02/03/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unsexy Feature That The iPhone Desperately Needs

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No matter how advanced and slick iPhones and other gadgets get, their battery life stays reliably terrible. Now it seems major phone makers are finally doing something about that -- though they're still way behind the curve.

Apple engineers are studying new ways to power devices, according to The New York Times, including using miniature solar panels and the swinging motion of a gadget owner's walk to charge batteries. Google and Samsung are doing similar research, according to the NYT.

Poor battery life is pretty much the biggest complaint people have about their phones. A recent 2013 J.D. Power & Associates survey found battery life to be the least satisfying of 19 smartphone characteristics. An informal poll of HuffPost readers last year found the same dissatisfaction. Article after article online is dedicated to improving phone battery life.

The quest for new powering techniques has been happening for a few years, but the rise of wearable technology has made the project more urgent. If smart watches and Google Glass are going to have mass appeal, they'll need pint-sized powerhouses that won't die after just hours of use.

These experiments may still be years from producing batteries for general public consumption. But better batteries are already long overdue. The lithium-ion technology powering most of today's electronics was introduced to consumers in the early 1990s. Though it paved the way for today's pocket-sized computers, it hasn't improved at the same rate circuitry has.

apple battery life

The chart above, from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, shows the exponential growth of computing power relative to the modest improvement in battery juice. "Disk capacity," the amount of information a computer can store, grew more than thousandfold between 1990 and 2005. During that same stretch, battery life merely tripled, according to the chart.

One reason engineers have been cautious about tinkering with batteries too much is that a new-fangled battery -- unlike a new-fangled silicon chip -- might explode. Even with the old technology, we still get the occasional story of a battery meltdown causing fires and hurting people.