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[Times photo: Brian Baer]

Power hungry

With more and more electronic gadgets using more and more energy, consumers are often left bewildered about which battery is best and which to use.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 21, 1998


Andy Baird downplays the notion that he is a battery expert. He is more of a frustrated consumer.

"I'm just a digital camera user," Baird said, "who quickly found out that the things eat batteries and was forced to learn more than I really wanted to know about battery technologies just in order to keep the d-- thing running."

Baird's quest for the right battery for his Apple Quick Take camera led him to set up his own Web site (http://members.home.com/andybaird/batteries.html) just to share what he learned with others using the same camera.

"By and large, what I found (on the Web) was too technical or too partisan," such as sites put up by battery companies, said Baird, a computer programer for the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J.

Now, it is battery season. Millions of people are choosing electronic gadgets as holiday gifts. Many of the devices have more functions and devour more power than their predecessors, as battery technology struggles to keep up.

The complaint from consumers such as Baird: Batteries don't last long enough, and they die at the most inconvenient times. One expert agrees, to a point.

"Battery life is frequently a challenge, but it's getting better," said Cheryl Currid, president of Currid & Co., a research and consulting firm in Houston that tests electronic equipment.

Consumers are left bewildered by the battery companies' dueling ad claims about which brand lasts longest.

Ann Davin, public relations manager at Duracell, says conflicting claims can be caused by how batteries are tested. Duracell, she said, adheres to standards set by the non-profit American National Standards Institute in Washington, D.C.

But even under those standards, methods differ. In some tests, batteries are left on until they run out, which Davin says doesn't reflect how consumers really use devices.

Energy-hungry devices and their batteries are on very different technology cycles. Computer chips evolve on about an 18-month cycle, becoming faster and more powerful and making ever-smaller devices possible.

Batteries, Ken Hawk says, are on a development cycle closer to 20 years, because their technology is based on chemical reactions in small packages, which aren't re-invented so often.

Hawk is chief executive and founder of 1-800-BATTERIES (www.1800batteries.com), which carries 7,000 kinds of batteries, an inventory reflecting in part the fast changes in electronic technology.

He points to cell phones, which used to be big and bulky -- and needed big batteries. Now, cell phones are smaller and require different batteries. The same thing occurred with notebook computers and other devices.

Davin of Duracell says that even as devices such as cameras become more energy-efficient, consumers want extra features such as power zoom lenses and automatic rewind, functions that drain power. "'It's a never-ending cycle," she said.

Consumer Reports (www.consumereports.org) tested disposable alkaline batteries and rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries (nicads), the two top sellers, in its December 1997 issue.

It found little performance difference between the best and worst alkaline batteries. "All eight brands we tested, in all three sizes (AA, C and D), were excellent performers," the magazine said. So the magazine recommended that consumers "buy alkalines by price, not by brand," advice echoed by Hawk.

For nicads, the Panasonic AA topped the Consumer Reports tests. But the magazine reported that nicads don't last as long, and a backup would be needed for someone using a device all day. It also noted that nicads cost more than alkalines, but can be recharged hundreds of times.

To answer the consumer demand for longer-lasting batteries, companies have introduced alkalines that they say last longer (and usually cost more) than the regular alkalines. Consumer Reports checked out those offerings, and in a report this month confirmed that they live up to their billing.

"In devices where you frequently replace alkaline batteries, you'll probably get more mileage from one of the high-drain AA or AAA alkaline models," the magazine reported. It added, though, that the Panasonic rechargeable "often performed as well or better than the high-drain alkalines."

The battery market, now more than a $4-billion a year, has grown as more portable devices became available. Hawk's 1-800-BATTERIES reflects that growth. The company had sales of $8-million last year, expects $15-million this year and projects $36-million next year.

While a student at Stanford University, Hawk once told an alumnus that he would never go into the battery business. He changed his mind after taking a closer look.

"Retailers hate carrying these things because there are so many kinds," Hawk said, and consumers were frustrated because they would buy a portable product and then find it difficult to get a replacement battery.

"Sometimes the most boring business is where you have the least competition," Hawk said.

 

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