Mobile Computing: Make Notebook Batteries Last

More than ten tips for getting more from a battery.

Feature: Boosting Your Notebook’s Battery

Nothing’s worse than having piles of work to finish on an airline flight–and your notebook battery starts to die. Okay, so maybe a dead car battery that leaves you stranded in a steep gulch as flood waters rapidly engulf you is a little worse. But not much.

With some tweaking here and there, you can keep your notebook battery running longer. Read on for details…

Configure Your Notebook’s Power Settings

Your notebook’s display and hard drive are its two biggest battery hogs. But you can control them by using a Windows XP Control Panel utility called Power Options. (Earlier versions of Windows offer similar power-saving options in the Control Panel, too.)

Go to the Start menu, click Control Panel, and then open Power Options. On the Power Schemes tab, select Portable/Laptop from the top drop-down menu. In the “Settings for” area, you can tell your notebook to act differently depending on the power source. For example, you can set the hard disk to never turn off when the computer is plugged into an AC adapter and to stop spinning after 3 minutes when on battery power. However, I recommend that you not allow hibernation to kick in too early, because notebooks take a minute or so to come out of that state.

After fiddling with the settings, you can save them to the Portable/Laptop scheme or as a new scheme: Click the Save As button, leave “Portable/Laptop” or enter a new name, and click OK.

Use Stand By and Hibernate Appropriately

Windows XP provides two battery-saving sleep modes for your computer: Stand By, which is kind of like snoozing; and Hibernate, which is deep, rapid-eye-movement-style slumber (with snoring provided by the man next to you in coach).

In Stand By mode, your display and hard drive are shut down and all open applications and files are stored in RAM. This allows your notebook to wake up quickly, but a low level of power is required to maintain this somnambular state. Bottom line: Use Stand By for brief intervals when you won’t need the computer–you’re stretching your legs on a long flight, for instance.

With Hibernate, everything is powered down and the contents of RAM are stored on your hard drive. Hibernate mode uses less power than Stand By, but takes a bit longer to resume. Bottom line: Hibernate is the ticket when you won’t be using your computer for a while–you’re changing planes at the airport, say–but you want to resume work faster than you could after a complete system shutdown.

When you choose Start, Turn Off Computer in Windows XP, your options are Stand By, Turn Off, and Restart. To Hibernate, place the cursor over Stand By, then hold down Shift and click.

Stick to the Essentials

Turn off scheduled tasks.

Windows XP lets you easily prevent scheduled and automated tasks (which can consume battery power) from occurring when you’re running on batteries. Here’s how to set that up: Select Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and then Scheduled Tasks. Right-click a scheduled task in the list (such as Norton AntiVirus) and click Properties. Select the Settings tab. Under Power Management, click to chose the following: “Don’t start the task if the computer is running on batteries” and “Stop the task if battery mode begins.” Click OK to save your changes.

Adjust your display.

Dimming your display can save battery power. Most notebooks today include keyboard keys for adjusting brightness and contrast.

Turn off or unplug nonessential devices.

PC Card modems, external USB devices, and so on can drain power even when idle.

Shut down wireless networking unless you need it.

A wireless network PC Card or built-in chip set can drain power, too.

Don’t play music on your notebook.

Listening to a music CD or digital music files on your notebook is another battery drain. Instead, pack a portable MP3 or CD player in your carry-on; better to drain its batteries than your notebook’s.

Don’t play DVDs, either. Watching a DVD movie is one of the biggest battery-sucking activities. You could pack a portable DVD player instead, but they’re expensive–some go for nearly 00–and it’s yet one more thing to pack.

Consider Some Purchases

Look into a notebook alternative.

PDAs can run on batteries far longer than the typical notebook can. So instead of packing your notebook, consider a Pocket PC equipped with a landline or wireless modem and an external keyboard, for example. Sure, the PDA screen is much smaller than a notebook’s, and PDA applications are more limited. But you can keep typing hours after your seatmate’s ThinkPad has expired.

Another option is AlphaSmart’s Dana (0), a Palm OS-based full-size keyboard with an LCD, which can run for up to 25 hours on a single charge. And when its rechargeable battery runs out, you can pop in three AAA batteries and keep going.

Get a notebook with long-lasting batteries.

If you’re in the market for a new notebook, put long battery life high on your list of features. Notebooks based on Intel’s new Pentium M, especially those implementing the full Centrino architecture (which includes the Pentium M along with Intel’s 855 chip set and the company’s 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, hardware), are among the best in terms of battery performance. For example, Toshiba’s Centrino-based Tecra M1 lasted 7 hours, 6 minutes–longer than any other notebook we’ve tested. You can shop for the latest Tecra prices (beginning around 00) at the PCWorld.com Product Finder.

Replace your notebook’s battery regularly.

You should swap in a new battery about every 18 months. Most notebooks today use lithium-ion batteries, which don’t have the memory-loss problems of older notebook batteries. Still, even rechargeable lithium-ion batteries lose their ability to hold a charge over time. Shop for the latest prices on your notebook battery at our Product Finder by typing in your notebook’s name or model number into the search field.


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