How to Conserve a PowerBook's Battery Power

Starting in the late 1980's, people have been able to take their computing with them on the road. Computers appeared with all different types of screens (most unusual was the original Compaqs, which used a special red display- instead of being shades of grey, it displayed shades of red), disk drives, and of course, batteries.

Starting with the original laptops, battery power was important because it allowed you to use your laptop in places where there is no electrical power, such as on an airplane.

Apple got involved in laptops with the Macintosh Portable in 1989. At over $5,000, the Portable was a flop. It was too expensive, too large and heavy, and was not compatible enough with other peripherals (the Portable could not work with standard Apple mice and keyboards). One thing the Portable that did have going for it was its lead-acid battery. Giving up to 4 or 5 hours on battery, the Portable has only just started being met in battery life by current portables.

However, one positive out of many negative things was not good enough, and the portable did not sell. With the help of Sony in Japan, Apple introduced the Macintosh PowerBook 100, a small, thin, and light laptop that also used a lead-acid battery, like the portable. Battery life was not as good, but it certainly wasn't terrible. The PowerBook 140 and 170 also released at the same time used a different type of battery more typical of what would follow from Apple.

Only nowadays are batteries becoming advanced enough to deliver 4 or 5 hours of power to a laptop. However, to get the most out of your battery, you must change some settings on your computer first.

There are a number of different ways you can do this. First I will talk about setting your computer to dim the screen and spin down the hard disk, and go to sleep by itself after it has been left for a certain period of time.

Two things really eat your battery power on a PowerBook (or any other laptop, actually). These are the screen and the hard disk. With a 12 or 14" active matrix colour screen, new laptops have less and less battery life to work with. Large and fast hard drives take up even more of your battery. But, there are ways to help reduce the amount of power they use.

On a PowerPC PowerBook (or a 68K PowerBook running OS 8), you can do this in the Energy Saver control panel. First you will want to make sure that the "settings for" selection is set to "battery". Then, you will set your screen to dim when it is inactive. Under the "sleep setup" tab, you should see 3 sliders (if you don't, click the "View Details" button in the lower right hand corner of the control panel). The second one, "Separate Timing for Display Sleep", is the one that controls the screen dimming. I like to set it for about 2 minutes to save battery power. Another thing you can do with your screen is to turn the brightness down to a low level. Use the buttons on the side of the screen or the keyboard to do this.

The slider below that one will say, "Separate timing for hard disk sleep". That controls how soon your hard disk will spin down. Set it to 1 minute. Then you will set the first slider to anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes. This controls when the system will go to sleep.

But that isn't all. In the "advanced settings" tab, make sure that "Allow Processor cycling" checkbox is checked. This reduces power to the processor if it isn't being used. If you really want to increase your battery life, you might consider checking "Reduce processor speed". This really slows down your system, but it also really does save battery power. If you plan to do word processing, which doesn't involve using a lot of your processors power, consider this option.

If you are using Mac OS X, you have some of the same options. To get to these, open your system preferences from the Apple menu. Select "Energy Saver", which is located under the "hardware" category if you are running 10.1. From there you will see the three slider bars as I previously described. Under the "options" tab you will see that some of the options available in OS 9 are no longer there in 10. Reducing the processor speed would make OS X almost unusable.

There are also some other ways to conserve battery power. If you have a PowerBook G3, you might consider removing your CD or DVD drive and installing the blank insert because the CD or DVD drive also uses quite a bit of power. If you like to listen to music, may I suggest getting an MP3 or CD player- because playing MP3's on your computer (while it is very fun, and very cool- especially with those visualizations in iTunes...) uses both your processor power and your hard drive. Add visualizations- and well, don't even ask. Your battery will run down faster than you can say, "Next time I'm Buying a CD Player" (ok, it won't be that fast, but you do get the point). If you are running Mac OS X, consider starting up in 9 when you need your machine to run for a long time on battery power because OS X's effects (solid/active window dragging, fading/translucent menus, the genie effect, etc) use a lot of processor power and require a lot of hard disk activity.

Reconditioning your battery is important as well. To recondition it, simply use the machine until the battery completely runs out, and then plug it in to recharge it. This is not a full recondition however because there is still a tiny bit of power left in the battery after the last low battery warning appears. The best way to do a full recondition is to use Apple's battery recondition program or download a third party utility from the web.

There are other ways to save battery power (I just thought of another- don't use Microsoft Word- use SimpleText or TextEdit and transfer the text to Word later on, since word is constantly using the hard disk), and on older machines like the PowerBook 140 or 160 there are even more- some are series specific, however I will not discuss those older machines right now because I believe my audience would be too limited (if you have an older Mac like the 140 or 160, drop me an E-mail and let me know that my advice for those machines wouldn't be underappreciated. If I get enough E-mails I will start to talk more about older Macs in addition to newer models). Hopefully this article will be helpful in giving you some extra battery life out of your PowerBook, whether it be the latest G4 or an older 5300cs.