This "can't-live-with-'em, can't-live-without-'em" dynamic has spawned a desperate competition among battery makers for your consumer dollar. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas Jan. 5-8, for example, handouts to the press about whose batteries last the longest were flying fast and furious:
Panasonic issued a press release saying its "new and improved" Oxyride batteries will power twice as many digital camera photos as Energizer e2 Titanium and Duracell Ultra batteries.
Energizer, just a few booths away at the same show, handed out charts showing that its e2 Lithium battery (pronounced "e-squared lithium") lasts through three times as many photos as Panasonic Oxyrides.
Who's right here? If you or your company buys batteries -- and who doesn't? -- the answer can make a big difference in your power spending.
Panasonic's View of the Battery World
First, it's important for us to clarify what each company actually said. In its press handout, Panasonic claimed that industry-standard tests showed the following number of photographs could be obtained from each kind of battery:
Duracell Coppertop, 71 shots.
Duracell Ultra, 104 shots.
Energizer Max, 59 shots.
Energizer e2 Titanium, 85 shots.
Panasonic Oxyride Extreme Power, 153 shots.
Panasonic "New and Improved Oxyride" (expected in the U.S. by spring 2006), 187 shots.
A small image of a Panasonic chart illustrating the above information is available in the company's Jan. 4 press release.
Energizer Won't Take That Lying Down
Energizer Battery's people fired back with a chart of their own. This image showed a much bigger difference in the number of photos made possible by each brand of battery. This was followed by an estimated cost per shot based on what the company said was the "non promoted pack price":
Energizer e2 Lithium, up to 600 pictures, $.017 ea. (USD)
Panasonic Oxyride Extreme Power, up to 200 pictures, $.024 ea.
Duracell Ultra, up to 120 pictures, $.040 ea.
Duracell, up to 90 pictures, $.042 ea.
Energizer's chart isn't on the Web anywhere, but you can find a copy on Datamation's Web server.
Both the Panasonic and the Energizer handouts claimed to be based on the same "ANSI Digital Camera Test." If so, how could there be such a discrepancy in the order of the results?
ANSI to the Rescue
It turns out that there really is an ANSI Digital Camera Test. ANSI stands for the American National Standards Institute. All of the major battery makers, including Panasonic, Energizer, and Duracell, sit on ANSI's battery standards committee. In an effort to avoid outrageous advertising claims, these competitors have actually agreed on a single way to measure how many digital camera photos a given set of batteries can produce.
In an interview, Energizer's product technical support manager, Tony Mazzola, explained that the ANSI Digital Camera Test requires that the shots be automated, using a circuit board to eliminate any variations. "You take one photo every 30 seconds with flash and LCD on," he says. "You take 10 photos. You then shut down the camera for 30 minutes." This cycle is repeated, simulating how a mere mortal might actually use a camera, until the set of batteries can produce no more shots.
This all sounds admirable to me. In fact, I wish there were more standards committees like this so we'd know how many times we could chew our chewing gum before it would lose its flavor, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck, and so forth.
But if the test is standardized, why do the press handouts for all these long-life batteries seem so confusing?
What You See is What Isn't Left Out
The Panasonic press release -- and the Consumer Reports test results -- both conveniently left out Energizer's newest and most powerful battery, the e2 Lithium. Panasonic apparently did this because its Oxyrides actually do take fewer photos per battery than Energizer's Lithiums. Consumer Reports apparently left out the Lithium because the magazine wanted to limit its article to batteries that cost only $4.00 to $5.00 USD per 4-pack.
The Energizer and Duracell batteries in the magazine's test were fairly economical alkaline cells. Panasonic's Oxyrides are based on nickel oxyhydroxide and cost about the same, too. But a 4-pack of Energizer Lithium batteries sells for $10 to $11 or so (either AA or AAA size).
In the ANSI test, a set of Lithium batteries actually does take far more digital camera photos than any other brand of AA or AAA batteries available today. But those Lithium batteries may cost 2 to 3 times more than the same number of Oxyrides. As Energizer's own chart shows, the batteries you use to take each shot cost you about 2 cents, when rounded to the nearest cent -- whether you use Lithiums or Oxyrides.
To make matters even more confusing, the ANSI test applies only to digital cameras -- not to other portable gizmos. Cameras are "high-drain" devices. Nothing stresses a battery as much as zooming a camera lens, opening a shutter, powering a flash, and saving the resulting picture to memory, all while a large LCD screen is probably set to full brightness.
For "low-drain" devices, such as CD players, wall clocks, and other devices with relatively constant power demands, the Oxyrides aren't as good as the less sexy batteries. Oxyrides ran a CD player for only 1 hour, Consumer Reports notes, whereas both the Energizer Titaniums and the Duracell Ultras ran the same device for 1.3 hours.
"Alkaline [batteries] will outlast Oxyride in every application except a digital camera," Energizer's Mazzola says.
What Should I Buy to Run My Stuff?
Having considered all of the above, what should you buy? I recommend that you do something that none of the literature described above even mentioned -- buy rechargeable batteries.
Rechargeables very quickly cost less. A 4-pack of major-brand rechargeable AA or AAA batteries can now be found online for $10 or less. An Energizer "family" recharger -- which can recharge AA, AAA, C, D, and 9-volt batteries -- can be had for under $20. After your third charge, your nondisposable batteries are already costing you less than three sets of Lithiums would have.
Rechargeable batteries, to be sure, may not deliver quite as many shots per charging cycle as disposable Lithiums do. But rechargeable batteries rated for 2500 milliamp-hours (mAh) can be reused as many as 500 times, and 1700 mAh batteries can handle 1,000 charging cycles, according to Energizer's own site. That's a lot of disposable batteries you won't have to buy. Paying over and over for throw-away batteries is for chumps.
The only exception to this rule consists of smoke detectors, remote controls, and other seldom-on devices that need to remain powered for months or years. Since rechargeable batteries "self-discharge," losing most of their power within 90 days if not recharged, only alkaline batteries should be put into low-usage gadgets.
Buy Lithiums for long life without recharging. If you're a professional photographer, and you know you won't be near any power outlets for a while, Energizer Lithiums pack the most shots per battery of any brand. This is especially true if you're filming penguins in Antarctica. Lithiums last notably longer than Oxyrides or alkalines in cold weather, down to -40 degrees F. Lithiums also boast a 15-year shelf life, compared to 5 years for alkalines, and weigh 1/3 less in your bag.
Buy Oxyrides if you don't plan on taking 600 photos. If your point-and-shoot camera's batteries die, and you dash into a shop to buy more, a 4-pack of Oxyrides will be significantly cheaper than a 4-pack of Lithiums. The Oxyrides should give you plenty of shots until you get back home. Which of your friends has the patience to look at 600 photos you took, anyway?
It's nice to see that testing of battery technologies is becoming standardized. It'd be even nicer if choosing among the batteries that are on the market today was an easy decision to make.