Friday, October 10, 2003

Low cost electronics, and the curse of batteries

When I was a child, not all that many things ran on batteries. Radios. Torches (flashlights to my American readers). Mechanical toys. Wall clocks, perhaps. That was about it really. In the days of carbon batteries, torches, radios and clocks would run for a good while on these batteries, and moving toys would not. This would because moving toys have moving parts, and causing anything the move uses a lot of energy. But I didn't understand that then. (Now that I do understand it, it amazes me that you can get that much mechanical energy out of a simple chemical process. But I digress).

As life went on, more and more things that ran on batteries were invented. Portable video games, clock radios, more and more complicated mechanical and otherwise electronic toys. Cameras gained a certain amount of electronics, and needed batteries to run it. Lots more things I can't think of right now. Alkaline batteries were invented, which had longer lives, but which were chemically nastier if they broke than the carbon batteries. A slight improvement only. It became a matter of lore that rechargeable batteries did exist, and these were known as NiCd (Nickel Cadmium, pronounced "Ny-cad") but most people did not use these, as they were unreliable and expensive, produced dodgy voltages, and there were relatively few electrical devices for which the batteries needed to be replaced so often that disposable batteries were not adequate.

All this changed with the invention of the mobile phone. These went through power at a dreadful rate, and the batteries ran out after a day or two. (Initially it was worse, and the first mobile phones tended to by physically mounted in cars due both to their size and the power requirement). It would clearly be expensive and would regularly drive us mad to buy new batteries all the time, so mobile phones came to work with rechargeable batteries. You use the phone for a day or two, and then remember to plug it in to the charger at night so that it will be refreshed by the next morning. The laptop computer was also invented, and it used even more power, so there was enormous effort put into inventing new types of rechargeable battery that could deliver more power for longer. Two new generations of rechargeable battery were invented, the Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery and then the Lithium-Ion (LiI) battery.
We live in an age of low cost, high functionality, portable electronic devices. People got used to plugging their batteries in at the end of the day. Sadly though, battery technology did not advance anywhere near the speed with which almost every other technology in the average laptop advanced (possibly excepting the display). This is a shame, because new generations of technology initially consume more power than the old one, so one perhaps sad consequence of this is that newer devices often last for shorter periods of time before the battery runs out than do the older ones they replace.

And since them there has been a profusion of other electronic devices that we may want to carry around with us. The one that affects me personally is of course the digital camera. Careful readers of this blog will have noted my increasing frustration not so much with analogue photography per se, but with the time and cost of getting films back if I want to post things on my blog. I am not in a position to be able to afford the lovely digital SLRs that were discussed in the comments last time I brought this subject up, but I decided that I would get a digital compact with enough features to produce good photographs of me to e-mail to my mother, and also to produce good photos to put on this blog.

I quickly discovered that I could get a lot more in terms of features if I departed from the big name brands, and I ended up buying this cute little compact, something called a Trust 820 LCD POWERC@M Zoom. It's a four megapixel compact camera, and it cost only £95. (It only has a digital zoom, but this is far more acceptable with four megapixels than with two, given the "digital zoom" essentially means "crop off the edges and blow up what you see in the centre". It only cost £95, and came with a little cute tripod an a nice little case which attaches to my belt. It has a two year warranty, and it is fine for my purposes. In terms of the quality of the pictures or simple flexibility, it can't keep up with my analogue SLR, but for now it will do. In a couple of years when digital SLRs are cheaper and I have more money, I will buy one.

The aim is that I will carry this camera around with me most of the time as I do my mobile phone, so that if I see anything interesting I shall be able to get a picture and then blog it later. Because of that, I expect to use it a lot. And I quickly discovered a problem. The camera takes AA batteries, and came with a set of two alkalines. I used it for a day or so, taking a lot of shots, and then plugged it into my computer to download the pictures into the computer. I assumed that when it was plugged into the computer, it was drawing power from the USB port, so I was slightly perturbed when I unplugged it and discovered that the battery was flat. (It must be drawing some power from the USB port, because it continued to work even after the batteries were dead. I assumed that in fact the batteries were just close to exhaustion when I plugged it in, so I concluded immediately that this will not do, and to avoid paying as much for batteries as I do for film and processing for my analogue camera I would have to get some rechargeables. The instruction book for the camera said to use NiMH batteries and not NiCd. Because the British High Street retail business is so dreadfully uncompetitive, I had to go to a market to get rechargeables at a good price, but I did this, and it cost me an extra £10. I took the batteries home, charged them, and bingo. No more money spent on batteries. (I got four batteries and a charger for the £10, so I have a spare set). Oddly, though, when I plugged the camera into the computer again the next day, the same thing happened and the batteries ran down. With rechargeables this is not really an issue, however, but I will remember not to leave the camera plugged into the computer for prolongued periods. Right now I have had the camera in my pocket for three days since I recharged the batteries. This seems adequate. (After buying the batteries, I also realised the instruction book says the batteries should be at least 1800mAh, and the ones I have bought are 1300mAh. This doesn't seem to have mattered much, because the camera works fine with them).

Now, obviously what is happening is that if I buy a low end camera, the manufacturer is saving money by not providing rechargeable batteries, although a digital camera is a device for which you really need them. (Presumably a high end camera would come with rechargeables). However, I don't think this is actually bad. Because the batteries in question are standard AAs, I can buy them cheaply, and I can get spare sets and replacements easily. Often when you buy a mobile phone or a laptop computer or some product that comes with rechargeables already, the rechargeables in question are built to some proprietary design, and the only way to buy a spare or a replacement is from the manufacturer. And the price of this can be extortionate. (I decided not to buy a spare battery for my laptop when I was quoted a cost of £250). At least doing it this way means I am using an open standard.

No comments:

Blog Archive