In some respects, life as a laptop-carrying frequent flyer has gotten a little easier. Exhibit A: Though far from commonplace, it's not freakishly bizarre anymore to find a power port at your airplane seat--even in coach. Virgin America and American Airlines are among the most generous airlines in terms of supplying power ports to passengers.
But it's still way too easy to run out of juice in flight, or during the course of a long day away from a wall socket. Here are some tips for keeping your laptop running as long as possible when you're on the go.
Ditch the Peripherals, Tweak Settings
When you're on the road, you can significantly conserve battery power by dimming your laptop screen's brightness. Make sure there are no CDs or DVDs sitting in your optical drive, and don't connect any USB peripherals--all power hogs. Turn off Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and 3G networking (you have to do that in flight anyhow).
Also, tweak your laptop's power settings to conserve your battery. For example, in Windows Vista, go to Control Panel, Power Options and select the "Power saver" setting You can adjust the "Power saver" settings, if you want, or create your own power plan.
Buy a Second Battery
Many laptops today can run off two batteries. When the juice from the primary battery runs dry, the auxiliary kicks in. In most cases, the primary battery comes with the laptop; the second is an optional purchase. For example, HP's EliteBook 6930p promises up to 24 hours of use from one charge--but only if you attach an optional, external 12-cell ultra-capacity battery pack ($189) as a secondary battery to augment the laptop's internal, primary six-cell battery (There are other requirements, too, such as the need to downgrade to Windows XP.) Keep in mind that second battery packs, sometimes also called battery slices often add bulk and weight to your laptop.
Another option: Buy a portable battery pack. I like the Duracell Powersource Mobile 100 (about $110 and up online) because it lets you power a variety of devices, such as laptops, cell phones, portable DVD players, and video cameras, using their own power cords. By comparison, some portable power rechargers require special tips or cables to recharge your gear. The Duracell Powersource can also recharge two USB devices simultaneously with your laptop.
Get to Know Battery Specs
When buying a new laptop or a second laptop battery, pay attention to the power specs. Generally speaking, you need to know how many cells the battery has. The more cells, the longer the battery can last on a charge. For example, a 12-cell battery is designed to last much longer than a six-cell battery. Alternatively, the specs might list Watt-Hour rating, or WHr. The higher the number, the longer your battery should last. Some computer makers, such as Apple, describe laptop batteries in terms of WHr, while others use cells.
Check for Power Ports Before You Fly
Before I book a flight, I find out the type of aircraft I'll be on. Then I jump over to Seatguru.com, which offers helpful seating configuration maps for most domestic and international airlines. The black dots on seat maps indicate the presence of in-seat power ports. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes (especially in coach) you may have to share one power port with your neighbor.
Play Your Music on a Portable Player
Playing music or videos on your laptop is a great way to pass the time--and drain your battery. Music and audio files make frequent hits on your hard drive, which consumes battery power. If you need to work during a long flight, and yet you want to silence that crying baby in 12B, listen to music on your portable media player. That way you won't tax your laptop battery. Most airplanes today have an in-flight music system, which you can listen to even during take-off and landings (which you can't do with a portable electronic device).
Watch Videos on Your Hard Drive
Playing a video on a laptop's DVD drive eats battery power. Video playback from a hard drive, however, is less taxing. So for your next long flight, consider downloading a few movies or TV shows to your hard drive. Or convert your own DVDs into files you can play off your hard drive. As PCWorld.com blogger Rick Broida points out, you can use the popular open-source program Handbrake to rip DVDs into files for watching on a laptop or iPod/iPhone.
Share an Airport Power Plug
Have you ever tried to find an available wall socket at an airport departure gate? Most of the time, other people have already taken the few existing wall sockets. That's why I travel with a multi-plug power adapter. Example: Kensington's Portable Power Outlet ($21 on Amazon.com) lets you simultaneously plug up to three devices into one wall outlet. It also lets you charge up to two USB devices at the same time, and it offers surge protection. Belkin makes a similar product, the Mini Surge Protector With USB Charger (about $14 or more online).