Batteries the power behind high-tech world

Devices: In addition to providing energy for digital products, these items can also be tricky when recharging.

May 28, 2001|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

When digital cameras first became available, people would often crowd around me at a party to look at my gadget's tiny display after I took a photo. High tech can be a cool status symbol, whether it's a handheld computer or a robotic dog that can bark in three different languages.

That's cool. But some technologies seem flat-out boring.

Batteries, no matter how nifty, are unlikely to draw a crowd at your next party. Imagine sidling up to someone and saying, "My new lithium ion battery is giving me a 40 percent longer operating cycle on my laptop than the old nickel cadmium battery."

They'd head for the buffet table.

But batteries are worth knowing about. After all, rechargeable batteries furnish the fuel that keeps your high-tech arsenal running. Cell phones, digital cameras, hand-held computers and wireless Web devices depend on the battery.

You'd think such a mundane hunk of chemicals and metal wouldn't attract much discussion. But among the true geeks of the world, the battery has been the subject of enough debate, false rumors and misleading information to fill one of those supermarket tabloid newspapers.

You almost need a scorecard to keep up with all the types of rechargeables available these days. There's the old-tech battery of nickel cadmium, the slightly newer (and arguably better) nickel metal hydride and the current king of the hill: lithium ion. These batteries are mostly used to power portable computers and cell phones.

All that sounds dry, but it's fascinating stuff, really. You'll know that you've hit high-tech pay dirt if someone starts a spirited debate about memory effect with batteries. Basically, the notion is that - with rechargeable batteries - it's a bad idea to recharge a battery before it's completely discharged. If this becomes a pattern, the battery will no longer take a full charge - meaning your laptop computer could die in the middle of an especially good solitaire game before your flight from Atlanta crosses the Mississippi.

Here's the truth: Memory effect is a real problem with most types of rechargeable batteries. If, for instance, a nickel cadmium battery or a nickel metal hydride battery powers your gizmo, you should let the battery discharge each time before charging it.

But you can forget all about memory effect if you use a lithium ion battery. Unlike with people, having no memory at all is very good when it comes to batteries. Lithium ion batteries weigh about half as much as a comparable nickel cadmium battery and yet provide 50 percent longer life on a charge. You won't be surprised to hear that you'll pay a premium for these batteries. For instance, a replacement nickel metal hydride battery for a laptop computer might cost around $140 and a lithium ion battery for the same machine would be more like $200. (By the way, if you worry about the environment, you'll also be interested to know that these batteries - unlike the other two - don't contain cadmium or mercury, two dangerous metals that cause problems at landfills.)

There are some other ways to avoid losing the spark in the relationship with your battery - no matter what type it is.

For one thing, it's important that you keep your battery away from extreme heat. In the summer, the interior of a parked car can get hot enough to cook a decent rib roast. So avoid leaving your gizmos in the car for long periods. If you must leave them there, store them in an empty cooler or insulated bag. The insulation alone will cut down on the heat that reaches the battery. Don't add ice; moisture is another enemy of batteries and electronic circuits.

Dropping a battery, or giving it any kind of a hard jolt, also is bad. Besides the obvious - you can crack the case of the battery - dropping it can also cause it to discharge prematurely.

Problems can also be created if you use the wrong type of battery charger.

For instance, if you try to use a battery charger made for nickel cadmium batteries with another type such as nickel metal hydride or lithium, it may seem to work just fine.

But it can cause those batteries to overheat or even explode.

So it's a good idea to stick with the charger that came with your device. Then, if you change battery types, check at the store to find a charger compatible with your new batteries.

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