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September 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 6 |Page 22
Technology

Tips & Tricks

Squeezing More Time Out of Your Laptop’s Battery

Batteries now last longer than ever before. It’s nice that there’s been improvements—but it still isn’t enough. Here are pointers for squeezing some precious extra minutes from your battery when you’re on the road.

Why is it that you always get an airline seat with a standard AC plug when you have just a short hop, your laptop battery is fully charged and you have nothing urgent to do? But, of course, when you board a long flight and are scrambling on a deadline, your battery is always out of juice and you couldn’t get an AC plug to save your life.

Battery technology has certainly improved immensely over the past several years, although most of us take it for granted. (Did any of you cart around one of the original “portable” 35-pound laptops?) Today’s batteries are smaller and last longer than any batteries that came before—but the ultimate on a laptop will be a full day of work on one charge. Adding an extra or external battery will get you there now, but not all of us want to do this because of the extra cost and weight.

The good news is that with a bit of effort, you can squeeze more time out of your single internal laptop battery. And many of the tricks that work on laptops can help you on your cell phone, iPod and digital camera as well. (Stayed tuned: I will cover those in the next issue’s Tips & Tricks.)

Going into Ration Mode

So then, it’s time to jump on the plane for a long flight and you just know you won’t have a plug—well, it’s time to go into ration mode. Take the following steps and you can take the typical battery up from three hours to four hours of use.

  • Turn your screen brightness down. The florescent lamps that illuminate your LCD screen are your worst enemy. They consume more power than everything else, so you want to decrease the brightness on your screen as far as you can.
  • To minimize hard drive and CPU activity (your next-worst enemies), use only the programs that you really need. In the software applications that you do need to run, turn off features that will cause hard drive or CPU activity. These include things like spelling and grammar checking and auto-save or auto-recover. To save a document, just remember to hit Ctrl+S every once in a while.
  • Exit or disable all nonessential software, including screensavers, instant messaging clients, utilities and the like. Run through the icons on your task bar, and if you don’t need them, shut them down. Software that scans or indexes is especially nasty because it keeps the hard drive spinning. Turn off desktop search engines, and if you can—and you feel it’s safe to do so—turn off your antivirus software.
  • Turn off nonessential hardware. Anything running on your computer consumes power, and even if something consumes only a bit, it all adds up. Turn off network adapters, Wi-Fi, IR and Bluetooth and so forth. Unplug and remove memory cards, USB devices, PC Cards and their ilk. If you travel frequently, consider creating a hardware profile that will boot your laptop with all unnecessary hardware already disabled or turned off.
  • Change your power settings. Every laptop has different built-in power consumption modes. For travel you want to be in the Max Battery Power scheme (under Control Panel-Power Options-Power Schemes). To make sure that all power-saving features are engaged, you should boot while running on a battery. (Remember, if you simply unplug, some features may not be operating.)
  • Set your screen to go blank in one minute. The most important setting in the Power Scheme Window is Turn Off Monitor. Let’s face it, we all daydream, so set your computer to blank the screen in one minute. I guarantee that you will find you daydream far more often than you think you do.
  • Ignore false alarms. By default your computer will warn you and even shut down or go into suspend mode with 5 percent or even 10 percent of battery power remaining. Set the Low and Critical Battery alarms to lower values (under Control Panel-Power Options-Alarms) so you can work longer. I set my Critical Alarm at 1 percent and tell it to warn me (not shut me down) so I can gracefully exit everything.
  • For short breaks, place your computer in Hibernation mode. Suspend mode will give you a faster start-up, but it will consume much more power because more components are consuming power. For longer breaks, shut down your computer.
  • Never let it get too hot. Yes, it is called a laptop, but don’t use it on your lap. Keeping things cooler will keep the CPU fan off. Make sure air can circulate across the bottom of your laptop and that all air vents are clear of obstructions.
  • Also, I’m sorry, but you have to forget the fun stuff. Listening to music, playing a video game or watching a DVD will keep your CPU thinking and your hard drive spinning. Buy an iPod if you really want to listen to music while you work.
  • Lastly, for the techies: If you want to get under the hood and chase further savings, use Windows Task Manager to shut down unnecessary services.

Other General Pointers: Thinking for the Longer-Term

When you are purchasing a laptop, there are a few things to keep in mind. First off, big wide screens are really nice, but they eat batteries. If you plan to do lots of traveling, consider a smaller 12- or 14-inch screen. And max out on the RAM: More RAM means less hard drive activity. Also, look for an optional internal battery that has more “cells” than the standard battery. It will cost a bit more, but the extra battery life is almost always worth it.

If you don’t mind the extra cost or weight, for some laptops you can get an extra external battery that snaps on the side or back. Or you can simply buy an extra internal battery that you can keep in your carry-on bag to swap in when the first one wears down. Adding a second battery will usually at least double your battery’s life.

The batteries in new laptops will rarely be fully charged. It is very important to make sure they are fully charged the first time they are plugged in. And ideally, you should run through several charge cycles (fully charged to fully discharged) in the first week or so of use. Although less important now than it used to be, it is also still helpful to go through at least one full charge cycle every month.

Remember, too, that batteries like room temperature. If they are too hot (like inside a car that is sitting out in the sun), they will drain very quickly. And if they are too cold (near or below freezing), they will be very weak. You should store laptop batteries in a fully charged state.

In addition, laptop batteries will lose their capacity to hold a full charge after a few to several hundred charge cycles. When your battery will no longer hold a full charge, it is time for a new one. This brings up one last point—remember that the chemicals in batteries are not very environmentally friendly, so please take the time to make sure all your old batteries are properly recycled.

After all of that, I bet you will have a plug at your seat on your next flight! See you next month with some more battery tips for other devices.

About the Author

Dan Pinnington helps lawyers avoid malpractice claims and looks for good tech tips in Toronto, ON. He is an editor of the Law Practice Today Webzine.

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