This amazing new antenna could stretch phone battery life, but nobody’s using it

ZTE Nubia Z9
The antenna in your phone is more than just a lazy strip of metal.

As Apple’s infamous Antennagate fiasco taught us, snatching radio waves out of thin air to transmit thousands of messages a second over miles and miles is not quite that simple. Just as poor antenna design (or an errant hand) can ruin reception, “tuning” an antenna just right can significantly improve reception, lowering power consumption in the process and extending battery life.

How fortuitous, then, that an amazing new gadget can better tune your phone’s antenna to achieve all of those things. It could even be in your phone right now, or your next one. However, its battery-extending benefits may never be realized, because phone companies don’t want them.

A smarter antenna

Before you can understand why, it helps to understand how antenna tuning works.

An antenna’s size corresponds directly to the radio frequency it’s designed to receive. An FM radio antenna, for instance, needs to be longer than a Wi-Fi antenna. But since a phone sold globally must support up to 40 different frequency bands, optimizing for all of them is impossible. Unless you can adjust the antenna on the fly to match frequencies as they change, it’s impossible to have the best antenna for your phone in every single situation.

A phone sold globally must support up to 40 different frequency bands, optimizing for all of them is impossible.

The SmarTune antenna from the Dutch firm Cavendish Kinetics replaces less efficient antenna tuners that aren’t up to the job. It uses a special capacitor to perfectly match the “electrical length” of antenna to the required frequency, boosting an antenna’s gain by 3db. Ignoring the tech talk, in real terms, that’s doubling its ability to grab a signal, and is the equivalent of extending the antenna outside the body of the device, just like on the earliest mobile phones.

It took Cavendish eight years to perfect the design, but it’s now cheap enough to sell on a mass scale, and ultrareliable. There are moving parts inside, but it has been tested to 100 billion cycles, which is the equivalent of it being used once a second for the next 3,000 years.

More than just more bars

If a manufacturer uses the Cavendish tuner and gets that 3db gain, base stations give the phone priority when connecting due to the strong signal, which means a stronger, faster connection. In turn, every component required to drive a phone — from finding a signal, to activating and running the modem, to using the chip to process incoming data — works for a shorter amount of time. According to Lars Johnsson, VP of Product Marketing for Cavendish Kinetics, that could result in up to 45-percent power savings, due to components not having to be active for so long.

Of course, Johnsson was quick to point out that when we are given more power, data, and signal, we tend to use our phones more, and that will affect the overall, real-world gains. However, no one is going to complain that they’re able to do more on their phones without suffering greater battery power consumption, so it’s a win-win. Plus, a tuned antenna will also provide a more reliable connection.

So you get more signal, optimum data speeds, and improved battery life. It’s completely reliable, and doesn’t cost any more than existing, less-efficient alternatives. So why isn’t in our phones?

We can’t have nice things, because we want nice-looking things

Frustratingly, it is, but you would never know it.

ZTE’s Nubia brand is already onboard with Cavendish, and the SmarTune antenna can be found in the recently announced Nubia Z9, and in seven other phones from ZTE and other companies that are commercially available in China. Cavendish expects to see its tuners in 20 different phones on sale before the end of the year. While we’ve seen the Z9’s battery and signal strength is above average in our early tests, it hasn’t stood out as being something special. Does that mean it doesn’t really work?

It works fine, but the benefits aren’t filtering down to us in the way we expect because of what Johnsson describes as “engineering tradeoffs.” Manufacturers are using the gains seen from fitting the Cavendish tuner in a different way. Rather than turbocharge the reception and lower power consumption, the 3db gain is used to make the antenna much smaller than usual, which in turn lets them make thinner phones.

ZTE Nubia Z9
ZTE Nubia Z9

The Z9’s almost bezel-free screen is a by-product of this, because the smaller antenna can be shifted into a new position inside the phone. This results in a striking design, but an antenna that provides about the same signal strength, without any of the battery or connection benefits that the tuner could provide.

“Designers have the technology to be able to improve user aspects of a phone, but marketing priorities today are all about the look and feel,” Johnsson explained.

