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A Wireless World, Bound To Sockets
Consumers Crave Better Batteries for Gadgets

By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

Here's the paradox of the portable age: The electronic devices that free people to go anywhere but never lose touch also keep them bound by cords and plugs to electric sockets. Sophisticated devices with color screens, video and gaming features demand more of the batteries that power them and, without steady recharging, their users plunge from being in touch to feeling impotent.

"I usually have to recharge it at two-hour intervals," salesman Joe Kammerer said of his laptop computer. "Then it starts complaining that it needs food. . . . It stresses me out."

So Kammerer learned the art of socket-seeking. "I sit strategically in the corner of a conference room," which is close enough to a wall to use a plug, the Washington resident said. "Sit on the floor at the airport? I totally do that."

So do his fellow travelers. "I've gotten, 'Are you going to be long?' and I say, 'Sorry. I just got here.'"

The cycle of renewing battery life has introduced new rituals around the modern trough -- a power strip -- where devices are hooked up to charge overnight like animals watering in a stable. Handhelds and cell phones go in their cradles before bed. Bookcases and beds shift to make way for bulky chargers that cover both sockets, leaving the bedside lamp without power. The laptop, digital camera and iPod play musical chairs on the wall. Drive time becomes critical charge time.

The cycle is irksome for some. Darcy Travlos, a senior analyst for the research firm CreditSights, said she keeps her devices charged in the kitchen, where the toaster and coffee maker take a back seat to the cell phone and iPod. On the road, it's less predictable. "You're a well-dressed professional, and you end up sitting on the floor next to whatever is needing to be charged," she said.

"It's the most important and least-talked-about issue in consumer electronics," said Travlos, who carries a bag full of chargers when she travels. "Everybody's working on battery life."

Each year, batteries become more powerful and circuitry improvements make devices more energy-efficient. Still, batteries can't keep up with of rising expectations for longer life.

Thousands of consumers settled with Apple Inc. this month, after owners of early versions of the iPod complained about its built-in battery.

PalmOne Inc., Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and many others are putting muscle behind making batteries last longer. In the past few years, Intel started investing in small companies that work on prolonging or preserving battery life, and now has five such investments. Motorola Ventures, Motorola's investment unit, funded A123 Systems, a company developing more-efficient lithium-ion batteries.

Venture-capital companies are getting more interested in battery-power-related investments, said R. Philip Herget, a partner in Alexandria-based Columbia Capital LLC. The company invested in a start-up called Enpirion that manages power in devices, he said, and is looking at other companies. "Power management is critical," he said.

"Battery life is one of the most important things for our customers," said Raj Doshi, product line manager for handhelds at PalmOne Inc., which in April released the Tungsten E2 handheld, lighter and with double the battery life of the previous version. The new handheld is 4.7 ounces, compared with its five-ounce predecessor. "I tell the engineers I want the most battery in a smaller battery size," Doshi said, but that simple request requires huge technological advances.

Scientists are getting better at mixing the right chemicals to get more power out of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, but there are cost and physical limitations on how much energy can go into a small cell. Intel is testing battery technology and working with hardware manufacturers to introduce laptops usable for roughly eight hours without external power. Those computers could be on the market by 2008.

Today, people are still locked in a power struggle. David Wochner, a lawyer in Washington, last week called the tech department at his firm because his BlackBerry appeared not to be taking a charge. "I'm now down to two bars and I'm getting really nervous," he said. "The fact that you have to keep track of charging and making sure you're getting it done is a pain. The phone is driving me bananas."

In technology circles, experts sing about the promise of convergence -- phone, computing, e-mail, television, gaming and photography on one device -- yet most people still carry separate gadgets for each function. And that requires a host of different chargers.

"I have so many chargers, can I just tell you?" Kammerer said, rattling off the list: Two laptop chargers -- one at work, one in the briefcase. Another for the iPod, "although the cord is too short, so you can't plug it in and put it on the table, so it mostly stays on the floor."

He has more than a dozen chargers for his cell phone. There's one in the bedroom, where he puts his spare change, so that he won't forget to stick the phone in his pocket each morning. "I leave one in my suitcase in the front pocket. It kind of lives there" so he won't forget it when he travels. He remembers running to stores between meetings to replace forgotten chargers, or bumming one off of a client. Kammerer has "a charger graveyard" of a dozen or more spares he bought on business trips.

"If you switch [cell phone] brands, it won't work," Kammerer said of his many chargers. "I wish they were standardized. My briefcase gets heavy."

Manufacturers argue that providing their own chargers ensures the quality of the service, said Jeff Joseph, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association. Also, at $30 to $50 for a charger, "it's an important revenue source."

There is a new universal power adapter called iGo that comes with specialized tips, each about the size of a bottle cap, that can be exchanged to fit different devices -- iPods, almost any cell phone, laptops, BlackBerrys. It can also charge several devices at once.

"The average consumer carries 5.5 power devices," said Charles R. Mollo, president and chief executive of Mobility Electronics Inc., which makes the iGo. "The key problem we solve is to make life easier."

All griping about battery power aside, many users agree that today's mobile devices are an improvement on what came before. Remember the days of 20-pound "portable" computers and breadbox-size boomboxes weighted down with D-size batteries?

"There's no way I'd ever be willing to go back to the way it used to be," Wochner said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company