I run MY ThinkPad from a Leclanché cell

Back in the day, you couldn't spit without hitting someone saying something completely wrong about memory effect. But today, really loopily idiotic writing about batteries is quite hard to find.

So I am indebted to the reader who just pointed me to one Dave Thompson's article in the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled "The big fat lie about battery life". (It also appeared in the Melbourne Age - the two papers are published by the same company and share a lot of material.)

My correspondent gave his heads-up e-mail the title "Worst. Battery. Technology. Article. EVER.", and I am delighted to say that I concur.

Mister Thompson is apparently under the impression that "average" laptops currently come with nickel-cadmium batteries. This hasn't actually been the case for more than ten years. Laptops with NiCd batteries were still easy to find as late as the mid-Nineties; the famous ThinkPad 701, for instance, apparently straddled the gap, with a NiCd battery for early-production 701s.

Nickel-metal-hydride batteries superseded NiCds, and then lithium-ion or lithium-polymer (generally a distinction without a difference; see this piece, from 2001, for more...) took over in the last few years of last century. The demise of NiMH in the laptop market was quite rapid, even though early lithium-ion batteries had a distressing tendency to drop dead after only a couple of years. But lithium batteries gave a lot more capacity per kilogram, and laptops were expensive enough items that manufacturers could put cutting-edge battery technology in them without greatly - proportionally speaking - increasing the price of the computer.

I don't think it's actually physically possible to buy even a NiMH-powered laptop any more, let alone a NiCd-powered one. Lithium-ion dominates the market, including the low end, and I don't just mean laptops. $20 Chinese Picoo-Z-knockoff helicopters, $12.50 tiger-shaped MP3 players, entry-level mobile phones, $US300 netbooks, you name it. I have a mobile phone that retails for a flat fifty bucks unlocked, and it has a lithium-ion battery. I cannot imagine how Dave Thompson has come by his view of the world.

All undaunted, though, Dave ploughs on with a number of fascinating details about the "NiCads" he alleges are still the standard power source for laptops.

Like, apparently they have a limited lifespan. Well, yeah, everything does, but NiCds are actually likely to work fine for many years if not abused. Few rechargeable lithium batteries are likely to be useful for more than five years.

"If not used properly they simply stop working". I thought he might have been thinking of memory effect or something, but no, he reckons they die if you don't use them, and need regular cycling.

You hear this all the time - it's not right out of left field like the bit about NiCds still being in common use - but it's not actually true. NiCds are actually known for their very long shelf life. If they've been on the shelf for a year then most of the charge will have leaked away, but even if they've been on the shelf for ten years you'll probably just be able to give 'em a charge and put 'em to work.

All you achieve by cycling most NiCd, NiMH or lithium batteries is wearing them out faster. There are certain situations where emptying and refilling a battery can be good - NiCds suffering from voltage depression, say, or LiI batteries whose monitoring hardware has lost track of how much capacity the battery actually has - and I think lithium-ion often hits its shelf-life limit before even someone like Dave can cycle it to death. There are special cases in the radio-control world, too, where absolute battery capacity may be less important than high current delivery and a shallow discharge curve, so your electric car or plane is almost as fast at the end of a four-minute race as it was at the beginning. But as a general rule, cycling your batteries is like "cycling" your car's fuel tank, by driving round the block until it's empty then filling up again.

Dave is, at least, correct that NiCds are a pollution risk if you throw 'em out. Cadmium is quite a lot more toxic than lead, and I think there's still no good way to recycle NiCd batteries, here in Australia at least.

So it's a bit of a shame that he's encouraging everybody to wear their NiCds out faster. Good thing laptops aren't actually powered by NiCds any more, ain't it?

The toxicity issue is one of the big reasons why the much-less-toxic NiMH batteries became popular; nickel pollution is a problem too, but nickel is rather less toxic than lead, and far less toxic than cadmium.

Fortunately, old dead NiCds aren't particularly dangerous just sitting there. So you might as well just toss any dead NiCds you have into a sealable container, put it under the house and forget about it, until someone comes up with a way to recycle them that doesn't involve sending them to China to poison people there.

