In the rush to hook know-nothing consumers mindlessly scannning the shelves at retail, looking for shiny objects, too many notebook makers have forgotten the true meaning of "ultraportable" as they manufacturer systems that get little more than half a day's battery life. Sure, everyone wants a notebook that's wafer thin, blinged out with brushed metal or soft-touch rubber, and lighter than Kodak's bank account, but not when that $1,000 system takes a siesta first thing after lunch. There's only one solution: higher-capacity batteries.
With the noteworthy exception of the HP Folio 13, which lasted a solid 7 hours and 50 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, all of the Ultrabook notebooks we've tested have gotten less than 7 hours of battery life, with ASUS's UX31 lasting just 5-hours and 58 minutes and Acer's pitiful S3 dying after only 4:23.
Ultrabooks aren't alone in trading precious minutes of productivity for a smaller chassis. While not officially labeled as "Ultrabooks," the MacBook Air 13-inch lasts just 6.5 hours while the new Samsung Series 9 endures for only 4:48. In LAPTOP's tests, the average thin-and-light notebook (14-inches, less than 5 pounds) endures for a little over 6 hours while the average ultraportable (13-inches or less, lighter than 4 pounds) lasts just 6:39.
Why You Need Battery Life
If those numbers don't sound bad to you, let me put them in perspective. The LAPTOP Battery test we used to get the above runtimes measures a common, but not very taxing use case, surfing the web at 40 percent brightness and loading up a new page every 30 seconds. If you're pushing up the brightness level or you want to do something more intense like crunching a video, viewing an HD movie, or playing a game, you can expect less endurance than we encountered. But even if your usage habits allow you to get a full 5 or 6 hours of life, that's simply not enough endurance for real all-day use.
The standard battery life for any laptop that weighs less than 5 pounds should be 10 hours or more. Whether you're working on an international flight, going from meeting to meeting at the office, or sitting on the couch at home with your lightweight notebook, you need that amount of time to avoid battery panic. Even if you're not using the notebook for 10 consecutive hours, you ought to be able to use it on and off throughout the day, without even worrying about its charge level.
As I write this article, I'm sitting on my couch with my 13-inch notebook unplugged. In this location, I have relatively easy access to a wall socket, but I don't plug in, because being tethered to the wall is still unpleasant as I have to worry about yanking the wire, sitting on the wire or watching my cats knock over the adapter. Though the system gets a full 5 hours of battery life under optimal conditions, I'm down under 50 percent after just a couple of hours of work and must start thinking about either plugging in or lowering the brightness to uncomfortable levels. I shouldn't have to deal with that distraction.
When I'm in my office, carrying my notebook from conference room to conference room, I often have to carry my AC adapter with me and sit near an outlet or string my power cord across the room and hope nobody trips on it. Trade shows like CES are the biggest battery challenge of all, as I spend 12 to 14 hours a day running to a series of hotels and conventions centers writing articles and editing videos with no time at all to stop and recharge. I'll often have to go out of my way or crouch down on a hard floor, just to find an outlet I can sit next to.
Smartphones Set the Example
Smartphone companies are starting to get it. After a 2011 year in which manufacturers released a slew of 4G handsets with anemic endurance, Motorola recently showed its competitors the right way to build a device when it released the Droid RAZR Maxx with a high-capacity 3300 mAH battery on-board that allowed it to last through over 8 hours of continuous use. Compare that to phones like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, whose 1850 mAH battery only gave it enough juice to last 3 hours and 40 minutes on our test.
Notebook makers need to learn from Motorola's example and beef up their battery offerings, even if that means charging more money for their products or increasing the chassis size. The longest-lasting notebook on the market, Lenovo's ThinkPad X220 lasts a whopping 12 hours and 39 minutes with its extended 9-cell battery. The trade-off for moving up from its default battery is a 1-inch battery bump in the back and an additional .2 pounds of weight, well worth it for nearly 5 additional hours of battery life and the ability to leave your .5 pound AC adapter in the hotel room.
If you get the right kind of battery, you can even pack a lot of juice into a very small space. The RAZR Maxx, for example, is only .07 inches thicker than the original RAZR, yet gets nearly double its battery life. Sure, Motorola is charging $100 more for the thicker battery, but it's worth it.
With phones, users expect to be able to leave their chargers at home, spend 16 hours using them on and off, and then plug in when they sleep at night. You ought to be able to do the same with a notebook and you could, if notebook makers would stop racing to make their products 0.2-inches thinner, 0.2 pounds lighter, and a few dollars cheaper and focus on what users really need from a lightweight laptop. As consumers, we need to support this effort by purchasing longer-lasting notebooks.
What You Can Do Today
Fortunately, if you're in the market for a notebook today, you don't need to wait for the industry to get its act together. You just need to make the most of the long-lasting choices available today and be willing to purchase a system that's available with an extended battery or a battery slice. In many cases, your best choice is a business-oriented notebook, but that doesn't mean consumers should hesitate. For example, the corporate-minded Lenovo Thinkpad T420 with 9-cell battery costs less than $850 but lasts over 10 hours on a charge. The $1,399 Sony VAIO S lasts nearly 11 hours with an attached battery slice.
In the end, every extra penny you spend on a notebook with a high-capacity battery will be worth a dollar saved in therapy costs for low-battery phobia. If only vendors understood this.