies the question: just exactly what is it that you need, and what is it you should bring?

Travel is something that will be different for everyone, depending on any number of variables. Obviously going to the local caffeine-and-sugar-repository for an hour will be different than heading through the international terminal at an airport for that 17-hour flight to your corporate getaway in the South Pacific. Likewise, when you're on your feet for 8 hours walking 6 miles a day on the 700,000 square-foot trade show floor during a convention, your gear bag may need to be considerably more forgiving than the time you spent 8 hours sitting on the balcony of your hotel room in Cabo San Lucas enjoying the ocean view.

Many years ago during my work as Director of Sales and Marketing for a national firm I often found myself on the road visiting clients. Bringing along a notebook was necessary as I needed to deliver more than just a killer sales presentation, but provide a live demonstration of the company's online services using the then-common 1xRTT mobile internet connection. Since all I needed was my notebook, that's all I took.

But when I had to attend week-long quarterly regional conferences across the country and my notebook was powered on all day, my requirements drastically changed. Bringing along the AC adapter was a no-brainer, since I needed to start work with a fully-charged notebook every morning. Finding an AC outlet during the day, however, wasn't so easy, and I found myself desperately needing more battery power. As a result my productivity at times became severely hampered. I didn't have an extended battery or a second battery on me, but having one on hand to swap out sure would have helped.

My mantra has always been to travel as light as possible. Fortunately I never needed a separate notebook case since my notebook at the time, an 8.9-inch Fujitsu P1120, fit inside my leather attache with the AC adapter without taking up much room. That was then. Today, I would most likely tote a 12 or 13-inch notebook, carry a second battery, and take it in a case that keeps both my hands free.

Would having multiple devices help? It's quite possible. The attraction of netbooks for use as secondary or "vacation" computers is quite prominent, and puts a serious dent in the appeal of even the best 12-inch notebooks. If you use a netbook for light duties and keep the bigger notebook for your more serious work, you not only have flexibility in choosing your work tool, but can get a case and spare battery that works perfectly with each.

What you do, however, may have a bigger impact on the stuff you need to bring with you. If you absolutely need processing/graphics performance and work with, for example, a big 17-inch quad-core SLI notebook, you might need to do some careful planning before you head out. Throwing four spare batteries in your gear bag is certainly doable and get you those untethered extended run times, but it will also be an expensive proposition and a heavy one to lug around. You most likely will only want to walk around with serious gear like that in a roller case. In instances such as these, I would opt for a location that offers a nearby power outlet and keep my AC adapter handy.

Many road warriors fall into the situation of carrying a ton of stuff with them "just in case", and I can understand their thinking. It's great when you can simply reach down to grab that AC adapter, car charger, mouse, spare battery, portable printer or cable lock whenever you need to. But stop for a moment and consider how many times you've carried all that gear along and never ever used it. I bet the answer is a lot! It's highly possible you could have gotten by with just your notebook at minimum, or with a spare battery at most. Does it make sense toting along that 14-inch roller case crammed with gear for just your 30 minute presentation? Think about what it is you'll be doing, bring only the stuff you need, and pack it in a case that stays small and light!

Airports present another classic problem in that most airlines will only allow two carry-on items on board, which for me would usually be an overnight bag and my leather attache. As my attache contains my work items/files and has no padding or compartment for a notebook, I would need an over-the-shoulder notebook bag to carry my notebook. Some airlines may allow you to bring on board a simple notebook case as a 3rd carry-on, which I have had happen to me on numerous occasions, but other times airline staff will be very persistent. It's a losing argument for them, however, as I simply cannot fit my notebook in my attache no matter how hard I try to show them, nor would I let either out of my sight as checked luggage. Seeing this trend, I have noticed many road warriors now fly with notebook cases that also contain compartments for their business items and double as their business case, effectively creating a single case that can be used for both. It's a logical way to fly, and if you ever do end up in a similar predicament, I would highly recommend buying such a notebook case that can take your business gear along as well, and make your time getting through the airport much easier.

5. Set a comfort level that works for you

Working on the move with a notebook does indeed open up your opportunities to be productive in ways that would not be possible otherwise. Ideally, you want a solution that gets the job done, with minimal effort and fits in with your lifestyle. Considering how we expect so much from notebook batteries though, and the idea that carrying larger batteries or additional batteries presents its own issues, one must think for a moment about what is comfortable to work with given personal preferences.

Carrying the dv4t with it's 12-cell battery around for an hour was something I found problematic to do - it was just too heavy for one hand. Would my opinion change had I carried it in an over-the-shoulder vertical messenger? It's highly possible. Comfort can be extremely subjective - something that works great for one person may be a total deal-breaker for another. It would be wrong of me to recommend one solution that works for me that may not be ideal for others, that is why it is important be aware of not only the gear that you take around with you, but also stay conscious of your surrounds throughout your mobile adventures.

