iPod touch battery life and iOS 4

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
July 8th, 2010 • 4:36 pm

I have owned a 2nd generation iPod touch since November 2008 and have been generally very pleased with it. There was the problem with the in-ear headphones with remote that I talked about last April, but that was a separate issue and it was successfully addressed by Apple through a free-of-charge replacement program.

Truth be told, I mostly use my iPod touch as a music player. I work at home and do not travel much, so I have no big need for portable computing applications. I occasionally use the iPod as a PDA, to look up contacts, appointments, passwords, etc. while I am on the road, but the iPod’s primary use is as a music player.

And it is honestly the best music player I have used. I still have a classic hard-drive-based iPod with the click wheel, but I don’t really use it as a music player anymore, because it’s heavier, the screen is smaller, and the click wheel comes nowhere near the touch screen in usability.

Since the iPod touch uses flash memory instead of a hard drive, there is no concern about moving too much and causing problems with the hard drive, which is not insignificant for me since I mostly use the iPod touch as a music player while I am exercising, i.e. usually going for a walk outside (or occasionally using an elliptical trainer in the winter time, when the weather is really too nasty). My main form of physical activity is swimming, but I do enjoy walking along the shore near the house, which I tend to do at least 4 or 5 times a week, and I like to listen to music while walking.

As well, the battery life of the iPod touch when used as a music player is excellent. With my limited usage patterns, I am used to not having to charge my iPod touch for a couple of weeks or even more.

It is all rather liberating.

So when Apple released the iOS 4 a few weeks ago, I did not rush to upgrade my iPod touch, even though it was compatible, simply because most of the features of the new OS are of little importance to me. But when my battery was finally drained the other day, I figured that it would be interesting to see what Apple was up to with the newer OS and test some of the features, just out of curiosity.

I connected my iPod touch to my computer, ran the upgrade through iTunes and thought nothing of it. The next day, I disconnected the fully charged iPod, went for a walk, and barely noticed the slightly improved user interface for the music playing feature. After my walk, I simply stopped the music playback with the remote, and left the iPod on a shelf in the corridor, as I usually do.

Then two days later when I grabbed the iPod again, I noticed that the battery was pretty low. I thought that it was a bit strange, since I hadn’t used it much, but didn’t worry too much about it and simply charged it again, and put it back on the shelf.

Then some days later after I had used it only once, I went to use it again and noticed that the battery was completely drained. In fact, even after I plugged it into the computer, I couldn’t do anything with it. All I had was the empty battery icon with ominous red flashing. I started to fear that the OS upgrade had somehow killed the iPod altogether, but left it plugged in for a while, just in case the battery was so drained that the OS couldn’t run even with the USB cord plugged in, because it couldn’t get enough juice through the USB connection to both run and charge the completely drained battery at the same time.

And sure enough when I returned to the plugged-in iPod a couple of hours later, it was back to normal, charging properly and letting me use it at the same time.

But I then started thinking that there was indeed some problem with the OS upgrade that had somehow screwed up the battery. I decided to keep a close eye on the battery level in the next few days and see what would happen.

So I used it once for half an hour after unplugging it from the computer, and the battery level was normal.

But when I used it again two days later (this afternoon), the battery level was down to about 50%, even though I had done nothing with it for two days and had just left it asleep on the shelf. I went for my walk with it, but while walking I thought that I should check the Apple discussion forums when I was back. I also thought that there were a couple of troubleshooting steps that I could try, including powering off the iPod touch altogether between each use. The iPod takes about 30–40 seconds to power up after it’s been shut off, but at least the music player feature does remember where you were and allows you to resume playing, so it would not be too much of a hassle. I even thought that, if worst came to worst, I could try and revert the iPod to iOS 3, since I didn’t really need the new features anyway.

I also couldn’t help but fear that Apple’s engineers had once again adopted a fairly careless attitude in their support for older hardware, and were just assuming that people would want to replace their iPod with a new model after a couple of years anyway, and should expect a loss of battery life over time. But this was not a gradual loss over time! Rather, it was a very sharp decrease in battery life, and I couldn’t help but feel somewhat offended by the apparent implications of Apple’s design decisions here.

When I came back from my walk, I went online and sure enough, I quickly found a big discussion thread on Apple’s iPod touch forum titled “Low battery life on iPod touch after installing iOS 4.”

This discussion thread makes it clear that I am far from alone in experiencing this. It is somewhat reassuring, in that it means that the problem might be addressed in a future OS update. But it is also quite disappointing that Apple’s engineers failed to predict this battery-draining behaviour with the default settings of the new iOS 4 and failed to include steps to warn users and advise them about what they could do to avoid the behaviour.

Based on the advice provided in this discussion thread, it looks like the problem is due to the wifi feature (which I rarely use) being left on all the time, even when the iPod touch is apparently asleep. So I should be able to avoid the battery draining by turning the wifi feature off or switching the iPod to “Airplane Mode” (in the “Settings” app)—which I am going to try right away. I certainly hope that it will eliminate the battery draining and bring back the extended battery life that I am used to with my typical usage pattern.

Since I mostly use the iPod touch as a music player, Airplane Mode is not a big problem for me. I can remain in this mode most of the time, and only switch it off, which switches the wifi feature back on, when I really need that feature.

But I can easily understand why other users are rather frustrated by this sudden change in the power consumption of their device, and not too pleased to have to manually turn wifi off and back on all the time in order to avoid the very negative impact on battery life.

I am sure that it is difficult for Apple’s engineers to take into account the hundreds, if not thousands of different usage patterns that actual consumers exhibit when using their devices. But I still feel that they could have made more of an effort in this particular case to at least warn users about the significant change and the significant impact that it has on battery life with the default settings of the new OS. And I hope that they will provide an update that lets people change the iPod’s behaviour back to the way it worked in iOS 3, where wifi is turned off automatically each time the iPod goes to sleep.

I will continue to monitor the battery life of my iPod touch now that I have switched to Airplane Mode. If things do not improve, you can be sure that I will write more about this.

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