Dave has noticed that, sometimes, someone who last used their laptop on battery power a long time ago discovers to their dismay that it now has "20 seconds" of battery life. He thinks this is because the battery hasn't been cycled. It's actually because modern laptops have lithium-ion batteries, and lithium-ion batteries have a relatively short lifespan (improving all the time, though - things aren't as dire as they were when I wrote this in 2004). If your laptop battery had 25% of its capacity left when you last disconnected the mains power, a year ago, then yes, it's very likely to be completely dead now, and there's nothing anybody could have done over the intervening months to avoid this. (It's possible that the battery is actually OK but the capacity-monitoring hardware has gone nuts, though; cycling might actually help, there. It's also possible that the laptop has a dumb charger circuit that's slowly barbecued the battery; cycling would in this case be a waste of time.)

Well into the article, Dave remembers that NiMH batteries exist - but then immediately refers to "NiCad's well-known memory effect", resetting the clue-meter to zero just when it looked as if he was making some progress. And then he signs off with "All batteries like to be used, so run them down every few weeks and charge them back up properly just to keep them in top shape", cementing his position in the I Hate The Environment, Die, Environment, Die, Coalition.

Maybe, I thought, Dave just had a small stroke while writing this article and is usually quite sensible. So I had a little look around for other examples of his work.

Apparently cameras, wireless peripherals and "pen-drives" can reasonably be expected to work only once, which is news to people who've been using the same wireless Logitech mouse-and-keyboard set for the last ten years.

Oh, and wireless input devices "eat batteries like a cop in a donut shop".

If current wireless-desktop gear is only as good as the devices I reviewed in 2001, this means police officers have listened to their cardiologists and reduced their consumption of doughnuts to maybe one every two months, tops. Good for them!

He has also written... a thing... about Linux. I wouldn't call it an article. I'm not sure what it is.

(This piece has the brilliant subtitle "Dave Thompson gives his take on Google's new search engine, Chrome", but that's probably the work of a subeditor, not Dave. Mr Thompson tried his best, though, complaining about the usage-tracking feature of Chrome without figuring out that you can turn it off any time you like, and don't have to turn it on in the first place.)

The end of Dave's wonderful battery article says Dave "runs a computer-services company in Christchurch, New Zealand". I think this is it. I wonder if his workmates have some stories?

I don't know how Dave's managed to end up with the ideas he's got. Mere incompetence is common enough in all branches of journalism, but Dave's version of it is odd. Perhaps he just fixes his opinion of every computer technology when he plays with version 1.0, and assumes that 20 years later it'll still be the same. Who knows.

(Oh, and here his battery article is on the Stuff.co.nz site, in case the Herald/Age people do another of their embarrassing-article disappearing acts. Here are other sources, from a Google search for a string from the article.)

40 Responses to “I run MY ThinkPad from a Leclanché cell”

  1. ex-parrot Says:

    Stuff's quality of news is so good that we've started posting the really good stories up at http://www.stfu.co.nz.... I've been dying to write about the unbelievable excuse for journalism coming out of this guy (worse still, he lives in my home town and works about a block away....) and this article may be the best candidate yet.

  2. kamikrae-z Says:

    The Linux... thing was hilarious. If I didn't know better I would guess this was the work of someone laying the groundwork for a satirical comedy series. More of Dave's computer wisdom (something about kung-fu?) here: http://computerkungfu.com/

  3. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Oh, god. A book? Really?

    From the site:

    Computer Kung Fu is the term 'hip' computer people use to describe a knowledge of computers and their mysterious ways.

    No it isn't.

    (Maybe I'm just not hip, though. Or 'hip', even.)

    More than a few computer buffs have arrived home from the local book store with a brand new 2 Kilogram (Kg) copy of "Troubleshooting IP Routing Protocols and Network Subnet Requirements For Cisco Transponders" without any idea of what an IP Routing Protocol is, let alone wanting to troubleshoot one.

    What the...?

    (At least now I know what a Kg is. Look - Dave is an educator!)

    There's truth to be spoken about interminable BS computer books. They spring from a well close to the one that yields voodoo management books, and often serve the same purpose - collecting dust on someone's credenza, as a symbol of technical masculinity.

    But the Power Users text file covered this subject very thoroughly 20 years ago.

    No, you probably don't need even good heavyweight computer books - the Minasi book or the Mueller book, or even the rather lighter Glover/Young book - if you're an ordinary PC user.

    But if you've just bought a '78 Cortina to do up, you're not going to buy a Chieftain tank manual either.

    What, I repeat, the...?

    (In the shelf-decoration-computer-book market segment, I recommend Unix for the Impatient, which has the great advantage that you may at some point be so intrigued by the title that you actually crack it open.)