Would carrying a lighter 11-inch Sony TT work better for me? It probably would. But once it's in a case it again becomes difficult to argue against a 13 or 14-inch HP. It begs the question how do you go with a setup when your needs change with the way you work and move around. I think the best answer is to establish a certain approach for each possible scenario that you are likely to encounter.

Take for example the daily trip to the Starbucks - you'll most likely only have your notebook in one hand and maybe a spare battery in your jacket pocket. It works great and gets the job done. But what if you plan your day and want to take a walk after getting your work done? A small messenger bag to keep your gear in and throw over the shoulder will keep both hands free now for that extra activity. You've got the solution for each situation, and it doesn't impact your comfort in a negative way.

Going away for more than a day, you'll throw in the AC adapter as well in that bag and keep you productive. If you know you're flying, an auto/air adapter will keep you powered in the taxi and on the flight.

Just because you don't need something every day, it doesn't mean having it is a disadvantage. For travel I like to keep different stuff handy depending on where I'm going or for how long I'll be gone for, so that I can pack the right gear that I know I'll need. If I know I'll be at a table all day, weight will not be such an issue. Likewise, if I'm going to be away from an outlet all day long, I'll know I'll need to keep at least two batteries with me. But if I'm walking a convention floor for 8 hours, weight will be the primary concern.

It's understandable that the minimum gear every serious notebook user would have is a second battery that they can swap midway through the day, and a small case that can carry their notebook and essential items. You may not need the case right now, but when the time comes when you do, you'll be much better prepared. An auto/air adapter would be another recommendation, as would a spare AC adapter.

What other gear would I consider purchasing? A cable lock is ideal if you know you will be working in an open environment or where others have access to your equipment, otherwise keep your notebook with you! A travel surge suppressor and outlet strip is also a handy item since hotel rooms do not always have the best quality power or keep those outlets accessible. Finally, a retractable cable set (USB, Cat5) would be on my list as well. Make sure your gear bag can fit these items, so that when you need them, you can just drop them in and go.

Depending on where you work, you may indeed not have to worry about battery power if you know there is an AC outlet nearby. But thinking like that can also get you into trouble! You can't always know where you may end up during the day, or determine in advance how your day will go. That's exactly why if I only bring one item with me for the day, carrying a spare battery as opposed to an AC adapter is the smarter choice. You don't want to end up like one of those poor souls you see at the airport or convention center sitting on the floor next to a power jack.

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

Technology changes so fast it can be difficult keeping up. That great notebook you purchased six months ago may now be replaced with a newer model, or a new battery chemistry has just been put on the market that promises longer run times.

Evaluating your mobile needs and routine is something you should always do on a regular basis. Your work circumstances may change and require you do things differently without you even realizing it. Similarly, something you thought worked for you well may now be doable in a whole new way that boosts your productivity.

It's possible that an entirely new gadget has emerged that completely changes the way you interact online, or that notebook you thought had terrible battery life is now available with an extended battery. Maybe that favorite place you like to work at now offers free wifi, or you've spotted a new place open up that offers powered desks. Perhaps your cell phone service contract is up for renewal and let's you choose a better/different data plan.

Each of these circumstances opens up the possibility for you to change the way you work, and perhaps improve upon an idea already working well, or create a whole new idea. You might want to change your notebook for a lighter model, one that has more battery power, or purchase a second battery. Maybe you've realized your gear bag isn't so comfortable to carry for hours on end or you want something that can keep both hands free like a sling or backpack. It's possible you've found it best to recharge your notebook in the car between appointments and decided you need an adapter for the road. Maybe your notebook is old and your battery is degraded, and it's time to replace the battery.

Nobody's lifestyle stays the same forever, and this is especially true of notebook users. As important as it is to keep up with current news and stay on top of your work, you should also stay on top of your routine so that you can make subtle changes as necessary. Above all, make sure you keep control of your lifestyle, and that it doesn't take control over you.

7. Bonus section - Undervolting

As I was about to wrap up part one last month, this topic came to my attention which seemed to fit right in with the discussion. This is something I have yet to actually experiment with, but based on the results I have seen from others who have in fact tried, undervolting has much going for it.

Undervolting basically works your CPU at a lower voltage than normal at a given clock frequency multiplier. It involves the use of a special software tool. The end result is an improvement in notebook battery life thanks to the relaxed voltage flowing through the processor. It works equally well on both current AMD and Intel chips. The procedure has not been widely well documented though and does take somewhat of a learning curve to achieve.

Typical results may get anything from an extra 15-30 minutes to as much as an hour or more battery power. That kind of gain is impressive considering that it is available for "free" and will improve the life of any battery. Two additional side-benefits are that, firstly, since your CPU is running at a lower voltage, your notebook will be cooler. Secondly, this also means your fan may not need to run as aggressively, giving you a quieter notebook.


So there you have it - seven things to look out for when maximizing the battery times on your notebook. This has been my longest piece to date, and while I may have sidetracked a little here and there, hopefully I've given a better understanding of how you can get the most out of your notebooks battery. At the very least, I've covered about as much as I can concerning batteries and how they interact with our use of notebooks.

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