A Low-Power Riddle

What slick new mobile device is facing energy-efficiency complaints? Hint: It was a 2012 product of the year.

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By Cary Chin
I’m thinking of a mobile electronic device, introduced in 2012, at the high end of its market segment, eventually to be named “Product of the Year” for 2012. But it wasn’t introduced without the usual flurry of energy-efficiency related problems, with initial complaints such as, “the product worked well, but the battery drained way too fast, even when it was turned off!”

How many times have we heard that complaint about a new mobile electronic device in the last six years? It’s hard to believe that device manufacturers aren’t taking “leakage” power seriously by now. In fact, the stand-by time for the new device was only about two weeks, less than half of the typical stand-by time for today’s current devices. This particular problem was addressed with a software update six months after device introduction, not too impressive for our industry, where we’ve already seen OS updates within days to fix power efficiency problems.

As we all have learned painfully over the last six years, “low-power design” at the component level isn’t nearly enough to create energy-efficient products. The ideas must translate through the hardware and software stack all the way up to the application level in order to have a significant impact. And even then, unanticipated usage modes can create high-drain conditions, resulting in excessive battery consumption, device overheating, and even the risk of device damage or worse.

We all know that software is hard to verify. We’ve been working feverishly in recent years to get a jumpstart on the entire software stack, from firmware validation all the way up to application software testing. And while we haven’t solved all of the problems yet, we’re making reasonable progress. Still, six months for a critical software update to address stand-by power seems sub-par by any measure.

On top of all that, less than two weeks ago, it was announced that purchasers of the device with the smallest battery capacity would be “upgraded” to the next higher battery pack at no charge, but the battery would be limited by software to the original capacity unless the buyer paid an “upgrade fee”. What? This is starting to sound like the iPhone 4 antenna-gate problem—reception problems finally acknowledged, and “solved” by “free” cases…!

From a communications standpoint, the device is also a generation or two behind the times. It comes only with a 3G radio and no access to today’s standard 4G LTE networks.

Is it possible that a mobile device introduced in the year 2012 can have all of these issues, and still be named “Product of the Year”? Yes, absolutely. And for the final clue, the weight of this mobile electronic device comes in at more than 4,600 pounds, but it does have one special “killer app.” You can ride in it.

By now, you’ve guessed it. I’m talking about the Tesla Model S sedan, Motor Trend’s 2012 Car of the Year. Welcome, automotive industry, to the fast lane!

—Cary Chin is director of marketing for low-power solutions at Synopsys.