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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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.

6. Tweak your graphics

Some Windows notebooks, like Toshiba's Tecra W50, have both integrated and discrete (usually high-end) graphics technology. The higher-end graphics technology on a mobile workstation or gamer's system can itself consume upwards of 60 watts of power.

If that's your setup, go conservative and use the lower-power integrated graphics whenever the workload doesn't demand all-out video power, such as for Web browsing or writing emails. If you've got discrete graphics from Nvidia or AMD, you should also have a utility that lets you manually or automatically make the change based on load.

I'd also suggest that, when you're using the integrated graphics, use the most aggressive power management settings you're comfortable with. You can usually make power adjustments using either Intel's HD Graphics Control Panel or AMD's Start Now Technology screen, depending on which processor your computer is using.

This goes for Macs as well: A 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display can be ordered with Nvidia's GeForce GT 750M graphics accelerator with 2GB of video RAM. The system automatically switches between integrated and discrete graphics when you've checked the box in the upper left corner of its Energy Saver window.

If you want to manually go between graphics adapters on a MacBook Pro, you can install the free app gfxCardStatus, which tells you which of your applications are more power-hungry and lets you manually toggle between integrated and discrete graphics.

7. The 7% solution

Nearly every Windows-based notebook comes from the factory set to shut itself down when 7% of battery power remains. This buffer is meant to be an extra safety margin to provide enough power to shut the system down and not lose key data or documents. But in actual fact, it wastes 10 or 15 minutes of precious battery life.

Several years ago, I started setting my notebooks to leave a 1% or 2% power reserve instead -- as a result, I added more time to work, and I've never had a problem.

If you have a Windows system, you can do this by going to the Control Panel's Power Options and clicking on Change Advanced Power Settings. After opening the Battery section, adjust the Reserve Battery Level to something lower than 7%.

For Macs, there's no direct equivalent -- but there's an app called Low Battery Saver that can tweak the settings that warn you when your system's running low on battery power and put it to sleep. The app costs $1.99.

8. Smarter outlets

You can also make your outlets more intelligent with a power strip that senses how much current is flowing and shut itself off when a threshold indicates that the system is charged.

For example, both Bits Limited's Smart Strip surge protectors and Belkin's Conserve Valet have auto-switching technology that shuts off the power when your device's battery is charged.

9. Don't run what you're not using

It seems obvious, but a lot of people seem to forget this basic principal: If you're not using it, turn it off. In other words, to conserve power, it's best to turn off all nonessential components. I think of it as akin to turning off the lights when I leave a room. For example, when my laptops are not being used, I generally turn off Bluetooth and disable unused ports.

This goes for mobile devices, as well. For example, whenever I'm on a plane, if there isn't a Wi-Fi connection (or if I don't want to pay for it), I keep my device in Airplane mode.

10. Manage your apps

While Microsoft says that unused but live Windows 8 apps don't diminish performance, I still feel strongly that, no matter what OS you're using, it's best to shut down any program that won't be used anytime soon.

11. Clean your machine

Your system is a power waster if it's dirty, so give it a good cleaning every couple of months.

I start by blowing the fan and vents clear of dust bunnies with a can of compressed air. Next, I wipe the battery's terminals down with alcohol pads to clean any built-up gunk that might be robbing the notebook of full battery power. (Unfortunately, many newer systems have the battery sealed inside, preventing this kind of maintenance.)

The power bottom line

I tried some of these power-saving techniques on my trusty old HP EliteBook 2560p: I kept the system from going into Turbo Boost mode, added RAM, installed an SSD, dimmed the screen, adjusted the sleep and display timing, reduced the battery reserve time, turned off Bluetooth and W-Fi and closed older apps when finished using them.

The results? I was able to reduce my laptop's thirst for electrons by 20% from a peak of 36.6 watts of power before the changes to 29.1 watts after, as measured by Joulemeter, software that measures power consumption (I averaged the results of three runs).

More to the point, I increased my system's battery life by 33 minutes to 4 hours and 40 minutes of runtime between charges.

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and this increase in power efficiency and extended battery life came at the cost of all-out performance. I ran "before and after" tests using the system's score on PassMark's PerformanceTest benchmarking software, and the laptop's score fell from 1,750.0 to 1,698.6, a 3% drop.

The good news? I wouldn't have known about the difference if I hadn't measured it -- it was not a noticeable decline.

For me all the work, setting changes and a slight loss of performance has been more than worth it. I get more life out of a charge, my system is more efficient and I don't have to plug in as often. I call that a win-win.

This article, Boost that battery: Tips and tricks for laptops, was originally published at

Brian Nadel is a frequent contributor to Computerworld and the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Read more about laptops in Computerworld's Laptops Topic Center.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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