Three years of laptop battery life explored

has laptop battery life really improved improvment macro
The dream of portable computing became reality in 1975 with IBM’s release of the 5100, the world’s first packable PC. Featuring a five-inch display and lacking a battery, the system weighed 55 pounds but was only the size of a modest suitcase, which made it an incredible feat by the standards of the era. Briefcase computers with batteries didn’t appear until the early 1980s, and the laptop as we know it today, with flip-up display and tray-sized chassis, wasn’t envisioned until the 1982 release of the Grid Compass 1101, a now little-known device sold primarily to governments (it was even used on the Space Shuttle).

Today virtually every notebook is a clamshell — even 2-in-1s revert to that common design in laptop mode — and all have a battery. Yet the evolution of portability is far from over. Portable systems continue to shrink as their endurance increases. To take a look at how far notebooks have come, and gain insight on where they might go, I’ve analyzed the last three years of battery life tests at Digital Trends. The results prove notebooks have never been better, but some still have a long way to go.

Testing Explained

We’ve used a common battery life test at Digital Trends for several years. It’s a simple exercise that involves running Peacekeeper’s web browsing on loop until a notebook’s battery is dead. We then record how long the system lasted.


Several years ago we used a program called Battery Eater, which could be used in idle mode, to make a run time assessment. Microsoft added a battery life report to Windows 8, however, so we’ve used that ever since. You can generate the same form of report on any Windows 8 (or newer) laptop by opening the command line interface and typing “powercfg /batteryreport” without the quotation marks.

To make sure the testing is fair we calibrate display brightness to 100 lux. This ensures battery life results are not thrown off simply because one notebook has a brighter display than a competitor.

Our results span the second half of 2012, all of 2013 and 2014, and these first few months of 2015, for about three years of time in total. That’s not long, but it’s enough to turn up some big changes.

Average battery life

An average is the easiest figure to examine when trying to gain an overall sense of system performance over time, even if it’s not always the most accurate or insightful. To start off, have a look at this comparison of average battery life for all laptops and notebooks we’ve reviewed from each year. Note that we’ve included 2-in-1s, but did not include portable all-in-ones like the Lenovo Horizon 27.

Average battery life

The trend here is obvious. Though the improvement seems to stall a bit in the 2013 to 2014 range, the overall increase in battery life is significant. In 2012 we recorded an all-system average of three hours and 49 minutes, but by this year that increased to six hours and 21 minutes, for a total improvement of about two and a half hours.

Actually, though, these numbers are a bit low, because they include gaming notebooks, a notorious source of low battery life figures. Here’s what the averages look like if we put gamers on the sideline.

Average battery life, without gaming notebooks

Taking the gaming notebooks out of the picture does make the improvement over time smoother, as there’s now a sizable leap from 2013 to 2014, which was not the case before. These figures show that average endurance has climbed from four hours and 27 minutes to an incredible six hours and 59 minutes, which once again is a gain of about two and a half hours.

Median battery life

While an average can be insightful, it can be thrown askew by particularly high or low results. It’s possible that the battery life of a typical system is actually much worse than these numbers imply, and boosted by a few exceptionally good results, or vice-versa. Taking a look at the median would let us hunt down just such an issue.

Median battery life, without gaming notebooks

These results mostly don’t show any evidence of the average being thrown off, since the median is usually close to the average. The exception is this year, 2015, where the median is over an hour behind the average result. So far in 2015 we’ve seen several systems with endurance nearing or topping 10 hours, which absolutely destroys the best previous systems, but there are also some notebooks that haven’t witnessed as much improvement. Which brings us to the next point.

The gap between best and worst is growing

A recently as 2012, the best notebooks on the market could manage five hours of life on a good day. Life spanning a workday was unheard of outside of notebooks that could equip an optional extended life battery. As a result the range between the systems with the best and worst endurance was rather slim and, according to our records, was once below two hours.

Battery life range, without gaming notebooks

The range between best and worst doubled from 2012 to 2013. This sudden spike coincides with Haswell, better known as 4th-generation Core, which proved far more efficient than previous chips. With one exception, the Toshiba Kirabook, no notebook we reviewed in 2013 lacking a 4th-gen Core processor scored better than six hours of life, and most were below five hours.

A smaller increase appeared in 2014, which again makes sense, because Intel (mostly) didn’t release a new architecture. The latest Broadwell architecture was technically available as Core M in a couple notebooks, one of which, the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro, we reviewed. But it did not score well in our endurance test because of its small battery.

