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Laptop Batteries Can Run For Three Years

The degrading run-time of notebook/mobile batteries may be a thing of the past, without waiting for fuel cells, if Boston Power's Sonata cells live up to their claims.
The degrading run-time of notebook/mobile batteries may be a thing of the past, without waiting for fuel cells, if Boston Power's Sonata cells live up to their claims.The rechargeable batteries we use in our laptop computers -- ditto in our mobile phones and many other portable devices -- get marginally better, in terms of product evolution. Compared to the NiCAD and NiMH notebook batteries of yore, they're a noticeable improvement; for example, it's been a while since we've had to worry about the "memory effect" that meant being careful to charge batteries completely, to avoid capacity creep-down.

But compared to what we need, today's Lithium-Ion (LiON) batteries aren't there yet.

They don't hold a full day's charge, or they do at the expense of adding bulk, weight and cost. They don't last as long as the rest of the notebook's components -- even if you don't use them; within a year or less, run-time seriously begins to degrade. And they take too long to charge.

And, lithium-ion batteries aren't always safe, and have disposal issues.

One company claiming a better battery -- that is, the chemistry for a better battery -- is ZPower, using silver-zinc, which, according to ZPower, can pack 40% more juice, and be safer to use and dispose of.

However, ZPower doesn't seem to have any actual product yet, despite "This year for sure"-type (with apologies to Bullwinkle T. Moose) claims for the past year or so. The web site doesn't list any products, the latest press release is dated September 2009... even mobile fuel cells have actually come to market ahead of ZPower.

But at least one company has actually delivered product: Boston Power, including its Sonata batteries for use in notebooks and other portable/mobile devices and applications, and Swing batteries "suitable for electric vehicles, industrial equipment, and utility applications."

There aren't as many vendors offering Sonata-type batteries as I'd expect. HP started offering some in early 2009, either as an accessory pack or (for a model sold in Europe) shipped as the standard battery. According to Boston Power, HP offers them, mostly as "the HP Long Life Battery Accessory," with fifteen commercial notebook models.

And Boston Power has just announced a deal with Asus, offering them standard with ASUS B Series notebooks.

Unlike traditional lithium-ion batteries, where run time degrades within two years or even one, says Sally Bament, VP of Marketing, Boston Power, Boston Power's maintain like-new run time for over three years: "Our chemistry guarantees that like-new run time for well over three years, based on cycle life."

Is that really the case? I don't know...but HP and Asus both offer three-year warrantees on the Sonata batteries, guaranteeing performance, according to Bament.

Also, says Bament, "We support 90% charge in 90 minutes, and we can charge even faster, the cell can charge to 80% in 30 minutes."

"There's no question that the longer battery life is important, and so is fast charge, once you have used a notebook long enough where these aren't the case," says analyst Bob O'Donnell, Vice President, Clients and Displays, IDC. "The challenge for Boston Power is that they are a small supplier, and larger vendors like HP often want to second-source, which isn't an option here." According to Bament, battery capacity, and pricing from Boston Power, are comparative with traditional LiON batteries... although in terms of price, Bament notes, "The vendor may get a premium, with the three year warrantee." (Showing that some computer vendors have studied with the airline industry school of pricing.)

I find it interesting -- and unlikely -- that, if these batteries work as claimed, only HP and Asus have jumped on the electric bandwagon. I'd expect, at minimum, Apple, Lenovo, Dell... well, everybody.

Bament's response: "We have publicly announced Asus and HP at this time."

IDC's O'Donnell's point regarding second-sourcing is a reasonable explanation. I think that if I were running Boston Power, I'd be doing my dangdest to license the heck out of the technology, if need be.

Fortunately and interestingly, the rest of us don't have to wait for the next round of deals. Sonata batteries are available for Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba and other notebooks, not to mention for digital cameras, camcorders, PDAs and more, through Dr. Battery.

Dr. Battery is a wholesaler; according to their marketing person, one of their U.S. resellers is LaptopCharge. Note, Dr. Battery has two battery families, the "Green Series," based on Boston Power tech, and their "Pro," which are the usual same old type of batteries. The Green Series are flagged on LaptopCharge's pages with "3 YR WARRANTY" (in red) while the Pro are flagged with "1 YR WARRANTY" (in green)... so be sure you're paying attention when you click.

Sadly, I didn't see Green Series for the netbook or digital camera I wanted to try them with... but I'm tempted to get one for my five-year-old IBM ThinkPad, whose main and secondary batteries no longer hold much of a charge, to say the least.

Anyway, if these batteries really do what they say they do -- granted, it'll take three years to fully test the no-degredation claim, although a year or so will start to tell the tale -- mobile productivity and TCO has just gotten somewhat better.