    You Übertechs and power-geeks out there may find this book simplistic and shallow (it's my style!) and rightly so, it is just the way I intended it to be.

    Simplistic, adjective: "Overly simple; In a manner that simplifies the issue to a degree where many important details are lost", or "characterized by extreme and often misleading simplicity".

    Shallow, adjective: "Lacking depth of intellect or knowledge; concerned only with what is obvious".

    Got it in two, Dave!

  4. pjr Says:

    So apparently, since I am one of the lunatics who (unlike most Linux users) actually runs a mostly "self-compiled" OS, I'm left of Mao, right of Idi Amin, and also, somehow, an anarchist. Suddenly I feel rather like Sir Humphrey.

  5. FuzzyPlushroom Says:

    Ahh, wireless. Using the LX710 on a daily basis, I've found that my keyboard puts itself to sleep at some sensible interval, but I haven't opened it up and wedged in a couple probes to figure out what that interval is, since you certainly can't tell when you've woken it up simply by starting to type on it again. It, and its matching mouse, just instantly wake up again. And the keyboard's alarmingly frugal - the batteries on the first one I got outlived the wireless receiver; I haven't yet changed the set in the replacement 'board (Logitech for the win, here).

    The mouse requires new batteries every few months, which it warns me about in the most I-told-you-so fashion possible - by pulsing its red batteries-dying LED at me softly for a couple weeks and then keeling over until I switch the batteries around, then working for a few hours and killing the batteries for good.

    On the other hand, I had a GE wireless mouse that behaved just as he described - it was a great mouse when it worked, but it decided at random to stop working, or keep working (if I held down the left mouse button, for example spraying enemies with my trusty M134, it would think the button was held down permanently). I don't know if it ate batteries, because it was given to me for nothing, and I stuck it in a box and went back to my wired Microsoft mouse shortly thereafter.

  6. Orpheus Says:

    Regardless of the technical content of that Linux abomination, does the man not realise that paragraphs exist for a reason? They're not just full stops with extra emphasis, you know. You can actually have more than one sentence in a paragraph (unless it's a NiCad paragraph exhibiting memory effect I suppose).

  7. tomsk Says:

    Not six months ago I was waiting by the front desk of a locally-based national online computer and electronics retailer, when I overheard the front desk support monkeys advising one of their customers to unplug her battery from her laptop whenever she used it with the mains power. They also told her to discharge the battery completely every month to prevent memory effect. I was so stunned I didn't have chance to intervene until after she'd left the shop. It was useful to know that they were complete idiots for the argument I had when I returned the telly I bought, though.

  8. Ambush Says:

    I was so taken aback by the linked article that I decided to reply. The first hint that this was a mistake was when, upon clicking the 'email' link, I was presented with a page requesting not only my contact information, but also that of a friend. I initially left this blank.

    After composing my (polite) message indicating that the erudite Mr Thompson may wish to read a little more on the subjects he writes about, I was told that it was required that I provide a friend's information if I wish to proceed in the sending of this email. Of course, I filled in the requisite fields with junk.

    Upon submitting once more, I was then told that my message could not be more than 400 characters! What kind of readership does that rag have that think a decent reply can be composed in less than 400 characters?

  9. phrantic Says:

    I saw this one linked from brisbanetimes.com.au and for the first time ever lamented the lack of commenting on that particular publication's website.

    If I wasn't at work and (ostensibly) working, I would have fired off an email across the ditch to point out the comedy of errors that Dave is espousing from behind is desk in NZ somewhere.

    Or at least questioned what model of laptop he's using. Is NZ *really* as far behind as us Australians like to joke about?

    If anyone IS going to email Mr Thompson about this, I do hope they direct him to this post and use words like "modern", "research" and "journalistic integrity" in said email.

  10. phrantic Says:

    Apologies for the double post, but I just read the Linux... "thing"... and have to ask - how many others got images of all Linux users and loners, sitting in a room with no furniture, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling whilst they scribble angry letters to the government?

  11. trr Says:

    What century was that article written in?

    My father had a laptop that ran on NiCd batteries. That was back in a century called the "20th century" in a time I affectionately refer to as "the eighties".

    Anyway, back to the present day.

