Technology today can do amazing things, but the biggest obstacle to maximizing your users’ ability to get the most out of mobile computing comes down to one thing: electrical power to keep those devices up and running now that “the workplace” can be anywhere – including many places where it’s difficult or impossible to plug in and recharge conveniently. The benefits of “anytime, anywhere accessibility” can’t be realized when power-hungry devices are out of commission due to a dead battery.

Breaking the power paradigm

Phone, tablet and laptop vendors now emphasize their devices’ battery life as a major selling point (or work hard to obscure those numbers if it falls short of the competition) because for many buyers, it’s one of the most important criteria in choosing a new mobile device. This has had some unfortunate unintended consequences. Last year’s Note 7 “exploding phone” fiasco might never have happened if vendors weren’t trying desperately to cram bigger and bigger batteries into small devices – and it might have been an easy and less expensive fix if, like all Notes prior to the 5, the phone’s battery had been removable and user-replaceable.

However, to the displeasure of many of us, it appears the non-removable battery is here to stay, at least in the most popular flagship phone models. Although Samsung listened to customer complaints about the removal of the microSD card in the Galaxy S6 and brought it back for the S7, even the forced recall of the Note 8 didn’t cause them to relent and give us back our removable batteries on the S8, and there have been no indications from the rumor mill that the Note 8 will have them, either.

We can blame Apple for starting that trend. Once upon a time, removable batteries were pretty standard on high end smartphones, but the iPhone, in keeping with the company’s walled garden “we control the vertical; we control the horizontal” philosophy, has never allowed users to replace the batteries themselves (well, at least not without voiding the warranty).

Sealing the battery inside has an obvious advantage for the vendor: when the battery goes south – as batteries all do sooner or later – instead of merely popping out the old and popping in the new, you have to have it serviced (at a cost considerably higher than the cost of a removable battery) or better yet (for them), buy a new phone. Now to be fair, this isn’t the only advantage of sealed batteries. Waterproofing has become a popular phone feature, and it’s hard to accomplish if the back comes off. Additionally, you can make the device thinner and lighter, both of which are big selling points in the phone market.

Besides, who wants to carry around a pocket full of spare batteries everywhere you go, anyway? (Well, my husband does, but he’s atypical). If you do need to ensure that you’ll have extra juice (for instance, when you’re going to be stuck on planes all day, in the cheap seats without power ports), you can just carry around external batteries. I’ve found this to be an acceptable solution and there are now reasonably priced batteries available that will recharge a phone or tablet several times before it runs down itself.

For under $30, you can get a 20,000 mAh model that will let you charge your tablet or phone from 3 to 7 times. It’s relatively small and easy to take with you when you travel. There are smaller and more compact external batteries that’ll give you 1 or 2 recharges and aren’t much bigger than a lipstick. There are also monster batteries with 50,000 mAh that can be used to charge laptop computers, but they’re much larger and heavier and cost a lot more.

The real solution – the solution that users want – is a better battery, one that provides at least a full day of heavy usage without recharging (and without exploding).

The power/performance continuum

In writing about IT security, I often make reference to the security/convenience continuum; in general, the more you have of one, the less you have of the other. A similar situation exists when it comes to power saving and performance. There are many ways that you can tweak your devices’ settings to squeeze more battery life out of them, but almost all of those measures will reduce performance and/or impair functionality.

When I was a police academy instructor, I taught weapon retention – tactics designed to protect officers from having their guns taken and used against them by a criminal. In response to a number of incidents across the nation in which this happened and officers were shot with their own guns, holster makers began designing “security holsters” with features intended to make it hard for someone to grab the gun. However, this led to another problem: it also slowed down officers who needed to draw their weapons quickly to defend against a bad guy who had his own gun.

