Thursday, May 22, 2008

The New Power Generation

The New Power Generation

Sure, shopping for electronics is no picnic. You drive to a store so large it's visible from space and wander the maze-like aisles until you find what you need. But at least there's a clerk or two there to help you—often poorly informed and commission-motivated, but it's help nonetheless.

Shop for batteries, though, and you're on your own. People usually buy batteries from grocery or drugstore racks. Asking a clerk which battery is best for your digital camera will probably earn you only a glazed look and a shrug.

This lack of information is really too bad, because given the way battery lines have been expanding in recent months consumers could use some direction. Suddenly, each of the big three battery makers—Duracell, Energizer, and Panasonic—is touting long-life batteries tailor-made for electronics.

Do they really perform better? Do they deliver enough extra juice to justify their higher price tags? And are they easy to find at the corner drugstore? With cash in hand, I set out to survey several ­local stores and scoop up their best batteries, then put them to the test during days of sightseeing and shooting on a conveniently timed trip to San Francisco. Once back home, I put them through further paces with an additional high-drain device (a battery-sucking portable television) and a low-drain test using a cheap flashlight.

Bucks for Batteries

First things first: If I was going to test the crème de la crème of long-life batteries, I needed to know what average batteries could do. I picked up some basic Duracell and Energizer alkalines, as well as RadioShack and IKEA store brands.

I bought four-packs of Duracell CopperTops and Energizer Maxes for $3.99 apiece, and I paid $8.99 for a 12-pack of RadioShack's Enercell store-brand double-As. The cheery yellow IKEA batteries seemed an even bigger bargain at $2.99 for a 10-pack (and I've seen them on sale for $2), but I suspected that they wouldn't stand a chance against the forefront of battery technology.

Today's phalanx of new batteries is actually a broad array of new and old tech. One of the three superbatteries I looked at, the Energizer e2 Lithium, has been around since the 1990s but found a real purpose only with today's digital devices. The Duracell PowerPix and Panasonic Oxyride are more recent releases designed to meet the needs of high-drain devices.

Buying the high-performance batteries proved more of a challenge than expected. The first drugstore I tried, a Walgreens, offered a large rack of mostly Duracells that included some of the company's Ultra line but none of its PowerPix batteries. There were no Energizer e2 Lithium or Panasonic Oxyride batteries to be found. Only as I was checking out did I notice the rack of high-performance batteries behind the counter.

That proved the rule in nearly every store. Common alkaline and store-brand batteries were easy to find, but the high-performance batteries were hidden away. In one Rite Aid, alkalines were located in a large, easy-to-spot aisle rack, p­­hoto batteries and a few long-life batteries sat on a countertop display, and the other long-life batteries were hanging on a wall behind the photo counter. That's the first place you'd look, right?

Theft deterrence is likely the reason for the separate racks. PowerPixes cost about $7, and e2 Lithiums are quite pricey—almost $10. Although theft is no doubt a problem, separate racks create another issue: Before deciding which batteries are best for their cameras and remote-control Lamborghinis, customers need to be able to find all the choices. I have a feeling many people buy lower-performing alkalines simply because they can grab them easily on their way to the checkout counter.

Shooting Spree

To put these batteries through their paces in some realistic conditions, I picked up a Kodak Easy-Share C360 and first tested the control batteries around New York City. Having strong batteries is important, I discovered, since they not only determine how many pictures you can take, but they also affect the camera's refresh rate. Nobody wants to lose out on a great shot because the digital camera is still processing the last image. I took most shots without a flash, and because I was shooting rapidly, my numbers are quite a bit higher than the battery companies' claims.

The IKEA batteries fared the worst, with only 209 shots; the Energizer Maxes got 309, Duracell CopperTops 327, and RadioShack Enercells a big 374. Taking that many photos on a pair of double-As might sound like a lot, but it's chump change compared with the powerhouses to come.

Next up were the long-life batteries, which I used while shooting like a crazed tourist on my trip to San Francisco.

First up was the Duracell Ultra, which is simply an alkaline battery created with an improved manufacturing process. Duracell also makes a line called PowerPix, which is recommended for heavy shooters, but I stuck with the Ultra line, which was easier to find, to see what a high-performance alkaline battery could do. The Ultras lasted for 522 pictures (about half a cent per shot), giving me more than enough power to shoot every monument, museum, and arresting view in the downtown area.

