MP3 players are utterly useless without power, so naturally this is a very important aspect of any player. There’s a lot of confusion going around both with regards to charging the batteries, preserving their maximum capacity and maximizing the play time per charge. Read on for a guide.
Charging: rumours and misconceptions
99% of all the rumours and misconceptions surrounding batteries for any electronic device have to do with charging them. A lot of “rules” on how to charge batteries are still around from the “old days” where electronics used completely different types of batteries, and has nothing to do with the reality today. Any modern MP3 player with a rechargeable battery will have a lithium based battery in it. Why this doesn’t say much, it’s very important when it comes to how the battery behaves. Most people have heard that you need to charge the battery for 12+ hours when you get it, leave it alone while charging, discharging and fully charging as often as possible etc. This is complete and utter nonsense when it comes to lithium based batteries. We’re talking a completely different battery technology, one which has a whole other set of rules. Here are some:
Lithium batteries don’t care when you charge them or for how long. All night, fine. 5 minutes at a time, fine. 10 times a day, go ahead.
There’s no priming needed, which means the first time you charge the battery is no different from the 100th time you charge the battery. You don’t have to charge it for an insane amount of hours, as the battery will shut down charging when it’s finished fully charging anyways.
Fully discharging the battery isn’t good for the battery. In most cases nothing bad will happen, but there’s a chance- especially if it’s stored for extended periods of time with no charge- that the battery won’t charge back up afterwards. The only reason to discharge it is in some cases where it will reset the battery’s ability to estimate the amount of charge left.
A lithium battery charges 70% of the capacity in 1/3 the total charge time, if charging from a fully discharged state. There is only one way to charge batteries, so quick chargers and promises of super charge modes are simply marketing. Some chargers even skip the last 30% to appear to charge fast, but that isn’t really the case. Sony is only such company which advertises fast charging on Walkman players, where 3 minutes of charging gives you 90 minutes of playback. This isn’t a Sony technology; it’s simply how lithium batteries work. Just do the math; If a player has 40 hours of battery life on a full charge, total charge time of 3 hours, and we know that it charges 70% in 1/3 the total charge time, that means 1 hour of charging gives you 28 hours of battery life. 3 minutes is 1/20 of an hour, and 1/20 of 28 hours is roughly 90 minutes.
There are technically ways to make sure the battery last for a long time (more recharge cycles), however the bottom line is that the benefit of most these tricks doesn’t justify the work. Avoid extreme temperatures both hot and cold and just charge the player when you need to. For 99% of consumers the battery will outlast the usage period anyways.
There are also other things to consider, but that are less important to the average user. If you want to geek out with battery information, take a look at the info over at Battery University. I especially recommend people take a look at the “do and don’t do” comparison chart for various battery types. They also have some info specific to lithium batteries that is interesting.
Maximizing battery life
Battery life meaning how long the player will last on a charge varies greatly between different players. The actual number of hours you get out of a device depends not only on the capacity of the battery, but also how effectively the player uses the power. The Cowon i7- a very small player- has a rated battery life of 60 hours, which is much more than larger players yet it has a physically smaller battery.
When we mention battery life for players we always say “rated battery life”. This is because the battery life that is listed by the manufacturers is the optimistic version rather than what you most likely get will. The actual battery life you get out of the player depends on so many things that there is no way to say how much you will actually get. In a real life situation, you have songs with different bitrates, different formats, you use different sound enhancements, tinker with the screen for a certain amount of time, use different impedance headphones, use the player in various temperatures and so on. Battery life will vary noticeably from 128kbps to 320kbps, or between using the player in -25C here in Norway and +25C in Florida. As an example, the last time I charged my Sansa Fuze fully- a player I use only for audio books when outside- I got only about 12 hours into the book before it needed a recharge, which is half of the rated battery life. The reason was the temperature over here this time of year, and such a random factor can really affect battery life. If you change songs manually a lot, you will use the screen more, and so you will get hours less battery life than someone who leaves it running by itself all day. Normally people also mix between video and audio and possibly radio, photos etc, which further screws up the battery life estimates. If you have a small player, you can expect to get maybe a 5/1 ratio between audio and video battery life, while a big full-blown PMP might only give you a 2/1 ratio due to the larger screen, more power intensive CPU and so on. The bigger the player, the more battery life you’ll use up by tinkering with it. Bottom line, there are so very many aspects that affect battery life that people will get completely different results depending on the usage pattern.
That brings us to what you can do to prolong the battery life of your player. The short answer is to let it do its thing with minimal interaction from your side, as tinkering with it draws a lot of power. If you turn off sound enhancements and leave it in your pocket to do its business you will get more battery life without compromising too much. If you’re wondering about switching audio formats or bitrates, turning down the volume or buying lower impedance headphones you could do that, but it frankly wouldn’t be worth the trouble. However, at some point you have to choose between getting extra juice out of the battery and using the player to its fullest. If you’re on a 5 hour flight with 10% left on the battery of a player, you would be wise to only listen to music, but for daily use most player’s should have enough battery life to get you through the day.
Does it matter?