Choosing between battery and design

Cavendish is confident about its technology, but will it continue to find its way into new phones?

“We launched commercially last September,” Johnsson told me, “And manufacturers needed convincing that the new component technology is reliable. This has been removed as a concern. The first customer launch has really brought us attention, and we’re talking to pretty much every smartphone maker now.”

However, even if it does become almost ubiquitous, what will it mean to you and me? “The technology is there for faster data speeds and better battery life,” Johnsson told us, before adding, “If manufacturers choose to use it in that way.”

If the way Cavendish’s tuner is being used right now is any indication, it seems unlikely that many, if any, will choose battery over design.

Mobile

5G phones make a lot of promises. Here’s what to really expect

There has been a lot of marketing copy expounding the potential benefits of 5G networks, but a lot less on the practical implications of 5G smartphones. There's a reason for that.
Computing

What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

Here's fixed wireless 5G explained! Learn what you need to know about this effective new wireless technology, when it's available, how much it costs, and more. If you're thinking about 5G, this guide can help!
Home Theater

Banish the bunny ears (and monthly bills) with these excellent HD antennas

When transitioning away from cable and satellite, finding the best HDTV antenna for your area can be touch. To help, we've compiled our picks of the best indoor HDTV antennas you can buy.
Mobile

Benchmark results show Snapdragon 855 destroys previous-generation chip

Almost exactly a year after the launch of the Snapdragon 845, Qualcomm took the wraps off of its next-generation mobile platform, the new Snapdragon 855. The new chip puts an emphasis on A.I. performance.
Mobile

Is 5G as fast as they’re saying? We break down the speeds

We take a look at the kinds of speeds you can expect from 5G when the networks roll out. Find out 5G compares to the last generation of network technology, what the minimum and maximum speeds will be, and what it means for us.
Mobile

Tizen 4 arriving on Samsung’s Gear S3 and Gear Sport smartwatches

Samsung is updating the Gear S3 Classic, Gear S3 Frontier, and the Gear Sport to the newest version of Tizen 4. Along with of some little tweaks to usability and quality-of-life, Samsung has added some new features.
Product Review

It may be basic, but the TicWatch E2 is all the smartwatch you need

Want a smartwatch that can track heart rate, has GPS, and interact with notifications — for cheap? Mobvoi’s Google Wear OS-based TicWatch E2 can do it all, for just $160.
Mobile

Here are the best selfie cameras on the market, according to DxOMark

DxOMark, the company known for testing cameras, is now extending its smartphone analysis to include the front-facing camera. The Selfie ranking will be kept separate from the overall mobile score.
Deals

Here are 19 portable tech gadgets you’ll want to use every day

If you're looking for portable tech to keep you charged up while on the go (or for some great small gift ideas), we've rounded up 19 must-have gadgets. You'll find everything from a mini gaming controller to a folding Bluetooth keyboard.
Mobile

Mobvoi’s TicWatch E2 and S2 are the most affordable Wear OS smartwatches yet

Quality smartwatches don't have to be expensive, and Mobvoi's TicWatch is the proud paladin of that philosophy. Mobvoi's new TicWatch S2 and are both available for low prices from Amazon and Mobvoi's website.
Deals

Save up to $950 with the best smartphone deals for January 2019

Need a better phone but don't want to spend a fortune? It's never a bad time to score a new smartphone and save some cash. We rounded up the best smartphone deals available that can save you as much as $950.
Product Review

Honor schools other phone makers on design with the hole-punch View 20

The Honor View 20 is Honor’s best phone to date. Why? Just look at the punch hole screen, the striking design, and the exciting 48-megapixel camera for evidence. Here’s our review.
Mobile

Apple Pay coming to more top U.S. stores, including Target and Taco Bell

Apple Pay is the best way to pay on your iPhone and Apple Watch. Apple Pay support is being rolled out across the U.S. for a variety of top retailers, including Taco Bell, Target, Hy-Vee, and more.
Music

Tune in to the best internet radio stations for your listening pleasure

Even in the streaming era, radio stations get some of the best exclusives and curate some of the finest handpicked playlists around. Here are the best internet radio stations, for your listening pleasure.