My next contestant was the Panasonic Oxyride. The Oxyride is similar to a standard alkaline, but it uses an oxy-nickel hydroxide chemical process to generate more power, and it's made with a vacuum process that also enables more power. It produces a 1.7-volt discharge, rather than the 1.5-volt discharge of typical double-As, and this yielded noticeably shorter camera refresh times. Oxyrides typically cost more than alkaline batteries, but they live up to Panasonic's performance claims. I squeezed 989 shots out of a pair of double-As (that's one-fourth of a cent per shot), which capably carried me through Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf.

Last up was the heavy hitter, the Energizer e2 Lithium. The e2 is made differently from traditional batteries (see the sidebar) and costs more, so I was curious to see if it would deliver.

I didn't have to wonder for long. The e2 simply didn't stop, taking me through the Haight-Ashbury and every inch of Golden Gate Park, and even into a local dive for a little Sonoma white at the end of the day. In the end, I took 2,676 shots using two e2 batteries (one-fifth of a cent per shot), which makes them the best choice both for skinflints and for people who don't want to change batteries often. But they aren't without flaws. The e2s deliver only 1.3 volts, which causes noticeably slower refresh times. That's a nuisance when you're trying to shoot quickly.

See the digital camera test results.

TV, Timed

With better refresh rates and good value, the Panasonic Oxyride was my favorite for digital photography. I was surprised when it didn't do as well in a second test, powering the biggest battery vampire I could think of: an RCA portable television running off three double-A batteries. The IKEAs worked for 4 hours, the Dura­cell CopperTops for 4 hours 4 minutes, the Energizer Maxes for 4 hours 7 minutes, and the RadioShack Enercells for 4 hours 8 minutes. As for the high-performance batteries, the Duracell Ultras ran for 4 hours 45 minutes and the Energizer e2 batteries for 6 hours 15 minutes, but the Panasonic Oxyrides lasted only 3 hours 40 minutes. That's worse than any of the control batteries. What gives?

Then, just for kicks, I ran a battery test with a low-drain device, a flashlight, and the results were surprising. The low-end batteries all (except the slightly shorter-lasting IKEAs) powered the flashlight for more than 5 hours of constant use, while the high-performance batteries all burned out the flashlight's bulb long before they were drained. The Energizer e2s lasted an hour and a half, the Oxyrides 45 minutes, and the Duracell Ultras a scant 8 minutes. See the Cost Per Hour comparison.

The lesson is simple: Buy the right battery for the job. Long-life batteries deliver too much ­power for low-drain devices. Looks like there's some truth to the marketing hype after all.

Though the overall winner isn't clear-cut, it is clear that long-life batteries designed for digital gear offer good value and convenience—for digital cameras. They're more expensive, but they'll last forever—particularly the Energizer e2. Buying strictly based on cost? If you can find the IKEAs at $2 per 10-pack, don't hesitate to buy. When they're that inexpensive, the cost per shot matches that of the long-life Oxyride, and they outperformed everything else on our extreme TV run-down test, at just 19¢ for an hour of viewing. And one other thing I learned: If you're going to shoot thousands of photos while walking around all day, wear comfortable shoes.

Copyright (c) 2008Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Cost per hour
RCA Portable TV
Batteries needed: 3 AA

Cost - Battery - Life span (hr:mm)
$.60 Panasonic Oxyride 3:40
.19 IKEA 4:00
.74 Duracell CopperTop 4:04
.73 Energizer Max 4:07
.54 RadioShack Enercell 4:08
.94 Duracell Ultra 4:45
2.03 Energizer e2 Lithium 6:15

Ultra Hardware Heavy-Duty Flashlight
Batteries Needed: 2 AA

$18.75 Duracell Ultra 0:08 (Blown blubs throw off price)
3.33 Panasonic Oxyride 0:45 (Blown blubs throw off price)
3.23 Energizer e2 Lithium 1:33 (Blown blubs throw off price)
.15 IKEA 4:04
.36 Energizer Max 5:31
.27 RadioShack Enercell 5:37
.36 Duracell CopperTop 5:45

Digital Camera Tests

Name - Cost per 2 batteries - Number of Shots - Pictures per penny
Duracell CopperTop $2.00 327 1.6
Duracell Ultra $2.50 522 2.0
Energizer e2 Lithium $5.00 2,676 5.4
Energizer Max $2.00 309 1.5
IKEA $0.60 209 3.5
Panasonic Oxyride $2.50 989 4.0
RadioShack Enercell $1.50 374 2.5

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