Gadget Bag: Batteries

What you need to know for reliable power in the field


If you've ever wondered how the flashlight got its name, here's the secret. When flashlights were first invented more than 100 years ago, the batteries that powered them were weak and the light lasted for very short periods of time.When turned off, the chemistry in the cells rejuvenated, and the batteries recovered a portion of their power. Then they were ready to flash again. Sounds puny, but considering that the height of portable lighting technology up to that point was a flaming torch, this was a real technological breakthrough. Thankfully, mobile power has come a long way since then.

Modern batteries are capable of supplying power to electronic devices for extended periods of time. Like most other electronic components, some batteries are better suited for a particular task than others. Digital cameras and camcorders have specific battery requirements, but often we still have options.

One-Time-Use Batteries
All batteries fall into two general categories: one-time use and rechargeable. Let's look at the first category. Although marketing departments prefer to refer to them as "one-time use," it's environmentally safe to discard them in small quantities with household waste, so it's okay to call them "disposable." There are three important things to remember: Never mix old and new cells in the same device, as it can create a situation that promotes battery leakage; never dispose of them in a fire; and never attempt to recharge any cell unless it's clearly labeled "rechargeable."

Where digital cameras are concerned, the most common disposable batteries are the cylindrical 1.5-volt AA "penlight" type. Cells of this size got a bad rap in the early days of digital photography because alkaline AAs couldn't deliver enough power for a long enough period of time. Alkalines still lag behind in performance, but developments in battery chemistry have led to the creation of new generations of AA cells with greatly improved characteristics.

One of the most promising new chemical formulations is found in the Oxyride battery, which was developed by Matsushita for Panasonic. The oxy nickel hydroxide battery uses smaller chemical particles and a new manufacturing process to pack the particles closer together. The result is a higher-density energy cell that delivers anywhere from 1.5 to two times as much power as a standard alkaline. Despite their superior performance, these batteries are priced close to their less-gifted cousins, and typically cost only pennies more than conventional alkaline. Best of all, they're available from many national retailers. Expect to pay a bit more than a dollar per cell.

In the Energizer camp, we find the e2 Lithium, a high-performance AA battery that employs an altogether different chemical formulation. Energizer claims its e2 Lithium AA batteries can take up to 600 pictures under the same conditions, whereas an ordinary alkaline battery from a leading manufacturer can take only 90 pictures. Although results may vary depending on the camera, in actual field tests, the e2 Lithium delivered results that make these claims easy to believe. Also, the e2 Lithium cells boast a 15-year shelf life and weigh one-third less than standard alkaline batteries. You'll pay a premium price for this premium battery, but if it's to be deployed in a digital camera, MP3 player or similar high-drain application, you'll quickly recoup the cost difference. If your digital camera uses AA cells, it's wise to toss a couple packages of e2 Lithium cells in your gadget bag when you travel. Even if you normally use rechargeables, the day will come when you're glad to have this high-capacity alternative at hand.

Rechargeable Batteries

For rechargeable AA batteries, nickel metal hydride (NiMH) is the most common chemistry type. NiMH batteries are memory-free, environmentally green (i.e., landfill-friendly) and can survive up to 500 or more charges before suffering a chemical breakdown. Best of all, they're affordable, often costing less that $3 per cell. When you amortize the cost of rechargeable NiMH batteries and charger over 500 recharge cycles, they become ridiculously inexpensive.

For example, Maha Energy offers a set of four PowerEx 2500mAh cells for $13. Its MH-C204W One Hour Worldwide Travel Conditioning Charger ($30) weighs only four ounces and performs complete battery-reconditioning functions. Duracell, Energizer, Panasonic, Kodak and many other high-profile manufacturers also offer rechargeable NiMH batteries in AA, AAA, 9V and other sizes. It's a buyer's market, and as long as you stick to a major brand, you'll do okay. Just keep in mind that the milliamp hour rating (mAh) is the key to how long you can expect to continue taking pictures. Don't buy anything rated lower than 2300mAh. Read more.


Proprietary Rechargeable Batteries
If your digital camera came with a proprietary rechargeable power source, it’s probably a lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery. These cells are typically black or battleship gray and shaped like either a rectangular cube or something that resembles two short, fat AA cells joined at the long edge. At the moment, this is the battery technology of choice because it’s environmentally friendly, has no memory and is capable of delivering a full day’s shooting—and then some—on a single charge. It also charges to full capacity quickly. Lithium is the lightest metal on the planet, and lithium batteries are correspondingly compact and lightweight.

The only thing better than one Li-Ion battery is two Li-Ion batteries—one in service and one as a backup. There are few things more frustrating or disappointing than a shooting session that’s interrupted by a weak or dead battery. And it’s so avoidable—just carry an extra battery in your gadget bag. Keep it in its original container or a plastic bag to protect the electrical contacts. Make sure it’s fully charged and you’ll never be without juice.

Is it imperative to buy a battery that’s the same brand as your camera? Let’s face it, most camera manufacturers are not Li-Ion battery manufacturers. That means they’re buying their batteries from a third party. In many cases, these third-party, OEM suppliers are also fabricating batteries for many of the private-label brands. The long and the short of it is this: Trust batteries that are sold by retailers you trust. Avoid brands you never see advertised or have never heard of.

Brands like Lenmar, Quest, DigiPower and Impact have been providing rechargeable alternatives to manufacturers’ prime digital camera and camcorder batteries for years. Many retailers, including Adorama, offer their own line of batteries as well. The cost savings is often substantial—sometimes enough that you can own two batteries for the price of one. For instance, an Adorama EN-EL3 rechargeable Li-Ion battery pack for Nikon D70 and D-100 digital cameras will run you less than $20, but to buy one that has Nikon’s name on it will set you back $40.

Make sure that your search for a lower price doesn’t lead you to some phony brand that’s being sold from someone’s basement via an online auction. There are verified reports of counterfeit batteries sold by nefarious merchants, and some of those look-alike products have malfunctioned and damaged cameras and other electronic equipment. Buy from a merchant you trust or buy a name you know, and you’ll be safe. It’s better to spend a little more for a brand you trust than to find yourself miles from nowhere, with the ultimate photo in your viewfinder—and no power to capture it.

(800) 223-2500
(800) 424-2703
Ansmann (HP Marketing Corp.)
(800) 735-4373
Maha Energy
(800) 376-9992
(800) 211-PANA
(800) 551-2355
Sunpak (ToCAD)
(973) 627-9600
(800) 383-7323
(800) 798-7740




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