Linear Regulators in Portable Applications
Maxim > Design Support > Technical Documents > Tutorials > Power-Supply Circuits > APP 751
Keywords: LDO, linear regulator, linear voltage regulator, portable, batteries, alkaline, NiCd, NiMH,
Lithium, Li+, lithium-ion, switching regulator, efficiency, quiescent current, IQ, wireless
Linear Regulators in Portable Applications
Jul 22, 2002
Abstract: Linear regulators provide significant advantages over switching regulators in simplicity, cost,
and output noise, but not efficiency. When applied to battery-operated portable equipment, battery life is
more important than individual circuit efficiency, therefore, the choice between a low dropout (LDO) and
a switching regulator is not so obvious. In addition, the particular battery characteristics, whether alkaline,
NiCd, NiMH, or lithium (Li+), must be considered.
A similar version of this article appeared in the August, 1996 issue of Electronic Products.
Advances in voltage-regulator design have helped to establish portable electronic products as the fastest
growing segment of the electronics industry. The demands for low cost, long battery life, and small size
in this market are changing and rearranging the design priorities for power supplies. The result is a
general rewrite of specifications for the latest generation of power-supply ICs.
Surprisingly, both switch-mode and linear voltage regulators have participated in this transformation.
Despite the predominant use of switch-mode regulators in portable products, the linear voltage regulator
remains a viable contender. Advances in operating current, dropout voltage, noise, and packaging make
the modern linear regulator very different from the LM309s and µA7805s used for most designs in the
Three very important questions must be asked when designing power supplies for portable products: Can
a linear regulator work in my design? Will linear regulators (versus switching types) limit my battery life?
Which regulator specs are critical? These questions are explored in the following discussion with an
emphasis on portable and handheld applications. The issues discussed include a comparison of switchmode and linear strengths, the parameters important to battery life, when linear regulators should not be
used, how battery type can affect your design decisions, and how the characteristics of linear regulators
can help or hinder a portable design.
Linear versus Switching Regulators
Before dealing with the subtleties of linear regulators for portable designs, it is worthwhile to make a
comparison between the linear and switching types. In some cases, switching regulators can provide
major benefits in a portable design. For example, if a high-performance switch-mode converter exhibits
90% efficiency (in transforming battery power to system power), then a linear design is unlikely to extend
the battery life, unless the voltage differential between the battery and linear regulator is small.
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Furthermore, the linear regulator can only step a voltage down to a lower level. If a system requires
voltages not available from the battery, such as high voltage for a display or a negative voltage for
analog circuitry, then the system usually requires switching regulators. Table 1 outlines the basic
differences between linear and switch-mode regulators.
Table 1. Comparison Between Linear and Switch-Mode Regulators
Only steps down; input voltage must be
greater than output
Steps up, steps down, or inverts
Low to medium, but actual battery life
depends on load current and battery
voltage over time; high if VIN - VOUT
difference is small
High, except at very low load currents (µA),
where switch-mode quiescent current (IQ ) is
usually higher
Waste Heat
High, if average load and/or input/output
voltage difference are high
Low, as components usually run cool for
power levels below 10W
Medium to high, which usually requires
Low, which usually requires only the
inductor, diode, and filter caps in addition to
regulator and low-value bypass capacitors the IC; for high-power circuits, external FETs
are needed
Larger than linear at low power, but smaller at
Small to medium in portable designs, but
power levels for which linear requires a heat
may be larger if heatsinking is needed
Total Cost
Medium to high, largely due to external
Low; no ripple, low noise, better noise
Medium to high, due to ripple at switching
There is generally a big advantage in using linear regulators instead of switchers when it comes to
simplicity and cost, but not efficiency. However, the actual effect of measured efficiency on battery life
can be deceptive. For many of the battery configurations to be discussed, linear-regulator efficiency is
quite adequate when considered over the battery's full discharge cycle.
For very-low-power designs, even a large penalty in efficiency can be acceptable. In a handheld
terminal, for example, a switching supply can be worth the cost if it increases battery life from 10 days to
15 days. For a small organizer, however, a similar expense just to increase battery life from 4 months to
6 months may not be justified.
Combining linear and switch-mode regulators is a common technique for generating multiple supply
voltages (Figure 1). A linear regulator (Figure 1a) converts battery voltage to a logic supply, and one or
more switchers generate other voltages required for analog circuitry and liquid-crystal-display (LCD) bias.
A different approach (Figure 1b) achieves noise and ripple rejection with a combination of linear and
switch-mode regulators. Because power drawn by these regulators is not a major portion of the total load
in a portable system, their effect on battery life is minimal.
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Figure 1. (a) This handheld terminal uses linear regulation for the logic supply, but needs switch-mode
converters for the LCD bias and analog circuitry. (b) In another application, a switch-mode boost
converter is followed by linear postregulators for the low-voltage logic and RF receiver.
Will a Linear Regulator Suffice?