When my recruits showed up with the latest and greatest “level XX security holster,” I had to caution them that despite holster vendors’ claims, there is only one way a holster can be absolutely secure, and that’s when the gun is glued in and nobody – including the officer – can remove it. Likewise, as a network security consultant, I had to tell clients that we can set up firewalls, lock down servers, harden systems, encrypt data and educate users, even disconnect from the Internet, but there is really only one way to ensure that a computer is completely secure – and that’s to shut it down and unplug it so that it doesn’t work at all.

Bringing it back around to the power issue, there is only one way to prevent your battery from running down, and that’s to turn off the device. However, there are many things that you can do to extend the battery life, just as there are many things a police officer can do to make it harder for a would-be gun-grabber, or that an IT administrator can do to make it harder for a would-be hacker to get in and do his/her dirty work.

Battery saving measures: the tradeoff

It’s just important to understand and accept the fact that every minute of battery life you gain comes with a sacrifice. The good news is that you can, to an extent, choose what to give up and what you can’t live without. For instance, I don’t mind keeping my display brightness turned down to save on battery use. Some folks absolutely must have a bright screen. Someone else might not mind a quick screen timeout, but it drives me nuts for the screen to turn off after only 30 seconds; I keep that setting higher to preserve my sanity.

Another way to preserve battery life is to reduce the frequency of refreshing, or polling, for popular applications such as email and social media apps. Just setting email to manual refresh instead of “push” (or somewhere in between, such as automatic refresh every hour) can increase battery life by a surprising amount. Just make sure, if you advise users to do this, that company policy and/or the nature of their jobs doesn’t require immediate response to email.

All the different radios that are built into modern smartphones make them extremely versatile, but each of those connection types uses up battery when it’s turned on, even on standby. If you don’t use Bluetooth or NFC every day, why have them enabled and eating up your battery? You can always turn them back on when you do need them. GPS/location services can also use a lot of battery. Turning it off not only saves on power but also provides a bit more privacy as to where you go throughout the day.

If you’re at home and using the phone on wifi all the time, you can turn off the LTE radio. This is especially important when you’re in a location where your provider doesn’t have a signal, because the device will use a lot of power desperately searching for its lost “mothership” if you leave it on. I remember my first trip to Europe with a smart phone. I was shocked to find that, after arriving in Belgium, my phone’s battery was only lasting a couple of hours; it had previously lasted most of the day, and I wasn’t doing anything different. I did figure out, eventually, that it was constantly hunting for a 4G signal. I turned mobile data off and battery life was back to normal.

Some other ways your users can save on battery life (and the tradeoffs that come with them) include:

  • Stop background apps that you don’t need. The downside of this is that those apps may not be able to, for instance, impart current information to widgets, or be instantly available when you need them.
  • Speaking of widgets – I love Android widgets and Microsoft’s live tiles, but they use battery life to poll for update information. Even those that don’t update use a small amount of power.
  • Customization and “prettifying” your home screen is a great thing, as long as you have battery power to spare. But those gorgeous animated wallpapers consume power. Getting rid of them might make your phone look a little “blah” and generic, but it will extend your battery life.
  • Keep the mobile OS and apps up to date. Better power usage is often one of the improvements included in a software update – and you’re likely to get bonuses such as better security, better reliability and better performance with the newer version, too. The only downside here is that some apps might not be compatible with the new OS (or vice versa), sometimes new versions have bugs, and the new version might take away features you like or introduce a new interface that you don’t like.

Of course, there are many other ways to cut down on power usage, including using the “power saving” mode that is available now on most new phones. Some also have an extreme power saving mode that gives you a dim, plain monochrome display and shuts down all but the most essential functions, but it will get you through another hour or so if you’re on the brink of running out of battery altogether.

Meanwhile, vendors keep introducing new solutions to the problem of power-hungry devices: fast charging, wireless charging, non-standard power ports, external batteries, supplementary solar power. IT departments are stuck with supporting all of these devices with all of these new power-related features. Do you have a mobile device power strategy? Are your users all aware of it? If not, it’s something to think about.