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Laptop batteries: Here's how to maximize stamina RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY Tim Altom: Laptop batteries: Here's how to maximize stamina

May 30, 2005

RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY Laptop batteries: Here's how to maximize stamina

The laptop computer has made battery groupies of us all. For something so humble and unobtrusive, the laptop battery commands outsized attention. We calculate whether we need to bring AC power adapters to meetings, based on how long a battery will last. We figure how much work we can get done on planes, based on how long the battery will last. Then, when we can't charge them up anymore, the batteries need to be tossed somewhere safe, which can be a day-long chore in itself.

I consider battery life a major issue in a laptop. I know this seems petty, but I've gone to many meetings where attendees spend the first 10 minutes negotiating for receptacle space so they can plug in their lagging laptops. The space between wall and conference table becomes festooned with tripping hazards.

Nothing is more annoying than to be in the middle of something important away from my desk and suddenly have the laptop insist on curling up into hibernation mode due to battery depletion. The laptop I carry nowadays has a hot-swap bay that can hold a CD/DVD burner or a backup battery that brings my total untethered time to around six hours. I choose the backup battery, hands down.

That kind of stamina wasn't possible years ago unless you wanted to shut down, pop open the case, remove the primary nickel cadmium battery and replace it with one specifically charged for the occasion. "Reloading" was the only way to get more than an hour or two away from a wall socket.

Along came nickel metal hydride batteries, and they had better charge capacities. They weighed less and cost more than nickel cadmium, too. They also had a peculiar characteristic they shared with the nickel cadmium: memory. If you didn't discharge these beasts all the way down to exhaustion every so often, they'd start mistaking a partially charged condition for zero charge, and you'd find yourself getting half or two-thirds of the operational time. Few people wanted to run their laptops until the batteries conked out, so these batteries acquired memory long before they ran out of chemistry.

Today's laptops have left nickel behind, and they've moved to lithium ion. The lithium battery is lighter and more powerful than nickel-type batteries, and it doesn't develop a memory floor. But if you're thinking about slyly replacing the nickel battery in an aged laptop with lithium, it probably won't work. Lithiums recharge differently than nickels, so laptop makers generally design units so the new batteries won't fit the old units.

Batteries can also take some to settle down after they're first manufactured. They're shipped discharged, so the first thing you have to do is plug them in and get them charged up. This can be a bit of an adventure, because the battery might indicate within a few minutes that it's fully charged, while in reality it isn't even close. When that happens, unplug and plug back in to continue charging. It's just having a bit of fun with you.

Don't recharge a brand new battery, then take it off to a meeting where the laptop will be unplugged for a long time. New batteries may climb up to their full capacities only after four or five recharge cycles. Do them at the office, not at the client's.

Expect even the best batteries to last only two to four hours. The exact time depends on a lot of things. The various parts of the laptop take more or less power, depending on how you're using it and how it's set up. If you're running the speakers, the hard drive and the display all full out, the battery will start to gasp for air long before it otherwise would. Most laptops have some kind of batteryonly setup that reduces power. My laptop, for example, dims the screen when it's on battery power.

Experts say new batteries have 500 to 800 recharge cycles in them, which translates to around two years of operation, give or take. An exhausted battery will drive the laptop for fewer minutes, until you'll get only an hour or so from it even on a full charge. Then it's time to replace the battery. And that, as it turns out, may be the hardest thing about owning a laptop battery.

Just about every battery Web site has the same advice: Dispose of batteries properly. But how? You can't just throw them away or burn them. The honorable thing to do is take them to a recycling center. But those aren't on every street corner. Fortunately, a site for a company named Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp. (www.rbrc.org) has a list of local recycling centers in the United States and Canada.

For more about laptop batteries, check out www.laptop-battery.org. After all, you and your battery will be spending a lot of time together, so it's best you get to know each other well.



Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim@elementassoc.com.
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