Linear regulators are preferred in most designs. Compared with switching regulators, they provide lower
cost, fewer external components, and less circuit complexity. However, linear regulators have drawbacks:
reduced battery life, higher cell count, larger dropout voltage, and heat. Though not unique to portable
equipment, these problems call for solutions different from those associated with AC-powered equipment.
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Cell count is often an inflexible issue in determining regulator type (or vice versa). Linear regulators, for
example, require a sufficient number of series-connected cells to produce inputs that exceed the
regulator's output voltage at all times. For a -3.3V output, this means using 3 or more cells (of roughly
1V to 1.5V each) for alkaline, NiCd, or NiMH batteries. Li+ batteries require fewer cells because Li+ cells
have a higher voltage: usually between 2.5V and 4.2V. For 5V outputs, at least 5 cells may be needed
to ensure a sufficient regulator input, as the cell voltages decline during discharge. For 12V outputs, the
cell count becomes so high that a switch-mode boost converter often makes more sense than a linear
Linear regulators are most appropriate when the cell count is justified, from the standpoint of both voltage
headroom and total energy. It is less sensible to satisfy a linear regulator's input requirement by stacking
5 or 6 cells, if only 2 cells have enough power to support the load for an adequate time. In that case,
the added cost of a switch-mode boost converter can be justified by the lower cell count, particularly if
the cells are rechargeable.
If the terminal voltage of a battery falls below the desired minimum, a linear regulator cannot extract all
of the energy available as the battery nears its end of discharge. A switching regulator, however, can
boost the battery voltage as required. But rather than incur the expense of a switcher, the designer often
selects a linear regulator with the lowest available dropout voltage. (Dropout is the minimum allowed
difference between the input and output voltages, which occurs just as regulation is lost.) Dropout
voltages vary considerably for linear regulators, even among those labeled as low-dropout types by the
manufacturer (Table 2).
Table 2. Linear Regulator Comparison
npn, Not Low
Pass Element
pnp, Low
pFET, Low
pFET, Low
pFET, Low
Example Part
Typical Dropout
Voltage (at 100mA
Typical Quiescent
(Ground) Current at
No Load
Quiescent Current vs.
Little change
Load Current
Increases with
load to 14mA
No change
No change
No change
Quiescent Current in
Little change
110µA at no load,
increases with
No change
No change
No change
Shutdown Current
frequently not
PSRR at High
Good, about 42dB at
Poor, about 12dB at 100kHz
Good, about - Good, about - Poor, about 38dB at
42dB at
10dB at
8-pin SO
8-pin SO
5-pin SOT23
6-pin TDFNEP
8-pin SO
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Life with Real Batteries
A good starting point in designing a portable power supply is to consider the results obtained with a real
battery, rather than an idealized power supply at the regulator's input. The characteristics fundamental to
most batteries are a nonzero output resistance and the voltage decline associated with cell discharge
(Figure 2). This discharge profile sometimes works in favor of linear regulation, because the power lost
is a function of the input-output voltage difference.
Figure 2. These curves illustrate typical alkaline- and NiCd-cell discharge profiles for a 100mW constantpower load. The NiCd cell's flatter discharge is due to its lower cell resistance.
Voltage is high and efficiency is poor for a freshly charged cell, but efficiency actually improves as the
battery voltage drops (Figure 3). At dropout, when VIN nearly equals VOUT , the linear-regulator
efficiency is almost 100%! This behavior is the opposite of that typical for switch-mode regulators. The
important questions, though, are what efficiency level prevails for most of the battery's life, and what
effect does this efficiency profile have on battery life? If the poorest efficiency lasts for a relatively short
time, its impact on battery life may not be significant.
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Figure 3. Efficiency increases as battery voltage declines for this 3-cell, linearly regulated system with a
100mW constant-power load. The average efficiency short of dropout is 85%. At dropout, approximately
5 hours of energy (20% of the total) are left in the battery, yielding a total cumulative efficiency of 68%.
Regarding the curves of Figure 3, as a downside, 20% of the energy (5 of 25 hours) remains in the
battery when the regulator hits dropout. Thus the percentage of battery energy used, 85% × 80% = 68%,
is still not bad for a low-cost design. The curves show that, if the system can be run in dropout down to
3.0V, raising the percentage of utilized battery energy to 85% × 90% = 76.5%, you can obtain another
2.5 hours of operation.
Better than Improving Efficiency
The least expensive method for improving efficiency in a portable design is reducing the load current,
which increases the likelihood that a low-cost linear regulator can do the job. Though obvious, these
benefits have no effect on the actual efficiency, which (by definition) is "power out divided by power in."
Still, a reduction in load current can do more for battery life than a cutting-edge regulator design.
Consider the cost in finding a 10% improvement in power-supply efficiency, and then think about ways
to reduce the load by the same 10% or more—with lower power ICs, by increasing pullup resistances, or
with stingier power management by reducing the operating voltage. Often, money is better spent at the
load than in the regulator. Reducing the output voltage in a linearly regulated system illustrates this
point. In most cases, the battery life goes up because the ICs draw less current, but efficiency actually
goes down ([(VOUT × IOUT )/(VIN × IIN)] decreases).
