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Don’t expect battery life miracles in wearables anytime soon

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While battery life remains low, the value of wearables has to go up

After spending a week surrounded by a gluttony of gadgets at CES, it would be easy to confuse "new" with "innovative." Case in point: wearables. There were plenty of new wearables unveiled last week, ranging from an Android Wear watch for the outdoors, to a don’t-call-it-a-smartwatch smart fitness watch, to basic activity trackers disguised as fashionable bracelets.

But the critical aspect of battery life remains pretty much unchanged.

Battery life is, arguably, the biggest pain point in wearables right now. You could certainly make a case for slow apps, or less-than-compelling software, or just plain unattractiveness being the biggest drawback. But those at least have the potential to change. Battery life is an altogether different problem.

A quick look at the products we saw last week at CES underscores how little is changing when it comes to batteries. Under Armour’s new activity tracker gets five days of battery life. Fossil’s new connected bracelet, the Q Dreamer, also gets around five days of battery life. These are the battery life claims that your standard Jawbone or Fitbit have had for years. Misfit’s new activity tracker Ray will last for more than six months on three button cell batteries, but that’s right in line with Misfit’s battery life claims for its Shine tracker, too; Misfit uses the same batteries that have been powering simple wristwatches, calculators, and hearing aids for years.

Apple Watch battery pack

There were, and are, some companies attempting battery workarounds, which also make for nice headlines. Fitbit is claiming five days of battery life with Blaze, impressive for a watch with an actual display, and Casio’s upcoming Android Wear smartwatch will last a month on a single charge. But, wait a second — the Fitbit Blaze sacrifices built-in GPS and doesn’t run a bunch of third-party apps; while Casio’s watch will last for a month as a timekeeper, but as an actual functioning smartwatch will last for about a day.

The new Moto 360 Sport watch, which I reviewed late last year, actually has built-in GPS — which the Apple Watch does not have. Motorola has used hybrid display technology to try to maximize the life of the watch. And yet, both the Moto 360 and the Apple Watch get just about a day of battery life. We even saw a keychain-sized external battery pack for Apple Watch at CES. You would think, with all of the advancements being made in modern technology, that there would be a better solution out there than a battery pack for Apple Watch. But there isn’t.

Battery life isn’t just a pain point for the people who wear wearables; it’s a huge problem for the companies that make them, because battery density just isn’t changing at the same rate that other technologies are. Instead of relying on battery improvements, most wearable makers say they rely on advancements in processors or software to squeeze more juice out of their devices. (Frustrated that your smartwatch screen goes dark after just a few seconds? That’s intentional.)

If it's not a chemistry problem, it's a cost problem

Fitbit co-founder and CEO James Park told The Verge in a video interview during CES that battery life is "the hardest piece of technology to advance. I think every year there’s been a few-percentage increase in power density in lithium ion cells... but you can’t bank on the fact that there will be a huge step forward in battery chemistry or battery technology."

"The biggest advancements always come from the processor makers," Park added. "Every year, the processors get better, the power consumption gets lower, and that’s true for the sensors as well. And then you can do very smart things with software."

Andrew Chang, a co-founder at Lumo Body Tech who previously worked in the US Department of Energy, says that he has seen some innovations in battery life, but the challenges are around cost, not chemistry. "Some batteries have come out that are super thin, with a really low discharge rate, but we haven’t started using those because of cost issues," Chang says.

Lumo’s products, which range from a posture sensor to "smart" running shorts, use lithium-ion polymer batteries (like many other consumer tech devices) and last between five and seven days per charge. Like Fitbit, Chang says he looks for other creative ways to improve battery life. "When I want to increase the life from five to 10 days, I’m not looking at batteries, I’m looking at the chipset and how to make a product so that it does a little bit of processing when you need it, and then turns off when you don’t."

Can Apple, if any company, pull off miracles in wearable battery life?

Some companies may point to wireless charging, or even fast-charging technology, as innovation in battery tech. The UA Band, for example, charges in under 30 minutes, while other wearables can be plopped on a wireless charging dock or pad. These are more convenient than having to plug in a proprietary charger every night, but they’re just more convenient ways to charge the same crappy batteries.

There are now rumors that a new Apple Watch could be on the horizon for this spring, and personally, I vacillate between two features on my Apple Watch 2.0 wish list: do I want better battery life, or do I want built-in GPS? And are the two completely mutually exclusive? Can Apple, if any company, pull off miracles in battery life?

Until there’s a breakthrough in battery tech, wearable makers will be stuck with awkward workarounds — spare batteries, fast charging, smart software. Perhaps more significantly, they also have to prove that their wearables are worth the hassle. Because battery failure points to another awkward truth about wearables: while we charge our phones daily because it feels worth it, so far no wearable has completely cleared that threshold.