Mobility

How to stop roaming battery drain on your mobile devices

Roaming mobile devices consume more power than normal day-to-day operations around town. Find out why and what you can do about it.

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Image: iStock/milindri

I went on a camping trip to New York City with my son's Boy Scout troop earlier this month. We stayed at Camp Pouch, without the benefits of electricity or running water. Actually, to be fair, there was one electrical outlet - in the camp bathroom.

As you can imagine, we had issues with battery life on our mobile devices and keeping these devices fed was a tough challenge. We had portable chargers and so forth, but since we were schlepping around New York without these we often had to make do with what we found. The Staten Island Ferry was instrumental in providing electrical outlets for charging and I even took advantage of wall outlets during our United Nations tour (shameless, I know).

Now, camping should go hand-in-hand with putting mobile devices out of our hands and enjoying the scenery.

In fact, that's what we do on a normal trip. But camping in New York, the most urban of urban areas, isn't a normal trip. We needed our phones for map navigation, to take pictures, to communicate with one another, to book attraction reservations and to look up interesting statistics along the way.

Being from Massachusetts, we had the additional burden of dealing with device roaming, which seemed to accelerate battery drain. It wasn't carrier-specific, so I couldn't blame my provider (Sprint). The drain was so bad that even a minute or two of using Google Maps or Facebook depleted the battery by up to 3-5%.

I wrote an article a couple of years ago discussing ways to improve Android battery life and these tips still hold valid, so some of them did seem to help such as turning off Wi-Fi/Bluetooth, stopping all unnecessary apps, turning on power saving mode on my Android, lowering the brightness on my screen and, when things got desperate, putting the phone in airplane mode to switch off the data access entirely.

Monitoring applications is a good principle. On an Android, you can go to Settings, Battery then Battery Usage to see what's eating your battery life so you can adjust accordingly. For iOS, Settings, General, Usage then Battery Usage should do it. I also found a nifty trick to switch my phone to grayscale mode for maximum battery efficiency: these steps worked on my Samsung Galaxy S5 but should be comparable for other Androids:

Go to "Settings," "About phone" (or "About device") then enable Developer mode by tapping the build number several times.

Go to Settings, Developer Options and look under the Hardware accelerated rendering section

You will see option called Simulate color space - click it and set it to Monochromacy

For iOS, go to Settings, General, Accessibility and toggle on Grayscale.

I muddled through, sometimes making my phone last to 10 pm with all of 1 or 2% power remaining, then used the sole electrical outlet at the campsite to charge up. But the experience made me wonder: "Why does roaming seem to put such pressure on mobile device batteries?"

After researching, it's apparent that when you're roaming your device is searching for a signal more frequently - even in a congested area such as Manhattan. We were switching between cell towers during our travels, and even though it was an urban area the act of moving about stressed the data connection. Basically, my phone was bellowing: "Hey, is anyone out there? Oh, good, there's a cell tower. Oh, wait, that tower is now out of reach. Hey, any other towers out there? Oh, good..." and so forth. All that bellowing takes energy.

Going down into the subway didn't help either, of course, but by that time I was vigilant about using airplane mode. It's a situation that doesn't have an immediate solution - but an alternative fix is to beef up the batteries involved so as to reduce the headaches with quick draining times and the scramble to find power inputs.

Pocket-lint.com reported some interesting developments on battery evolution last month. The news is exciting as well as reassuring, because it means an end to all of these ridiculous reindeer games of trying to get an extra 5% of battery life or finding an unused electrical outlet on the Staten Island Ferry.

In essence, an array of new technologies is going to make battery life much more durable and reliable in the not-so-distant future. As the article states, gold nanowire batteries - "a thousand times thinner than a human hair" - are going to yield phones possessing batteries which never wear out. Solid state lithium-ion batteries will allow much more rapid charging ("a battery that can operate at super capacitor levels to completely charge or discharge in just seven minutes") are just one of several examples provided in the article (note that the article references using this kind of batter for cars, but the same principles will hopefully apply for other resources such as mobile devices and many other concepts will do the same). Fuel cells allowing for less frequent phone charging demands, foam batteries which are more durable and charge more speedily, solid-state batteries which last longer and are more efficient, and aluminum graphite batteries which can charge a smartphone to 100% in a single minute are also forthcoming.

But it gets even better. If all goes according to plan (a big "if," I know), one day we will enjoy the benefits of batteries which run on water and last for weeks, skin-powered batteries, more powerful portable battery chargers, foldable/flexible batteries for more durable usage, over-the-air charging capabilities, dew-powered and solar chargers (above and beyond what currently exists) and even sound, sand and urine-powered chargers. Yes, let the jokes commence on this last, but when you think about the grim struggle now to maintain that elusive 100% charge on a smartphone, I think it's a joke we can all appreciate the value of.

New York is a city rich with history, but one element which I'm looking forward to burying in the past is the race to keep mobile devices powered up when on the go. Roaming among networks may still consume excess power down the road (though I am hoping 5G will help solve this, as well as a more thorough and consistent transition between carrier towers/access points). However, it's good to know the foundation of any mobile device - the battery, without which you've got a meaningless hunk of plastic and silicon - will rise to meet the challenges thanks to new developments in technology.

See also:

The decline of unlimited mobile data plans

Quick Tip: Take advantage of Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode

Plan your roaming data options wisely

10 tips to improve Android battery life

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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