Hardware Tips: Longer Life, Lower Cost for All Your Gadgets' Batteries

Everyone who owns an MP3 player, cell phone, digital camera, or other portable device wants batteries that cost less and that last longer between recharges or replacement. These tips will help you get more power for your battery dollar.

If your PDA, camera, or mechanical bunny uses standard AA or AAA batteries, disposable alkaline ones aren't your only--or even best--choice. Eveready's Energizer E2 Titanium and other high-end alkaline batteries deliver much longer battery life for some uses. The catch: They cost $6 per four-pack online, and up to twice that at retail, about double what you would pay for standard alkaline batteries.

You pay a similar premium for lithium-based AA and AAA batteries, which also cost about twice as much as standard alkalines. However, they sometimes offer more than twice the performance, especially for such power-hungry devices as digital cameras and CD players. (Winter sports enthusiasts should note that lithium batteries perform well in cold environments.) Click here for a battery-life comparison.

By time you read this, stores should be selling Panasonic's disposable Oxyride batteries, which lasted twice as long as comparably priced alkaline batteries in PC World tests (see "New Batteries: Twice the Life").

You can protect your pocketbook and the environment by using rechargeable batteries. Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries cost a bit more and take slightly longer to charge than nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries, but the NiMH kind last longer (see the chart below). AA and AAA battery rechargers cost as little as $10 online, at electronics stores, and at discount chains.

To get the most out of a rechargeable battery, you have to store and recharge it properly. While most of today's gadgets use lithium ion or lithium polymer batteries, some rely on the older, less-expensive, and lower-capacity NiMH and NiCd type.

NiCd batteries need to be fully discharged before recharging to prevent "memory" problems, which can limit the battery's storage capacity when it hasn't yet been fully depleted. NiMH batteries don't suffer from memory problems, but some experts consider fully discharging the battery regularly to be beneficial. However, lithium batteries last longer if recharged when not fully drained.

Check with the battery's manufacturer for the best way to recharge it. And if you've had battery trouble with your IPod, you're not alone. Click here for a wealth of useful information about IPod battery issues.

Batteries start losing charge capacity from the moment they're manufactured. To minimize aging, store your batteries at 50 to 60 degrees--but don't freeze them. And for optimal long-term storage, keep your lithium, NiMH, and NiCd batteries about 50 percent charged to minimize capacity loss during long periods of nonuse. Of course, there's no easy way to determine a battery's remaining charge with any precision, so first recharge the device fully, and then use it for what you approximate is half its standard charge duration before putting it away into cool storage.

When a rechargeable battery becomes unrechargeable, don't throw it away; recycle it. The cadmium in NiCd batteries is especially toxic. Recycling centers are easy to find; go to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation site for a listing of locations nationwide.

Power on the Go

Any USB port in a storm: You can recharge any device that comes with an internal rechargeable battery and a USB port by connecting it to a powered USB hub, whether in your PC or a stand-alone device. USB cables are easier to carry around than the bulky "wall wart" AC power adapters that accompany most portable devices. Cell phone makers often provide USB cables as an accessory. If yours doesn't, APC carries USB adapters for various types of cell phones, most of which are less than $20.

Targus manufactures a Universal Notebook Docking Station ($150 list; $125 online) that supplies two "always-on" USB ports for convenient charging, even when your laptop is not attached.

If you're driving, a USB adapter for your car's cigarette lighter costs less than $15 at computer stores or at such sites as 101cells.com.

One adapter to rule them all: Minimize the number of power adapters you have to carry around by using a universal power adapter such as those sold by Belkin and Targus; (see Figure 1

Figure 1: Let one universal adapter, such as this Targus model, serve all your recharging needs.
). These light, thin adapters come with tips that fit many laptops, PDAs, cameras, and cell phones. Prices range from $80 to $150, depending on the wattage they provide.

Auto-matic AC: If you spend a lot of time in an automobile, 12V-DC-to-110V-AC power converters such as the AC Anywhere from Belkin and the Mobile Power Inverter from Targus deliver standard AC power from a car's cigarette lighter. You can't run a table saw from them, but they will power any small electronic device up to a laptop PC.

Spin cycle: My all-time favorite gadget for cell phones is the SideWinder cell phone charger from IST Designs. This tiny, 2.5-ounce generator allows you to manually charge your cell phone anytime, anywhere, by spinning a small crank (see Figure 2

Figure 2: Never miss another call. Keep your cell phone charged with the SideWinder hand generator.
). Just 2 minutes of turning provides about 5 minutes of talking time on my Nokia cell phone. A small light on the SideWinder's case makes a handy emergency flashlight as well. The SideWinder comes equipped with a set of adapters to accommodate a wide range of cell phones.

Catch some rays: If you're going where there's no power but lots of sunshine, consider the $70 Coleman Exponent Flex 5 by ICP Solar. The flexible solar panel weighs 1 pound and folds into a 7-by-9-by-1.5-inch packet that's easy to stow and carry. Devices connect via a cigarette-lighter adapter. In full sunlight at the equator, the unit supposedly produces enough energy to charge a typical cell phone in 3 to 5 hours.

New Batteries Pack More Power

Choose the best battery type for the power needs of your favorite gadgets:

Battery Type Pros Cons
Nickel cadium (NiCd) - Inexpensive and widely available
- High number of recharges before battery wears out
- Fast recharges
- Low charge capacity
- Subject to memory-effect problems
- Contains toxic cadmium
Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) - Up to 40 percent more charge capacity than NiCd
- Fewer memory-effect problems
- Fewer recharges than NiCd
- Battery discharges quickly when not in use
Lithium ion/lithium polymer - Higher charge capacity than NiCd or NiMH
- No memory-effect problems
- Lithium polymer type comes in many shapes
- More expensive than NiCd or NiMH
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