Why Apple can accurately estimate battery life and others can’t… yet

As the new Macbook Air gets to reviewers and users, it’s become clear that Apple has made a real breakthrough here. No, it’s not the slimness. Nor is it the responsiveness. It’s the battery life. Not that it lasts particularly long, but that their battery life estimates are proving highly accurate.

A month ago, Xavier touched on the topic of the accuracy of PC battery estimates, pointing out that smartphone estimates are close, while PC estimates are invariably off the mark. While we can disagree on the many reasons behind this, no one disagreed with the claim.

So then what to make of the accuracy of the Macbook Air’s battery estimates? Fluke? Apple magic? Neither. Let’s go back to what I said about the battery estimate problem in response to Xavier’s post.

The real problem is everyone highballs their numbers, so anyone who tries to give an honest estimate gets screwed. All else being equal, if consumers are given a choice between an “honest” 5-hour rating and an “up to” 8-hour rating, they’ll go with the 8-hour.

It would seem that Apple is disproving this statement, if it weren’t for one key phrase: “All else being equal…” You can get a Windows PC from Dell, HP, Sony, or any one of a hundred other vendors. They distinguish themselves from each other with their own unique details, but generally “all else being equal” is how they operate. Apple, on the other hand, offers products that are already distinct due to the software and other features. People have other reasons to choose a Macbook Air. Thus, advertising lower yet honest battery ratings don’t hurt them in the market the way it could hurt others.

While I agree with outcries for accurate battery estimates, such as a recent one from Harry McCracken at Technologizer, the conditions that allowed Apple to nail their advertised estimates simply don’t exist for everyone else. For many, their only option for accuracy will be to lowball their estimates, which I believe will hurt them in competition against those who will continue to highball.

So that’s it then? Under current conditions, PC makers can’t be honest without getting screwed, so they won’t be honest? Well, that’s one option. Another option is to change the conditions. Instead of competing on this, PC makers could instead cooperate on a new battery life standard (and by “new” I mean not MobileMark) that tests under real world conditions. Nobody takes the plunge first, but rather everyone goes at once.

Short term, the drop in advertised battery life (from “up to” to “real life”) may hurt them against Apple, but at least they won’t be hurting each other. Long term, if they don’t match Apple on this, they risk letting honest battery life estimates become one more of those other reasons to choose a Mac. Better to take a small hit now than get smacked hard with that later.