iPhone 3G a battery life disaster, says Blackberry maker, RIM

There may currently be more GSM than 3G devices in the BlackBerry family now but the balance may tip next year as RIM rolls out new power-efficient technologies developed for the BlackBerry Bold.

“Battery life on 3G phones has been an issue for well forever!” said Mike McAndrews RIM’s Vice President for Product Marketing. “That’s because there are some fundamental differences between 3G and GSM such as the need to keep two radios running simultaneously. You have to keep your GSM radio running because you might get a phone call but you also have to keep your 3G radio running because that’s what you’re bringing in your high speed data on.”

The increased power drain of the HSDPA circuitry is another factor that can reduce useful battery life to less than a working day – not nearly enough for the typical ‘power user’ of a 3G smartphone.

“We want to be sure that a heavy user can get a full day of battery life (from a 3G BlackBerry) and then they can charge it overnight” McAndrews told APC. “That means using the phone downloading email browsing the Web playing music and synchronising their data and still getting a full day of battery life out of it.”

“If you look at the iPhone as an example and it’s a beautiful looking product but it doesn’t give the heavy user a full day of battery life. One reason is that it’s not really a push email device it’s what we call ‘poke and pull’ – the device wakes up checks for email and if there’s no email it goes back to sleep. But all those sessions consume power and reduces battery life every time it wakes up. In a push system the device doesn’t need to do anything because email is pushed down to the device”.

However GPS remains “a major sap of battery life” McAndrews says. “There are some things we can do with that but there’s a lot we can’t do. They’re just a receiver and these tiny chips have to communicate with a satellite that’s a long long way away.”

One aspect over which RIM can exercise deep control is the ‘radio stack’ of low-level software code running the 3G circuitry. “This isn’t sexy stuff” McAndrews admits “but we’ve been designing smartphones for almost ten years and we know how important it is so we designed our own and we re-wrote it from the ground up for the Bold. If you’re not a company that makes phones this is something you just don’t do instead you’ll purchase or license your stack from someone else”.

The Bold is what McAndrews calls RIM’s “first wholly designed 3G product”. “We had a previous product the 8707g which used a reference design (the 8700 series). We brought it out for expediency and used a Qualcomm chipset but the battery life was not what wanted. It suffered a lot of the same ills as the other 3G products. So when we designed the Bold we designed it from the ground up to be sure it would have a solid battery life enough to let a heavy user could get a full day of usage without running out of battery life.”

Also new to the Bold was a triple-core Marvell 624MHz ARM processor codenamed Tavor and based on Intel’s Xscale design. (Intel offloaded its XScale technology to Marvell in mid-2006 as a prelude to developing the pint-sized Atom family of x86 processors. ARM remains the dominant CPU of the smartphone world however).

“Tavor is triple core architecture while Hermione (the 312MHz ARM processor in the Pearl Curve and 8800) was a single core that had to do all the work. With Tivor one core can be running applications another handling a call another handling digital signal processing during the call. So to save battery life you can shut down a core if it’s not needed”.

To date the Bold is the only BlackBerry using the triple-core processor – even the new touchscreen Storm relies on a Qualcomm chip. But it’s not a one shot by any means McAndrew says. “We’ve designed a great 3G architecture and built it around the high-performance 624MHz Tavor Marvell processor and the Bold will not be our last 3G product based on that architecture.”

David Flynn visited RIM headquarters in Waterloo Canada as a guest of RIM