Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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Techie: Power up

Know your battery options for best performance

By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

If you’re like most Americans, you either gave or received at least one electronic gadget this Christmas.

If you gave, did you include batteries? If not, shame on you, and here’s your chance to make up for it. If you received, read on as well.

Many toys (including grownup “toys”) require AA batteries. But all batteries are not created equal. Aside from the rechargeable vs. disposable debate, there are a slew of options that can make a difference in how long a device runs — translating to the best value for your dollar.

• Alkaline: The old standby, alkaline batteries range from the dollar store two-pack to fancy name-brand varieties with descriptions like “Ultra” or “Super Long Life.” In general, these superlatives can be believed, and more expensive batteries will last longer. Alkalines generally supply 1.5 volts of power.

If you’re powering something with occasional, small load usages, like a remote control or small flashlight, cheap batteries will do just fine. Clocks, answering machines and other devices that require more constant power will do better with name brands.

• Lithium: Lithium batteries are often marketed as “Photo Lithium” because they do well in digital cameras — inactive most of the time, with occasional high power draw. They’re also good for other small electronics, like handheld games. They offer high voltage, up to 1.75 volts, and are lighter than alkalines.

The big problem with lithium batteries is that they’re expensive. A four-pack might set you back ten bucks. The extended life in high-drain electronics is worth it, though, especially if you’re traveling and don’t want the hassle of carrying and changing extra batteries.

• Rechargeable Nickel: Nickel Cadmium (NiCd) rechargeables used to be all the rage, but they had issues. For one, if you threw them out, they tended to leak into water tables and kill things. They also had a relatively low capacity which decreased rather precipitously with each recharge, so a 15-minute remote control car race on Christmas morning became a four-minute sprint by New Year’s.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries didn’t completely solve these issues, but they’re a darn site improved. They can typically be recharged 1,000 times or more, and last longer than NiCd batteries. They even come with a handy capacity rating most of the time. The longest-lasting AA NiMH cells these days are about 2,500 milliamp-hours (mAh). The higher that number, the more use you’ll get out of each charge.

Rechargeables generally only supply 1.2 volts. That means quick rundown in high-drain electronics, and near uselessness in devices that require low drain over long periods. They also tend to self-discharge pretty quickly if not used. Of course, you make that all up by not having to buy new batteries, only new electricity.

• Rechargeable Alkaline: These were supposed to be the great breakthrough, but they didn’t live up to the hype. While they supply the full 1.5 volts of conventional alkalines, they can only be recharged up to 100 times. Even then, their capacity and voltage diminish with each charge, so after a while, it’s like using NiMH cells anyway. Their self-discharge is extremely low, however, so they’ll last longer on the shelf.

Using the right batteries will give you the most play time for your hard-earned money. For gift-giving, they’ll earn you even more thanks.