The iPhone 5 Arrives

It will be a winner in the market, but couldn’t Apple spare a little extra battery life?

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By Cary Chin
For the first time, I followed today’s iPhone launch as it happened via live blog, and I have to say it was more entertaining than I expected. It’s not that there was much new information. Nearly all details have been leaked over the last couple of months. Still, there was genuine drama in the air. A mass of journalists giddy with excitement just to enter the building, consumers who could not wait to order even before there was anything announced TO order, Android supporters chiming in now and then with snide comments—really pretty much of a circus (in a good way).

In the end, we all got what we deserved and expected—the much anticipated and long awaited iPhone 5, complete with larger 4” screen of 1136 x 640 pixels, 20% lighter and 18% thinner design, new A6 processor boasting 2x better CPU and GPU performance, much faster wireless (4G LTE and 802.11n 5GHz Wifi), improved camera (40% faster + panorama) and video capabilities (photo during video, improved stabilization), and a whole host of new software capabilities in iOS 6 and upcoming enhancements to iTunes. Oh, and “longer battery life than the iPhone 4S.” That’s it? Just “longer battery life” and a generic chart showing 8 hours of talk time and Web browsing time (and the 8 hours of talk is actually the same as that advertised for the iPhone 4S)? Ouch. For us low-power engineering geeks, that’s just not going to cut it.

The new iPhone 5 clearly will be another mega-hit. It adds significant capabilities, addresses recent competitive disadvantages versus Samsung’s recent lineup of Android smartphones, and regains the title of “world’s thinnest smartphone.” And all the while it continues to play up the iOS ecosystem (including iTunes and the App store), which is really the secret to locking out competition and ensuring that Apple makes a long run as the world’s most valuable company. But recent design decisions seem to indicate that the folks in Cupertino believe that current battery performance is “good enough.”

Eight hours of talk time seems like plenty to cover a full business day, but when combined with constant calendar and email usage, an occasional video conference, Web browsing and additional data transfer to/from the cloud, more communications for every short conversation with Siri (if only to see how she’s doing), mapping and GPS navigation, and an occasional snapshot or short video, we are still hard-pressed to make it through a single business day without at least a “top off” at the desk or in the car. Plus, we haven’t even factored in the major impact of display brightness or cellular signal strength, which as we’ve seen can have a severe impact (mostly negative) on battery life.

I was a little disappointed in the new iPad, with its clear tradeoff of battery life vs. the Retina display (see my April post). And while I’m as excited as anyone to get my hands on the new iPhone 5, I’m thinking right now that the “thinnest smartphone” title isn’t nearly as compelling to me as “smartphone that can make it through a full day of work and still navigate me to dinner.” I hope I’m not the only one who still believes that power efficiency and battery performance should still be at or near the top of the list of smartphone requirements.

By next month, we’ll have plenty of data to look at. The usual folks will have disassembled, weighed, probed, and tested the iPhone 5 down to its individual components. A look at the numbers and a few tests will give us a pretty clear view of battery performance and power efficiency. But I can tell you now that whatever it comes out to be, another millimeter of battery would have made it MUCH better.

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