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Talking Shop: Extend the life of your laptop's battery

Squeeze more time out of your laptop system with these tips


With today’s power-hungry OSs, laptop batteries rarely last more than three hours at a stretch. If you’re on an airline flight without the newer laptop power outlets, or just like to work “untethered” for as long as possible, try out the tips in this Daily Drill Down and you may squeeze more time out of your system.

Start from the source: Condition your batteries
If you have a recent model laptop, it most likely uses a lithium ion (LION) battery. The advantages of this battery are its lighter weight and a greater power-for-weight ratio. For instance, one LION battery lasts about as long as three nickel metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries. In addition, LION batteries don’t have to be discharged before recharging, last for many more recharges than the other types, and don’t suffer from slowly diminishing charges—what has been called the “memory effect” of NiMH cells. But no matter what battery you own, periodic conditioning allows it to work more efficiently. According to Compaq, the conditioning cycle also helps calibrate the battery gauge that appears in the taskbar. So look for a calibration or conditioning program and run it every two months or so. For more information on batteries, read ”Maximizing laptop and cell phone battery life.”

Plug in an extra battery
Some laptops are designed with more than one battery port. For example, the Compaq Armada E500 I’m using to type this Daily Drill Down lets you pop out the floppy disk and pop in a battery in its place. These days, who needs the floppy drive anyway? A special multibay battery can take the place of the CD-ROM. If you don’t mind the extra pounds, three batteries might buy you up to eight or nine hours of laptop life. That might be enough to fly the U.S. coast to coast, including layovers and delays, without taking a break from work. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Slow down the processor
Although I love the way a fast processor loads programs (it almost reminds me of the DOS days), for most of my daily work, 500 MHz is more power than my programs need to run at their best. This is true for most of us—processors running at blistering speeds haven’t actually sped up our productivity using most programs. Before you take your laptop on the road, check your power-management settings and determine whether battery conservation choices will let you slow down your CPU. You’ll keep the same productivity, and your batteries will last longer. Figure A shows Compaq’s power settings.

Figure A
Check whether your laptop has a program, like this Compaq does, allowing you to slow down a racing processor to conserve battery power.


Make a special low-power hardware profile
Many users don’t take advantage of the ability to create hardware profiles in Windows 98. Customizing a low-power hardware profile will save you setup time later. What’s a hardware profile? Laptop users often have two profiles, automatically set by Windows 98—a docked profile and an undocked profile. When you boot your computer away from its docking station, the undocked profile kicks in, with the appropriate settings. For example, you may be changing from a monitor to the laptop’s own LCD screen, from a built-in network interface card to a PC card modem, or from external to battery power. Or you may be removing access to such peripherals as CD-ROMs and diskette drives. Hardware profiles keep track of these changes for you and automatically (you hope) choose the correct video, device, and drivers.

Here’s how to create your own low-power hardware profile. First, if your computer is docked, shut it down and undock it. Then turn it on and boot into Windows 98. Next, open the System Properties applet in Control Panel by double-clicking the System icon. Select the Hardware Profiles tab. You probably will have only one profile visible—your undocked profile. Select it and click Copy. You’ll be asked to give your new profile a name. Call it Undocked Low Power and click OK. When you’ve finished, your screen should look like the one in Figure B.

Figure b
Copying a new hardware profile prepares the way to customize your laptop’s power settings.


Note that the dialog box offers no way to edit a hardware profile. To modify most settings in your profile, you need to actually be booted into it. There are some exceptions, but this is the easiest way to make changes. Click OK to exit the System applet.

Now that you’ve copied the undocked profile, restart your laptop. You’ll see a new boot menu, asking which profile you want to use. Choose the number that corresponds to the new Undocked Low Power profile. Go back to the System applet, but this time select the Device Manager tab. Here, you’ll disable all devices you don’t need while using battery power. Doing so will put less strain on the processor and, therefore, the battery. As a side effect, you may also find that Windows 98 is finally running at the speed you want.

