Mac NoteBook Battery Life: Can We Handle the Truth?

December 16th, 2016

So Apple quietly made a move that isn’t endearing the company to some Mac users. In the macOS Sierra 10.12.2 update, the “time remaining” display for notebooks was unceremoniously zapped, or at least the graphical display of that information  The reasoning is evidently that it’s just not accurate, since it essentially displays momentary power usage which is apt to vary considerably during a work session.

But the decision may appear to be a little suspicious, because it comes in the wake of complaints of subpar battery life on the new MacBook Pros. While Apple makes its usual promise of maximum battery life, of up to ten hours, some report barely hitting half that. Indeed, with all the controversy over the new notebooks, having subpar battery life is just one of many.

I’ve already covered the question over whether it should have offered up to 32GB RAM — something not yet provided by Microsoft in its Surface Books — and whether it’s even rightly called a professional notebook. But the fact that the 15-inch version can run two 5K displays with, if you have the appropriate model, a single connector each, does reveal that it’s not just a computer for road warriors.

Now the argument about battery life goes in two directions. So when you’ve got lots of stuff connected to a MacBook Pro, it’s expected you’ll be using regular AC power, not the battery. But for location work, you’ll wan the maximum amount of battery life. This is the argument in favor of an all-around work notebook that can handle a number of tasks well. It also means there have to be compromises, such as the 16GB limit, although only a few PC notebooks give you that option. I suspect with careful adjustment of the apps you run at the same time, it may not be a problem for most.

But it’s so easy to complain.

Back to battery life: Apple’s claims are based on running a selection of apps and tasks and measuring how long it takes from full charge till the time the unit shuts down. I wouldn’t dispute the measurements, assuming you follow the same usage patterns. Obviously, people have different ways of using their Macs, so the battery life Apple and its imaginary ideal user might achieve may be far more than what you or I will achieve.

I wouldn’t suggest Apple’s claims are false, but maybe it would make sense, in the interests of doing fair comparisons, for Apple to separate the measurements into light use, average use, and heavy use patterns, defining each. This way you’d get three measurements rather than one, and, if the conditions are clearly stated rather than placed in micro text as a footnote, there would be fewer complaints.

So maybe the fact that some users wouldn’t get more than five or six hours of use before running out of power wouldn’t be such a big deal. You’ll know the score getting in. It may not be so impressive, but it would be honest.

The other question is whether there are battery life problems on the new MacBook Pros. Some users say the situation improved with the macOS Sierra 10.12.2 update, even though Apple doesn’t list any specific battery fixes. But graphic glitches were addressed, and maybe some of those glitches impacted the dual-graphics models, where there’s a switchover between integrated graphics and discrete graphics. If the computer remains too long in the more power-intensive discrete graphics mode, battery life would suffer. But if it runs more efficiently, the situation improves.

I’m just guessing.

While I’ve not had reason to question the potential battery life of any Mac notebook I’ve owned, I do think Apple made a huge mistake in removing the display of time remaining. Sure, you can call it up with a Unix command in Terminal, pmset -g batt, but what about just making it more accurate?

Why wouldn’t it be possible for Apple to look at the nuts and bolts of this process and finding a way for it to better gauge potential battery life? I am not a programmer, so I wouldn’t presume to suggest the ways to accomplish this task. There are third-party battery life utilities, but I wouldn’t suggest one is better than the other.

But certainly Apple’s developers could devise a way to adjust these readings. Over time, they do come closer to the mark, but gathering an understanding of a user’s typical workday would surely allow the measurement to become reasonably accurate, or adjust itself to different work patterns. I wouldn’t question Apple’s ability to make it so if it chose to do so.

Such a move would make it easier for customers to see if they are getting the battery life they expect. Perhaps the duration between charge and shut down could, over time, be averaged, or displayed in a  list that contains the totals of the last five or ten sessions. That way you could check to see the real results you’ve achieved, and maybe Apple could devise a set of recommendations, based on your usage pattern, to get more battery life.

Sounds like the beginnings of a nifty battery utility to me. If it’s not being done, maybe someone will give it a try. But I’d rather see Apple’s solution, rather than just hiding the numbers for those who aren’t comfortable with he command line. It would certainly answer customer concerns far better than just hiding the numbers.

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4 Responses to “Mac NoteBook Battery Life: Can We Handle the Truth?”

  1. roger says:

    The system has been infected with the Windows time remaining issue: 3 minutes, 2 hours, about a minute… An off by one error has crept into the Finder; drag one item into the trash; Finder says moving two items to trash; it is also visible in several other places. And now the battery life remaining is vanished to stop complaints. Making the display more accurate is not trivial but it can be done. I think they need to find better interns because they don’t seem to be using experienced developers.

  2. DaveD says:

    If I were in a need of a Mac notebook and with available funds, my choice would be the 15-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel 2.7 GHz processor, 4GB AMD graphics and most likely not a 2TB SSD due to its huge price jump. I learned how to cope with only 64GB on my MacBook Air. The new MacBook Pro would not be my main machine until months of use to check it out and resolve any issues.

    I like all of your suggestions for a better battery use time display. While I do like the MacBook Pro redesign, I can understand the feelings of loss of having to open up the case to do any upgrades. Apple is on the path to take away hardware features and some that provide useful user information like battery charging status and level without having to open the MacBook. Is Apple doing the same in software with the battery use time? Hardware changes are difficult to make. Software only just need time and quality testing.

  3. Steve Cook says:

    Spot on!

    Although too many of the analysts writing about this change have let Apple off the hook for the underlying problem.

    There have been real world use tests and controlled tests by several leading Mac and tech websites and analysts. Using the very same tests they used for previous MacBook Pro models, they are finding that the new ones last several hours LESS than previous models– in one case, 4-5 hours less!

    We are in the market to buy a new MacBook Pro, but given the battery problems, we are definitely not buying one! It’s a shame as there is much to like about the new laptops.

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