Now, of course, the 5th-generation has launched en masse — and it’s paying off with excellent life for some notebooks. Others, though, have failed to bottle Intel’s lightening. Certain manufacturers have taken the more efficient processors as an opportunity to reduce battery size and save weight, resulting in extremely thin systems. Whether the choice makes sense is arguable, since thinner and lighter systems look better and are easier to carry, but it certainly doesn’t look good in battery tests.

The improvements are real, but you still need to buy the right notebook

Our benchmark history shows a huge gain in battery life over the past few years. In 2012 the best entries could just barely crawl above five hours, but now the best can manage over ten hours. That’s the difference between a notebook that conks out after a half-day of use and one that lets you end a workday with a couple hours to spare.

There’s been a huge gain in battery life over the last few years.

As the growing range of results proves, you’re not guaranteed to reap the rewards of this general gain. While you’re likely to see a major leap from a three- to five-year-old system if you buy any comparably priced modern notebook, there are still models that fall behind the curve, so careful selection is needed if you value portability. This is true even among mobile systems, as some of the biggest disappointments in 2015, from an endurance perspective, have been small entries like the Asus T300 Chi.

Never let it be said that modern notebooks haven’t improved over their predecessors. It’s true that most aging systems are adequate, but new models are a big improvement, and better battery life is a major reason why.


HyperX gives the Fury DDR4 memory line a face-lift and adds RGB lighting

HyperX has refreshed the popular Fury DDR4 line up with a new look and added LED lighting to the Fury DDR4 RGB. The memory is plug-and-play ready and has predefined Intel XMP profiles for optimal performance.

The best indie games on Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch's portability makes indies feel at home on the platform. Luckily, there are plenty of great titles to choose from. Here are our picks for the best Nintendo Switch indie games.

It’s time to check out the best Apple Watch deals for August 2019

The Apple Watch has surged to prominence in recent years. If you're in the market for an iOS wearable, we've sniffed out the best Apple Watch deals available right now for all three models of this great smartwatch.

The best Nintendo Switch games

The Nintendo Switch's lineup started off small, but games have steadily released as the console continues through its second year. Here are the best Nintendo Switch games available now.

Apple MacBook Air vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 6

The MacBook Air was updated with more contemporary components and a more modern design, but is that enough to compete with standouts like Microsoft's Surface Pro 6 detachable tablet?

Alienware’s new monitors and gaming peripherals complement new Aurora R9 design

Alienware unveiled a variety of gaming monitors, mice, and keyboards to match the black-and-white styling found on the Aurora R9 desktop and the Alienware laptops. These peripherals also come with more responsive performance.

Exclusive: How Alienware dared to ditch black, boxy designs for something radical

A new gaming Legend is born this year. Alienware unveiled its new Aurora R9 desktop with the Legend design language. Join us as Alienware designers talk about Legend was conceived and what the new design means for gaming.

Alienware’s redesigned Aurora R9 brings stunning, sci-fi-inspired aesthetics

The Alienware Aurora R9 looks unlike any other gaming desktop you may have seen. This year's black-and-white-themed desktop takes inspiration from airplanes and jet engines, giving it a more modern aesthetic than last year's R8.

Minecraft, Watch Dogs, Call of Duty boost ray-traced games list to a handful

The list of games that support Nvidia's RTX-driven ray tracing technology are closing in on 10, thanks to a number of new announcements at Gamescom 2019. One of the big ones is that ray tracing is officially coming to Minecraft.

Google Stadia: Everything we know so far

Google Stadia could be the game streaming service that finally does it right. High-resolution, HDR gaming, at high-frame rates for anyone in the world on almost any device? It's a tall order, but if anyone can do it, it's Google.

Best Labor Day sales: Amazon, Walmart, and Home Depot drop early deals

Labor Day 2019 lands on Monday, September 2 this year. We've gathered all of the information you need to prepare yourself for the many sales to come, from REI to Walmart and everything in between.

Walmart drops $150 off the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 with S Pen included

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 10.5-inch Tablet with S Pen is available in 64GB and 256GB models and Walmart is giving $150 off to both variants, selling it now for $498 and $598, respectively.

The best Chromebook deals available in August 2019

Whether you want a compact laptop to enjoy some entertainment on the go, or you need a no-nonsense machine for school or work, we've smoked out the best cheap Chromebook deals -- from full-sized laptops to 2-in-1 convertibles -- that won't…

The 2018 Apple iPad Pro Wi-Fi tablet gets a huge $124 discount on Amazon

If you have been holding off on buying the Apple iPad Pro because of its price, now is the time. The best tablet for 2019 gets a $124 discount on Amazon today. This deal is more affordable than the one we previously found.