In Device Manager, you’ll see a tree view of the types of devices you have on your laptop. Select Floppy Disk Controllers and double-click to open a list of your machine’s controllers. Mine reads Standard Floppy Disk Controller. I like to disable the floppy disk drive, which I hardly use, so I’ll use this as an example. Right-click on your controller and select Properties. The General tab of the properties sheet will open up. Select the option Disable In This Hardware Profile and click OK. Your setting will be stored in the Undocked Low Power profile and will not affect other profiles. If you need your floppy disk back at a later time, all you have to do is deselect the option. Click OK to save the new setting. Now note that in the listing, a red x appears over the disabled device.

Using the same procedure, disable all devices you won’t need. Here is a list of possibilities:
  • Floppy disk
  • CD-ROM
  • Infrared Communications Device
  • Network PC cards
  • Printer and COM ports (I use a COM port for hotsyncing a Palm PDA, so I leave that enabled)
  • Sound cards
  • USB controller
  • PC card controllers and services

Figure C shows my Device Manager after I’ve disabled several drivers, ports, and peripherals. When you’ve finished making changes, click OK to close the applet. Reboot your computer, if necessary. Remember that only these changes are saved in your hardware profile. The rest of the changes suggested in this Daily Drill Down are saved in the registry and affect every hardware profile. You’ll want to change them back when you aren’t on the road.

Figure C
You can use Device Manager to disable devices.


Use battery conservation settings
Slowing down your CPU is only one of many possible settings available to extend your useful battery life. Check your power conservation program to set the following features (look in Control Panel or in your system tray) when the computer is on battery, idle, or low on power.
  • Dim the brightness of the screen.
  • Go to standby mode.
  • Hibernate the computer.
  • Turn off hard disks.
  • Turn off the monitor.

If you notice that a setting, such as going to standby, doesn’t play nice with Windows 98, disable it.

Simplify your display
Everything having to do with the display—such as using fancy wallpapers or millions rather than hundreds of colors—consumes processor cycles. Here are a few tips to help you reduce the power sucked out of your laptop by your display.

Turn off screen savers
Those moving star fields or whirling polygons not only consume processor cycles when you’re not using the computer, but when you are, a background timer has to check whether the computer is idle and count down the moments until the screen saver activates. Eliminating this background process cuts out one more power hit. If you want a screen saver, set it to Blank Screen.

Special effects are great, but they’ll cost you
To turn off some of the battery-depleting goodies, right-click on a blank area of the desktop and select Properties. Now click the Effects tab. Then, deselect these options:
  • Show Icons Using All Possible Colors
  • Animate Windows, Menus And Lists
  • Smooth Edges Of Screen Fonts
  • Show Windows Contents While Dragging

Use a lower color setting
Next, activate the Settings tab. Unless you’re working on a graphics-intensive project, you can get by with 256 colors. Change the number of colors displayed to 256.

Paint it black
Next, click the Background tab. In the Background list, choose None. That way, you’ve gotten rid of expensive wallpaper.

Click the Appearance tab for the next power savers.

Decolorize your desktop display
These days, Windows 98 desktop colors offer a graduated color change in window title bars. The slowly changing color from left to right means a prettier desktop, but also more colors for the monitor to draw. On the Appearance tab, you’ll see the Item drop-down list. Select Active Title Bar from this list. Now look over to the right at the two swatches called Color and Color 2. Click on the color swatch under Color 2 to make it the same as that under Color. Then, return to the Item list, select Inactive Title Bar, and do the same thing.

Finally, select Desktop from the drop-down list and change its color to black. A black desktop uses the least amount of power.

At this point, click the Save As button and give this new theme a name. I call mine Low Power. Saving the display settings lets you go back and forth between your favorite theme and your low-power theme, for those powered-up times when you want a more lively computing experience.