Luckily, players have enough battery life these days to last until you can reach a USB port or wall outlet, at least for audio and some video players. This is further augmented by portable USB batteries, car chargers and USB AC adapters to make it easy to charge the player any time you need to. Personally, even my Sansa Clip+ has enough battery life to get me through a full day at work and that is really all I need it to do, as I can just plug it in when I get home. I make sure I have gadgets or accessories that let me do whatever I want without having to worry about running out of battery, as otherwise there wouldn’t be a point to having a device capable of doing advanced things to begin with. I’d rather have the features I want and just enough battery to use them than have only the most basic features and enough battery life to get bored of them. Sure, 40 hour battery life is better than 20, but is it really that much of a hassle to plug the player in after you’re done using it for the day? With lithium batteries, such charging doesn’t hurt it one bit- in fact it’s recommended, so there really is no reason to insist on the player lasting a week per charge just for the sake of not having to charge it even if you could.
There are of course exceptions; people who forget simple things like plugging it in, people who travel a lot and don’t want to bring cables and chargers,
people who are outside or away from things to charge with and so on. If you’re out in the forest for 2 months, you don’t want to have to charge the player every day- in theory. There are solar chargers that can hang on a backpack during the day, charge an internal battery, and then let you charge off it during the night. Normal external USB batteries do the same thing for travelers, without the solar charging part, so even on a plane you should be able to do whatever you want with your device as long as you plan ahead. Some people have what can only be described as unhealthy relationship to AA batteries because they want the ability to switch out batteries easily and carry spares. AA and AAA batteries aren’t really used much anymore simply because they are bad for the environment, expensive and require a lot of space. Not only do the batteries take up more space than the equivalent rechargeable lithium ion or lithium polymer battery, but it also has double inner casing to add to the bulk; battery compartment and battery walls. This means that the player will be a lot bigger than it should simply to hold the batteries. The argument that you can buy such batteries anywhere is also often used, however in my opinion that “perk” doesn’t make up for all the downsides of using an outdated source for power, and you can easily plan around any such circumstance by using external batteries. A Callpod FuelTank for example gives you a whopping 4300mAh of rechargeable backup power for $50, which is about the same as 5 brand name AA batteries. Roughly put, after 10 uses the battery pack would have paid for itself compared to AA batteries, not counting the fact you can’t get AA powered devices and a battery pack like the FuelTank can charge any portable gadget. 4300mAh is enough to quadruple the battery life of players like the Zune HD or Cowon S9, and extend the battery of something like a Sansa Clip+ tenfold.
The point I’m trying to make here is that with the easy access to ways to charge a player that we have today, and the relatively long battery life of any player, is there really a point to obsessing about battery life? How many people have ever had their player run out of battery at a bad time, where that situation couldn’t have been avoided by spending about 5 seconds plugging in the player the night before? You buy MP3 players to use them, and while rationing and responsible use of resources is all good and well for many things in society, electricity to run your portable gadgets isn’t one such thing. Charging an MP3 player through USB for 2 hours uses about the same amount of power as a 40W light bulb running for about 7 minutes 30 seconds, so cost isn’t an issue either.
Another thing people like to obsess about is removable batteries. Another thing left over from the days of expensive electronics with bad types of batteries, people like the idea of being able to switch out the battery somewhere down the road when it starts to degrade. Again, is there any point?
First off, let’s get some more rumours and misconceptions out of the way. Laptop batteries often serve as a worst case scenario as they often lose their capacity a lot faster than anything else. This is due to several factors, like being discharged too often or being kept at temperatures too high- refer to the Battery University links for more info. For something like an MP3 player, the conditions of how the player is used aren’t “destructive” enough to affect the battery life that much over the total life span of the player. Most people will switch out their player without at least 2-3 years, and by that time the battery will have lost capacity to some degree. However, buying a new battery (if even possible for players that old) will most likely cost enough that buying a player with better features would be the logical choice, as the features/price ratio is still skyrocketing in the tech industry. I’m talking safe replacement parts now, not the $5 batteries you get on eBay that may or may not explode as well as having less capacity than the original battery, maybe even less than the worn out original battery. Those people who care enough about preserving the battery is also often the ones who have the most wrong information about how to prolong the lifetime of the battery (such as discharging it completely) and so there’s an ironic cause and effect in play. Removable batteries is a nice concept, however not a very useful one in today’s society. Between portable universal battery packs to provide extra power (compared to carrying spare proprietary batteries), the expected lifetime of a battery and the cost of properly replacing the battery at the end of the battery it simply isn’t something many people will do- and that’s why manufacturers don’t make special arrangements to make it possible
The point of this article is to get some pieces of misinformation set straight and put some things in perspective. With lithium batteries, the best thing you can do for your battery is to completely ignore how and when you charge the battery and just make sure you have enough power when you need it. Lithium batteries are made to serve the user, not the other way around, and the “tips and tricks” that are left from the old days of other types of batteries actually hurt lithium batteries. As for battery life per charge, I give the same advice as for charging; use the device as you want to, and make sure you have enough battery power in some form or another to do so- but don’t let the fear of running out of power stop you from using a device to the fullest.