Why Care About Quiescent Current?
Another regulator specification critical in battery designs is quiescent current, also called "operating
current" or "ground current." This current never makes it to the load; it flows from the battery to power
the regulator itself. The importance of this spec is proportional to the magnitude of quiescent current with
respect to load current. If load current is 350mA and quiescent current is 1mA, the quiescent contribution
to inefficiency is only -0.28%. However for 1mA loads, the percentage loss is much worse: -50%.
Load currents often vary widely, so the net effect of quiescent current on battery life depends on a
combination of these two cases. The question is, which load occurs for the greatest amount of time? If
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load currents are small for most of the time, then you must ensure a low quiescent current to achieve
high efficiency. This caveat is especially critical in designs that never actually turn off. An instrument can
have an on/off button, though "off" may only represent a sleep mode or standby state in which system
power is active, but the load is in microamps. Table 3 shows how quiescent currents affect efficiency for
three devices: a common low-power regulator often used in AC line-powered designs (the LM78L05),
and two regulators optimized for low operating current (the MAX8863 and MAX882).
Table 3. Effect of Regulator Quiescent (Ground) Current on Efficiency
Efficiency (%)
Input and 3.3V Output)
Load Current
IQ = 68µA
IQ = 11µA
IQ = 3mA
The behavior of quiescent current during dropout is a subtle but important difference between lowdropout (LDO) regulators based on pnp and pFET transistors (see columns 3 and 4 of Table 2). pFET
gates draw virtually no current, so pFET regulators exhibit no quiescent rise during dropout. In the pnp
design, however, quiescent current rises as the regulator struggles to maintain its output voltage by
sinking base current to ground. For applications in which dropout is a normal occurrence rather than a
"fault" condition (as in regulating 3 alkaline cells to 3.3V), this extra quiescent current can be significant.
If the system ICs allow a tolerance of ±10% in the supply voltage, it can be useful to keep operating as
the output falls to 3.0V, draining the batteries to nearly 1V each. Devices based on pnp transistors tend
to accelerate battery drain during this time by drawing more quiescent current. However, the quiescent
current remains constant for FET-based regulators.
A major stumbling block for linear regulators in portable systems is the difficulty of dissipating heat from
small enclosures. Thermal issues are important for any linearly regulated supply, but in portables
(especially handheld devices), the problem becomes acute. Though ICs can handle only a limited
amount of heat, the new surface-mount packages are helping. The 5-pin SOT23 package is rated for
over 500mW, and some exposed-pad packages are rated for almost 2W (Table 4).
Table 4. Power Dissipation of Typical Surface-Mount Devices
Standard 8-pin
Power Dissipation at +70°C
8-pin µMAX®EP
6-pin TDFNEP
Thermal Resistance
Board Area (IC Only)
Representative Part
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New packages are introduced constantly, so it is good to monitor manufacturers' offerings. Figure 4
defines the usable average current as a function of input voltage for one 0.5A surface-mount device.
Again, the load-current profile over time can act as a guide in dissipating the heat. If the load-current
peaks are short enough to be integrated thermally, a lower power package can suffice.
Figure 4. The MAX1792 comes in a high-power, 8-pin µMAX package with power dissipation exceeding
that of a standard 8-pin SO. The safe operating area shows an inverse relationship between the
maximum allowable output current and the magnitude of the input-output voltage differential.
Load Management
To reduce battery drain, many portable systems turn on their various internal circuit blocks only as
needed. This switching is often implemented with logic-driven pFET switches following the regulated
supply. To avoid losing regulation while delivering peak load currents, the FETs' on-resistance must be
sufficiently low to ensure that the load-side voltage remains above the minimum level specified.
This switch-resistance problem is further complicated in low-voltage systems of 3.3V and below, because
the low gate drive may not sufficiently minimize the FET's on-resistance. The cost of low-gate-threshold
FETs is declining. However, in many cases, the use of multiple linear regulators offers a better approach.
Many new linear regulators have a logic-level shutdown capability that turns off the regulator output
completely, enabling the device to serve both as a regulator and a switch.
Figure 5 depicts a portable wireless product implemented with single (Figure 5a) and multiple (Figure 5b)
regulators. The Figure 5b design is a bit more convenient if separate shutdown controls are provided for
each output as shown, but it also works well with single-output devices. This design offers several
It avoids two pass elements between the battery and the load (as is the case when the regulator is
followed by FETs).
It provides regulation on the output side of the regulator/switch.
The regulators can be placed closer to their loads for better dynamic performance.
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The power dissipation is spread among two or more devices.
Figure 5. Two approaches to distributed power and load management in a portable wireless product are
shown here. (a) A single regulator followed by pFET load switches requires low switch resistance. This
ensures a regulated output while delivering peak load currents. (b) Two dual-regulator ICs perform the
same function, but with two advantages: they provide four independently regulated outputs, and they
distribute the power dissipation over multiple devices.
µMAX is a registered trademark of Maxim Integrated Products, Inc.
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