Eighty-six your system tray icons
A lot of programs like to place an icon in the system tray. These programs are actually running in the background. At this moment, my system tray includes icons for Norton AntiVirus, Microsoft’s Task Scheduler, a battery monitor, sound status, display properties, and my Pilot Hotsync Manager. It would be far better to remove all nonessential startups from the system tray and put them in a place where they won’t drain your laptop’s power (or Windows 98 resources, for that matter). For my example, I want to leave Norton AntiVirus, as well as the battery monitor. The others can all be taken off. I don’t need the task scheduler—if I want to defragment the hard disk or tune applications using Walign, I can do it manually.

There are many ways to remove system tray icons. You could, for instance, check to see whether each program has a menu option to take it off the Startup menu. Or you could edit the registry (as well as Win.ini and Sys.ini) and remove some files from C:\Windows\Start Menu.

The easiest way to get rid of system tray icons is to run Msconfig. Choose Start | Run, and type Msconfig, then press [Enter]. The System Configuration Utility (Msconfig) will pop up. Choose the Startup tab. Simply deselect the programs you don’t want running when Windows boots, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
The System Configuration Utility, Msconfig, helps you maintain your startup programs.


You probably want shortcuts to these programs somewhere. You could place shortcuts on your desktop, but then the screen will have to repaint them. You could place them on Microsoft’s Quick Launch bar, but that is similar to placing them on the desktop. I recommend placing shortcuts to necessary programs on the Start menu. Doing this is easy.
  • Open Windows Explorer.
  • Drag the shortcut icon over to the Start button, or, if there is no shortcut, find the .exe file you want a shortcut to and drag its icon over to the Start button.
  • Hover the icon there until the Start menu pops up.
  • Continue to drag the icon into position, then release the mouse button.

Get rid of desktop sprawl
The idea here is to reduce the number of colors the screen has to constantly repaint. Besides, it’s always a good idea to periodically clean up your desktop. Delete icons you don’t need, move shortcuts you do need onto the Start menu, and store files elsewhere. If you haven’t done spring-cleaning on your desktop in a while, maybe it’s time to make some new folders.

Set a permanent swap file—and save hard disk use
One of the first things I do when setting up Windows is to be sure I set a permanent swap file. So I was surprised to learn, when checking my settings for this Daily Drill Down, that I had neglected this useful system change. The problem with letting Windows manage the swap file (which contains information swapped out of RAM) is that it will eventually become fragmented, causing more hard disk use. In addition, Windows 98 will change the size of the file as needed, and this also creates drive use and a power hit.

To set a permanent swap file, first defragment your hard drive. Then, open the System applet in Control Panel and click the Performance tab. Note the amount of RAM available. I use two times the amount of RAM for the swap file. In my case, I have 64 MB of RAM, so my target swap file size will be 128 MB.

Now, click the Virtual Memory button at the bottom of the Performance tab. In the resulting dialog box, the Let Windows Manage My Virtual Memory Settings (Recommended) option will be enabled. Click the Let Me Specify My Own Memory Settings option. Set the minimum and maximum sizes (in MB) to the same value. Then click OK. Read the warning message that follows, then click OK and restart your computer. You’ve just created a defragmented, contiguous swap file that will slow down hard drive use. Figure E shows the Virtual Memory dialog box.

Figure E
Set your permanent swap file to the same minimum and maximum values.


Use CpuIdle
CpuIdle is a shareware program that’s designed to cool CPUs by actually halting them when idle. Not only does a cooler CPU last longer, but a halted CPU saves power. You should notice no performance lag at all while using this program.

What’s the power savings?
Let’s put it this way: If you could apply tips like these to your home, your power bill would go down 25 percent. Using the tips in this Daily Drill Down, I was able to add an hour to my battery’s life—from four to over five hours. I can vouch for these techniques: Saving power was vital when my fellow editor David Bard and I took a recent high-tech trip to the Himalayas. Your results will vary with the type of work you do, the amount of windows you open concurrently, the condition of your battery, and how you tune your laptop. Still, I’d be surprised if you didn’t gain a significant power savings from these tips.

Mike Jackman is an editor in chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.

The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein, but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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