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Help users get the most from laptop batteries

Don't let your laptop users suffer power outages. Use these tips to determine if a battery is working at 100 percent, help your users ensure optimal battery life, or find the most appropriate replacement battery.


Here’s the scenario—your boss or a customer comes to you with a laptop computer complaining about battery life. What are your options? Do they need a new battery, are they improperly using power management, or do they just have unrealistic expectations for their current battery? Here are the steps to evaluate their current power usage and, if necessary, available options for upgrading power availability.

Assessing and improving power consumption
First, verify the power usage by checking the power management settings and backlight brightness for the screen. If the laptop is optimized to get the most out of the current battery, the second step is to make sure the laptop is getting from 2.5 to 4 hours of runtime on a single charge of the battery. If the battery isn't delivering the standard operating runtime, it may need to be reconditioned or replaced, depending on the type and condition of the battery. If the battery is operating correctly, you may need to get a second battery or even add a universal battery, depending on the desired operating time on a single charge.

The battery has a limited amount of power to deliver and the more the laptop tries to do, the faster this power will be drained. Here are some suggestions to ensure optimal battery life:
  • Use the AC adapter whenever possible.
  • Set the Windows Power Management settings to maximum savings.
  • Lower the brightness setting on the screen backlight.
  • Disconnect any unused devices (e.g., modems) when not needed.
  • Use power management freeware like Power Center 2.12.
  • Disable Auto Insert Notification on the CD-ROM.
  • Turn off Autosave features.
  • Disable automatic formatters, spell checkers, and autorecalculate features.
  • Use disk caching programs such as Norton Utilities to lower disk access time.
  • Add RAM to lower disk access time.
  • Clean battery leads with rubbing alcohol once a month.
  • If you have a backup battery, use it in rotation with the current battery.
  • Use the Suspend or Hibernate feature when taking a break.
  • Fully drain and recharge the battery every couple of months.
  • Minimize the number of programs running at the same time.
  • Use smaller programs when possible (e.g., WordPad versus Word).
  • Minimize game play and DVD viewing.

Finding a replacement battery
Should you conclude that the computer is set up correctly and the battery is still not performing for an adequate amount of time, you should next determine what type of battery the user has before you can suggest a replacement. The size of the battery (dimensions and weight) is dependent on the manufacturer of the laptop and you will find there are about as many different battery dimensions as there are notebooks. There are predominately three types of batteries on the market. nickel cadmium, nickel metal hydride, and lithium ion.

Nickel cadmium (NiCAD) is the oldest laptop battery type on the market. It has nickel oxyhydroxide as the cathode, cadmium as the anode, and potassium hydroxide as the electrolyte. These batteries are notorious for developing a “memory” where the cells will not charge beyond the amount they were discharged in the previous cycle. Sometimes this can be overcome by completely discharging the battery and fully recharging. Unfortunately the battery is discharged to approximately 1 volt rather than zero volts as the term “discharge” may imply. This discharge and recharge may need to be repeated a couple of times and still may not repair the battery.

Nickel metal hydride (NiMH) was offered after nickel cadmium and uses nickel oxyhydroxide as the cathode, rare earth or nickel alloys combined with a variety of metals as the anode, and potassium hydroxide as an electrolyte. These batteries have about half the service life as NiCADs but about 30 percent more capacity. Initially it was believed these batteries weren't subject to the memory effect, but further examination showed they can develop a memory over time and need to be fully discharged/recharged about every 30 cycles.

Lithium ion is the newest battery type and uses a lithium oxide cathode carbon compound such as graphite as the anode and an organic solvent as the electrolyte. These batteries are typically lighter than the aforementioned types and do not exhibit the memory effect.

Once the battery type has been identified, you may need to cycle the battery to minimize the memory effect or replace the battery. Try cycling the battery first if it’s NiCad or NiMH. If the battery needs to be replaced, you can find a myriad of battery suppliers using your favorite search engine and entering (in quotes) “laptop battery.” Prices for replacement batteries range from $75 to $250 depending on the laptop manufacturer. Weights range from 1/2 to 3 pounds depending on the dimensions and type of battery. I strongly recommend replacing any battery type (e.g., NiCad or NiMH) with a lithium ion battery to eliminate memory problems. I also discourage the use of refurbished NiCad and NiMH batteries because they are more prone to developing a memory.

Special batteries for power users
If your customer is a power user who often works during long plane rides, constantly runs high-end applications, or just needs more power, you should take more drastic measures: Consider a new battery as a backup, a universal extended battery, or even a newer computer with an optimized processor for longer battery life.

Universal batteries can offer anywhere from 6 to 10 hours of uptime and recharge 80 percent within about 4 hours. They are lithium ion, so there are no memory problems. Prices range from about $300 to $500 depending on the amount of operating time desired. Dimensions are about 0.5” x 8.5” x 11” and they weigh around 2 pounds. They typically come with a 6-month warranty and can be used with a variety of different laptops. More information on these batteries can be found at eBatts.com and Electrovaya where they can be ordered online.

Remember these steps
Begin your power problem analysis by checking how much power the computer is consuming. Next, evaluate the health of the battery and replace it if necessary with a Lithium Ion replacement battery, which can easily be found using a search engine or by contacting the manufacturer. Finally, if funds allow and the power is needed, check into new processor technology and on extended universal batteries using the links provided above.

 

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