Skip to Content

Ultra-Low-Power Cell Phones

Programmable analog circuits could drastically reduce the power needs and cost of electronics in portable devices.

A radical approach to making the electronics in cell phones could cut the power consumption of cell phones anywhere from 10 to 100 times, while also dramatically reducing the size and cost.

A schematic of a new type of chip that replaces digital with analog computation, which could be the basis of ultra-low-power cell phones. (Courtesy of Benjamin Vigoda, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories.)

The mobile phone of tomorrow faces competing demands: the need for more and more sophisticated ways of using available bandwidth and the need to accommodate ever-more power-hungry procesasing. Benjamin Vigoda, research scientist at Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories in Cambridge, MA, and research associate at MIT, says the solution may come from an unexpected approach: replacing the combination of analog and digital circuitry used today with what he calls “analog logic.”

Vigoda has already built a prototype chip using his approach, which is now being tested for accuracy, power consumption, and noise, among other things. He says a cell phone using the technology could be completed in five years.

Today’s cell phones already use specialized analog components for sending and receiving high frequencies, for example, which are too fast for digital processing to handle. Meanwhile, digital components handle computational functions, such as error correction, with programmable, general purpose logic gates.

Vigoda’s programmable analog devices can replace both the traditional analog and digital components. This saves power in two ways. First, converting between analog and digital is wasteful in both space and power. Going all-analog cuts out the analog-to-digital middleman, thereby reducing the power required. The analog circuits are also more efficient – Vigoda says one can do the work of 1,000 digital logic gates.

At the same time, Vigoda is keeping the advantages of digital processors by using modular components that permit, for example, an automated design process. Also, because he uses standard CMOS transistors, his new circuits can be built using a standard semiconductor manufacturing process.

While the new components can replace power-hungry digital chips, they can also replace old analog components, such as oscillators, with analog components that can be programmed. The result would be radios which can produce more complex signals that can be changed “on the fly,” Vigoda says, making it possible for many more callers to use the same bandwidth without the signals interfering with each other, as well as making it possible to optimize power savings for different environments. “For 80 years we’ve been relying on these special-purpose analog circuits that are designed and set in stone,” says Vigoda. “What we can do now is make the radio programmable all the way to the antenna. You can imagine much better system-wide optimization given this flexibility at the physical layer.”

If Vigoda’s approach proves out, it could lead to future phones that use a fraction of the power of today’s models, while enabling much greater use of available bandwidth. And this advantage would also apply to radios for wireless Internet access and ultra-low-power remote sensors. “Ten times savings in power means the longevity of the battery is now ten times greater,” he says.

Jonathan Mills, professor of computer science at Indiana University, says that Vigoda is not the first to develop analog devices that can perform the computational work typically done with digital components, but that his work “has a strong place in current investigations into non-digital paradigms for computing,” in part, because Vigoda is working on a project with clear commercial potential.

“Ben [Vigoda] is capitalizing on the excellent property of analog: that it cuts out some of these computational paths that use power and cost speed, so what he’s doing has vast potential,” Mills says.

Deep Dive


Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

lucid dreaming concept
lucid dreaming concept

I taught myself to lucid dream. You can too.

We still don’t know much about the experience of being aware that you’re dreaming—but a few researchers think it could help us find out more about how the brain works.

panpsychism concept
panpsychism concept

Is everything in the world a little bit conscious?

The idea that consciousness is widespread is attractive to many for intellectual and, perhaps, also emotional
reasons. But can it be tested? Surprisingly, perhaps it can.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.