Does Windows Really Have Such Terrible Battery Life?

Let's not conflate constructive criticism with hyperbole.

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Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror is asking an important question, one that’s been glossed over in tech-dom for years: why does Windows have such poor battery life on mobile devices compared to the competition?

No one seems to know. Atwood asked one of tech’s luminaries on the enthusiast side, Anand Shimpi of Anandtech, but says Shimpi was as puzzled as him. You’d expect Microsoft software engineers to know, but then you’d also imagine they’d have diminished the discrepancies between Windows-based devices and others by now.

Instead, Windows battery life seems to be headed in the opposite direction. Atwood cites Anandtech’s review of the Surface Pro 2, which includes a battery benchmark chart that shows the Surface Pro 2 clocking just below seven hours of usage browsing the web on Wi-Fi. What’s so bad about seven hours? Not much, and Atwood agrees that seven hours is pretty nice. But how does the Surface Pro 2’s 42 Wh (Watt hours) battery stack up against a device with a similar spec battery?

Tapping another Anandtech chart — this one of the site’s review of Apple’s 2013 13-inch MacBook Air — Atwood notes the Air, with its slightly lower 38 Wh battery rating, manages over 11 hours of battery life while web browsing on Wi-Fi.

Thus, as Atwood puts it (his emphasis):

That means the Air is somehow producing nearly two times the battery efficiency of the best hardware and software combination Microsoft can muster, for what I consider to be the most common usage pattern on a computer today.

I don’t own a Surface and don’t intend to buy a Surface, but I do have a Retina MacBook Pro, and I’ve run various versions of Windows in Boot Camp mode since Apple made the leap from Power PC to Intel, mostly to play games like StarCraft II and Guild Wars 2 without OS X’s performance penalties. In all cases, no matter the version of Windows or OS X, Windows battery life while doing the sort of work I’m doing right now — emailing, browsing the web, light image editing — is significantly less than OS X’s, and I’ve tallied the difference in hours, not minutes. Even Windows 8 does the operating system’s reputation as a battery-vampire (compared to Apple’s OS X) no favors.

Is it because Apple has greater control over its hardware, while Microsoft has to support legions of potential hardware combinations, frustrating its ability to optimize energy distribution? Maybe, but Extreme Tech says not so fast, noting the Surface Pro 2 was designed in-house, just as Apple products are. What’s more likely, argues ET, is that Microsoft’s engineers either aren’t as good at or as focused on improving battery life. Take your pick, but for me, that’s just another way of saying “Who knows?”

What’s so bad about seven hours? With Intel’s Haswell chips providing devices a huge helping hand, power-management-wise, does it really matter that you’re getting seven hours next to someone else’s 13? Extreme power users notwithstanding, do you sit for more than seven hours in a coffee shop browsing the web? And even if that seven hours trades down to four or five doing work in light apps, do you really need more than that between charges?

That’s the question you have to answer (and no review can account for): Is seven hours for web browsing enough? And if it is, does anyone care that another company offers more? Should we be calling Windows battery life “terrible” if — and I repeat if — it passes muster for most use case scenarios? In short, I love that Atwood’s asking the question, and I hope he keeps asking it, I’d just like to see him tweak the descriptor “terrible.” Seven hours is hardly terrible, whether taken by itself, or compared to something that offers twice as much.

Yes, there’s an environmental angle here I’m not forgetting: Even if the new Surface tablets exceed your battery usage requirements, you’re going to use more juice, on balance, than you would with an Apple device. You’ll also cycle charges more frequently, thus your overall battery life is going to be theoretically less, assuming you’re going cordless with one device as often as the other. Regardless of your particular needs, then, it would behoove Microsoft to retool future versions of its flagship operating system to rectify this shortcoming and at least bring Windows up to par with Apple’s operating systems.