New tools that can charge you up
Gadgetmakers try to ease the strain on increasingly hard-pressed batteries
T.J. Burger does not have fond memories of the first year his store began selling digital cameras.
"It was horror story after horror story," says Mr. Burger, a salesman at Dan's Camera City in Allentown, Pa.
It wasn't about the cameras. The problem: The cheap batteries in the cameras generated about as much power as a hamster on a treadmill. "You would take five pictures and the battery was dead," says Burger.
Five years later, digital-camera owners consistently rank weak batteries as a top complaint. So do users of several other portable devices, including cellphones, laptop computers, and personal digital assistants (PDAs).
It's easy to understand why. Every year, engineers develop more-powerful microchips that enable devices to perform a greater number of functions. That puts a greater drain on battery life.
"Processing power doubles every year," says Alex Slawsby, who analyzes hand-held devices for market-research firm IDC. "But batteries have only taken baby steps."
Batteries are essentially tiny containers of chemicals, explains Mr. Slawsby. What they can do is limited to what exists in nature. "We're not seeing a lot of new elements appear in the periodic table," he says with a laugh.
In order to keep consumers buying gadgets, electronics manufacturers are mounting a major effort to address concerns about battery power. They have given consumers several new options. Among them: devices that require less power to begin with, and accessories that ease recharging.
Retailers hope the new innovations finally help meet consumers' expectations for the performance of their gadgets. "Our customers' biggest complaint is that the batteries never last as long as they were led to believe," says Burger.
Already, most portable products last a lot longer than they did five years ago. Experts credit the gains to the fact that most gadgets now run on lithium-ion and nickel-based batteries rather than alkaline. Both types hold more power and can be quickly recharged.
With these new technologies, battery capacity has risen about 5 to 10 percent every year, say experts. Using standard batteries, consumers can now get between 10 to 15 hours of talk time on their cellphones, about a week of regular use on a Palm handheld computer, about six to eight hours on a Pocket PC, and between two and three hours on a laptop computer.
But these times might shrink as portable devices bulk up once again with the next generation of improvements. One example of a growing power drain: display screens, which are getting wider, showing more colors, and more frequently coming equipped with backlighting.
Rather than hope for a new miracle battery, manufacturers have focused on making gadgets less power-hungry to begin with.
Microprocessor manufacturer Intel, for example, plans to unveil next month a component that manufacturers can install in laptop computers that will increase battery power by more than an hour. Intel says its "Centrino technology" will boost battery strength by running a computer's key hardware on lower frequencies.
"The holy grail of mobile computing is a combination of battery life and performance," says Intel spokeswoman Christine Vermes.
Other manufacturers are focusing on making recharging easier. Early hand-held devices - especially PDAs - often came with built-in rechargeable batteries that were impossible to replace once they began failing to hold their charge.
Today, a variety of cellphones and PDAs include lithium-ion batteries that can be easily removed and replaced.
Another battery-charging improvement: the iSun, made by ICP Global Technologies. Commuters can use this device to recharge their cellphone, pocket PC, or global positioning system while on the move. The iSun can be attached to a car window using two suction cups. Two external solar panels collect sunlight and convert it into energy, which is used to recharge whatever device is plugged into it.
The product sells for $80; would-be buyers should first confirm that their portable devices are compatible with iSun.
Despite the power problems presented by handhelds, consumers are clearly most concerned about the poor performance of batteries in digital cameras.
According to a recent survey by market-research firm InfoTrends, 20 percent of digital-camera owners say that battery life is inadequate for their needs.
The reason: Many manufacturers sell the cameras with low-grade batteries to avoid driving up the final price, or consumers themselves buy batteries that are too puny for what they want to accomplish.
In general, experts recommend consumers be more choosy when they select a battery. Alkaline, lithium-ion, and nickel-based batteries all come in different grades, many of which are poorly suited for use in a camera.
For many digital cameras, lithium-battery packs might be the best option. The $40 to $60 battery, which can be used in about half of all digital cameras, can accommodate as many as 100 pictures per charge.
Consumers who don't like the hassle of recharging can try Panasonic's new disposable PowerEdge batteries, designed for digital cameras. The company says the batteries offer 40 percent more power than a standard alkaline.
Salesmen at Dan's Camera City recommend a European brand called Varta. Batteries with the highest number of milliamps, normally listed on the product's box, offer the most power. "The right battery is out there to meet most consumers' expectations," says Burger.