After seeing some students yesterday that tried to use a voltage divider instead of a regulator to provide a sensor with a lower power supply, with predictable results, I started wondering about this question.
When picking a regulator, it seems many look at the required voltage drop and the power dissipation required. Efficiency aside for the moment, if a linear regulator can drop that power within thermal limits, linear regulators are an option, and if they can't, move on to switching regulators.
If one could figure out the range of current draws, and calculate out a voltage divider that would simultaneously keep the input to a linear regulator high enough to maintain regulation and low enough such that the regulator doesn't burn away too much power across the current draw range, is this a viable approach?
I can think of a number of reasons why this might not be the best approach: power supply rejection ratio may not be good enough on the regulator; the range of current draws that make this approach feasible might be very small, unless you use small resistors that are likely to exceed their own power ratings; its just more efficient to use a switching regulator; etc.
Also, it might be that people do this all the time, and I just haven't noticed it, or maybe a zener is used instead of the divider. It just seems that when the power drop is too big, people mostly run to switching regulators.
Anything I'm missing?