Close up of hands plugging a USB cord into a smartphone
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Have you ever noticed how your smartphone seems to charge relatively fast until you hit around 80% charged? Getting to 100% takes a lot longer, and that’s due to the way lithium batteries are treated by your device.

Three Stages of Lithium Battery Charging

Lithium batteries have three stages of charging, each designed to protect the battery in its most vulnerable states. These are:

  1. Constant current pre-charging, also known as “trickle charging”
  2. Constant current regulation mode
  3. Constant voltage regulation mode

Pre-Charge

The first stage applies when the battery is empty or cell voltage is below 3.0 V. The cell must be reactivated slowly to protect against issues caused by leaving the battery for extended periods in a discharged state.

The battery’s passivating layer, a protective shield that forms as part of a normal chemical reaction, may need to recover and low voltage trickle charging allows that to happen.

iPhone Battery Empty display

This pre-charge phase normally takes place at around 10% of the maximum charging speed. This explains the delay in powering up a completely discharged smartphone. For example, a discharged iPhone will often display a depleted battery symbol for a few minutes before it has the necessary voltage required to start up properly.

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During the pre-charge stage current is held constant (but at a lower rate than the next stage of charging) while voltage gradually increases.

Constant Current Charging

Once the battery reaches 3.0 V, your phone will start to gradually charge a lot faster. At this stage of charging, the current is set to a constant high rate while voltage is increased over time. This is when your device will charge at its fastest, and when any available fast charging mode is used.

This stage charges the battery to around 80% capacity in as little time as the cell will safely allow.

Constant Voltage Charging

Once the battery reaches around 80%, charging switches to constant voltage regulation mode. At this point, the voltage is held constant in order to keep the battery at maximum charge, while the current is slowly reduced. This prevents overcharging, avoiding damage to the battery. It also means that charging slows down as the charge level gets closer to 100%.

The current will continue to drop until the battery is charged to near-capacity, at which point charging will stop entirely. At this point, you should ideally remove your smartphone from the charger.

iPhone Battery charged to 95%

If you leave your phone connected, the battery will slightly discharge until it hits around 3.9 to 4 V, at which point a top-up charge is applied. The device will continue discharging and topping up for as long as you leave it connected to the charger.

How Does This Impact Fast Charging?

You may have noticed that some smartphone manufacturers advertise fast charging that can charge your device to “50%” or “80%” within a short period. This is because fast charging is conditional. If your battery level is already high, fast charging is unlikely to offer much improvement.

Apple Optimized Charging Diagram
Apple
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Fast charging can only be used during the constant current regulation period of charging. Once you hit constant voltage regulation mode or a battery capacity of around 80% or higher, safeguards are taken to protect the cell from damage.

Overcharging a battery is a bad idea. At best it can cause damage that affects the battery’s ability to hold a charge, but at worst it will cause the battery to get progressively hotter which could result in physical harm. Fortunately, modern smartphones manage the charging process for you to prevent this from happening.

RELATED: Why Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Explode?

How Smartphones Further Protect Your Battery

Lithium cells aren’t susceptible to the dreaded “memory” effect that older rechargeable batteries suffered from, where they would “forget” their charge capacity unless they were fully discharged first. Lithium batteries aren’t infallible though, and they do lose capacity over time with each charge cycle.

A charge cycle isn’t just going from 0% to 100%, but represents cumulative wear on the battery. For example, charging from 50% to 100% two days in a row uses a complete charge cycle. Some smartphone manufacturers have taken steps to stave off premature battery aging with a feature called optimized charging.

Optimized Charging feature for iPhones

Optimized charging works by charging your device to 80% and waiting. By learning your habits and your routine, the device will time the final stage of charging to coincide when you’re most likely to remove the charger, for example when you wake up in the morning.

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iOS 13 applied this feature retroactively to all iPhones, and OnePlus introduced a similar feature in January 2020.

Keeping Your Battery in Good Health

There are a few tips you can follow to keep your battery in good health, the first being don’t fully discharge it if possible. Lithium batteries benefit from shallow discharges, which is where the 40-80 rule comes in (sometimes known as the 40-70 rule).

This logic dictates that you should avoid letting your phone battery drop below 40% or charge over 80% for best health. Lithium cells perform and store best in this state and going above or below these numbers can negatively affect battery health.

Unfortunately, you can’t guarantee this unless you’re watching your smartphone at all times. Apple’s Shortcuts app allows you to create automations that you could use to notify you of charge states if you wanted to take this rule to the extreme.

For everyone else, ensuring optimized charging is enabled where possible (on an iPhone you’ll find this option under Settings > Battery > Battery Health) is a great start. It will take your device a few weeks to learn your routine, after which your battery will be intelligently managed when left connected to the charger for long periods.

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If you don’t have the option of using software-managed optimized charging (and even if you do, to an extent) then the best rule is to charge your device thoughtfully. Don’t leave it connected overnight, but instead charge it in short bursts throughout the day.

This will require some conscious effort and perhaps a routine change for best results. If you’re the sort of person who keeps your smartphone for years before buying a replacement, this is a great way of getting more life out of the battery.

RELATED: Why You Don't Need an Expensive Smartphone Anymore

Not Just Smartphones

Other devices that have lithium batteries like tablets, laptops, game controllers, wearables, and even portable chargers, can all benefit from more considered charging. Many of these do not have optimized charging modes, but all will benefit from shallow discharge cycles and the 80-40 rule.

Having power problems? Learn how to maximize iPhone power, improve battery life on Android, or make your Apple Watch last longer on a single charge.

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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