Boost that battery: Tips and tricks for laptops

No matter how good your laptop's battery is, it's still easy to run out of power by day's end. Here are some ways to keep your system running.

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What you can do now

Whether you have a Windows-based system or a Mac laptop, there's a lot you can do right now to make its energy use more efficient and get more life out of its battery. The tips and tricks that follow may not work for every system, but even if you choose one or two, you can make your notebook more efficient.

1. Slow down your CPU

The processor is a great place to save a few watts.

If you're using an older Windows-based system, start with your Control Panel Power Options page, go to the Change advanced power settings section and click on Processor to adjust its maximum processor state. I aim for a balance between performance and power use, and typically set the processor's maximum power use to 95%.

If your machine is recent enough to have a Haswell processor -- and therefore has Intel's Turbo Boost overclocking -- anything less than 100% prevents the CPU from raising its clock speed (and power use) when the computing load increases. In other words, if you want to keep your battery use down, lowering the maximum processor state will add even more power efficiency, even if it takes a moment or two longer to complete some tasks.

Unfortunately, at the moment, there's no easy way to easily disable or control Turbo Boost in a MacBook. Your best bet is an open-source XCode-based command-line tool called Turbo Boost Disabler for Mac OS X.

Intel Power Gadget
While you can't easily control Turbo Boost in a MacBook, the Intel Power Gadget can keep you informed.

If you're just interested in how much power your processor is using (including its clock speed and core temperature), you can use the Intel Power Gadget.

2. Add more memory

Regardless of whether you use a PC or Mac, when it comes to performance, more RAM equals better performance and lower total power use. RAM chips use so little power that adding 4GB or 8GB has a marginal impact on its total power use -- more RAM can, however, save power by reducing the system's use of virtual memory.

How? Virtual memory is actually hard drive space that is used to store items from memory when the system runs out of unused physical memory. Because the hard drive uses a lot more power than RAM chips, using virtual memory eats into efficiency and battery time. So adding RAM can not only make your system more efficient, but save battery power as well.

3. Make storage more efficient

Compared to a conventional hard drive, an SSD not only speeds things up but also uses less power -- so you might want to consider upgrading your storage. However, if you can't afford a new drive (or just don't want to bother), a traditional hard drive's hunger for electrons can be tamed by adjusting its power management settings.

For Macs, you can control when the drive goes to sleep in the System Preferences Energy Saver pane. In the Battery tab, start by checking the box that says Put the hard disk(s) to sleep when possible. Apple sets 10 minutes as the default period of inactivity before the drive nods off, but you can tap into the system's pmset utility to adjust it. Here's what you do:

Go to Terminal (which you'll find in the Utilities folder, or you can just search for Terminal). Type sudo pmset disksleep X, where X is the length of time in minutes that you want the system to wait before putting the drive to sleep. (Warning: You'll need the administrator's password to do this.)

pmset
The pmset utility lets you set when your Mac's hard drive goes to sleep.

With a Windows system, you can use the Change Advanced Power Settings page in the Power Options portion of the Control Panel.

I generally set my system's hard drive to turn off after 10 or 15 minutes of inactivity. It'll take a second or two for the device to spool up when you need it, but the extra minutes of battery life make it worth the wait.

4. Lessen your display time

Fewer pixels put less of a power load on the graphics chip, video memory and display panel. So although I'm wowed by the latest high-resolution notebook screens, I don't really do much more than view the occasional YouTube video. As a result, when I shop for a notebook, I get the lowest resolution screen that is acceptable for my purposes. These days, that's generally a 1280 x 800 display.

But no matter what the resolution is, a major way to save on battery life is not to have the display running when you don't need it.

For a MacBook, open up the Energy Saver window and adjust the position of the slider control at the bottom marked Turn Display Off After. You can vary the time before the screen shuts down from "never" to as little as one minute.

Energy Saver
Apple's Energy Saver window lets you adjust when to turn your display off.

I also dim the screen a bit when on battery power by hitting the F1 button several times until I get to a brightness that is comfortable but not too bright. (If you dialed down too far, the F2 button makes the screen brighter.)

Power Saver
Windows lets you set your power plan for turning off the display and putting the computer to sleep.

With a Windows system, go to the Power Options page and edit the power plan to suit how you work and play. When I'm running the system on battery, I generally set the screen brightness to roughly 80% and have the screen turn off after 15 minutes of inactivity.

Many current Windows laptops also use function keys to make it easier to dim or brighten the screen.

5. Put it to sleep

While you're tweaking your power plan settings, go ahead and set a period of inactivity after which your computer will go to sleep.

How long you wait before putting your system to sleep can affect battery life profoundly. The best approach is to use trial and error to find a balance between battery life and convenience -- for example, my own settings put the computer to sleep after 45 minutes of inactivity. Your mileage may vary.

In a Windows system, go to the Control Panel, click on the Power section and select Change plan setting. Here, you can adjust how long a system will wait before it goes to sleep.

For even more efficiency, EnviProt's Auto Shutdown Manager, a $15 Windows utility, models how you use your computer and can intelligently put the system to sleep and wake it up. It even tabulates how much power has been saved and the amount of carbon dioxide you've kept out of the atmosphere. You can try it for free for 45 days.

And you don't have to wait for the automatic triggers to kick in. Go ahead and manually put the system to sleep if the computer is sitting idle with nothing going on -- by doing this, you can save as much as 15 watts. (Most Windows systems let you press a function key to put the computer to sleep; which one you use depends on your specific system.)

Auto Shutdown
Among other things, Auto Shutdown Manager shows which components shut down when.

You can put any MacBook instantly to sleep by opening the Apple Menu in the upper left corner of the screen and clicking on Sleep. Or you can just close the laptop's lid.

If you want to adjust when your system goes to sleep automatically, go back to the Energy Saver/Battery page and use the Computer sleep: slider control; you can have it sleep anywhere between 1 min. and Never.

Adjusting when the system goes to sleep automatically is a little trickier if you have a MacBook Pro that was built before late 2008/mid 2009. Go to the Terminal program and type sudo pmset sleep X, where X is the number of minutes to wait before putting the computer to sleep.

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