    I currently own an Eee PC, and there are a lot of online communities dedicated to its enthusiasts. The lies about needing to remove your laptop's battery whenever it is running on mains power, or discharging your battery fully before recharging, are abundant. There is seemingly no way to stop them, and these are coming from enthusiasts - people who are into technology. What's more, anyone who comes on and starts spreading these lies about how you should treat your battery is hailed as some sort of guru. In terms of snake-oil-hero-worship it is nearly as bad as the audiophile communities.

    The Age (Sydney Morning Herald) frequently disappoints me when it comes to technology stories anyway. I don't tend to take them seriously.

  12. SLATYE Says:

    Even my Toshiba T2000SX (a 386SX-16) has a NiMH battery - and that was released in 1990.

  13. Thuli Says:

    I've emailed the herald chiding them for paying such a clown, though sadly I don't expect better of them.

  14. frasera Says:

    lol at the epic fail:)

    seriously, talk about showing your journalistic chops aren't up to snuff..never mind tech saviness.

  15. Daniel Rutter Says:

    What century was that article written in?

    Yeah, I thought of that - maybe he wrote it 20 years ago, gave it a little polish last week and sent it off to The Press for 50 cents a word. It'd still have been wrong in 1989, but less weirdly so.

    I can't find it anywhere with an older date on it, though. It was on the front page of the Herald site yesterday - and might still have been there today, if not for the Victorian bushfires.

  16. Darien Says:

    Hey, I'll have you know my brother's a cop, and I've never once known him to go into a doughnut shop to eat batteries.

    ... What?

    I cannot tell a lie. My favourite part of the whole article was "Another downside is that [lithium-ion batteries] rarely come in standard sizes, like AAA or AA, but are instead moulded into whatever device they are designed to power."

    I'm less convinced than Mr. Thompson that it's actually a bad thing that it's hard to find nominal 3.6v cells in a standard AA or AAA form factor.

  17. arteitle Says:

    I have heard that removing laptop Li-ion battery packs while running on mains power can serve a purpose, namely keeping the battery cooler and thereby slowing its inevitable capacity decay relative to if it were left inside of its normally toasty-warm home. Considering that many laptops spend the majority of their lives running on AC, this would seem prudent, if true. Can anyone support or refute this?

  18. Jax184 Says:

    I can confirm that Li-Ion batteries really hate heat. The ideal storage conditions for a li-ion are supposed to be ~20% charged at somewhere around 0 degrees. I have been told this will reduce the capacity loss to about a percent a year. High temps and being topped off (A condition found in a lot of laptops) seems like it would run completely contrary to that.

  19. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Don't hold that guy against the rest of us in NZ. We know that a real laptop is powered by a possum on a treadmill. Which we simply throw away and grab another from the bush when it dies.

    Jax, The self discharge will drop to about 1% per year in the conditions you're referring to, I believe, but not the total capacity loss. That will still be far higher than 1%, but they do really hate heat. Fortunately for them they have a much lower internal resistance than nickel batteries so you can charge and draw huge currents without much heating.:)

  20. Daniel Rutter Says:

    A laptop battery may last longer if you don't leave it in the laptop when you're running the computer from mains power. But if you ask me, this theoretical gain will be more than counteracted by the loss of one of a laptop's most appealing features, its "built-in UPS".

    With no battery in the laptop, it'll just shut down if you have even a one-second power cut, or if the DC-input plug is accidentally pulled out. It's quite hard to accidentally unplug a PC, but laptop power leads aren't as secure as IEC plugs.

  21. Changes Says:

    Jax: LiIon cells like to be kept in the fridge at approximately 40% charge, not 20%. 40% is 3.75 to 3.8V resting voltage. They lose about 2% capacity every year in these conditions, while they'll lose up to 20% if fully charged and stored at ambient tempreature (provided the ambient in question is not the south pole or the Sahara, of course). They may lose more if heavily used, obviously.

  22. corinoco Says:

    "LiIon cells like to be kept in the fridge at approximately 40% charge"

    er, that's your frost-free fridge, right? The one with the dehumidifier, right? And when you take the battery out, you carefully let it warm to room temperature in a dry environment, right?

    Cold things, when suddenly exposed to warm places get condensation, not just outside but inside too. Remember VCRs? They used to have 'dew' warnings for a good reason - they are likely to do something BAD when operated full of condensation. In the case of LiIon cells, I am sure that kind of bad could be arcing and or explosion.

    Plus it takes up room in the fridge, unless of course you keep a whole fridge for storing your laptop batteries.

  23. corinoco Says:

    And, yes, I read that article too, but what went through my head was 'What the? Must be a slow news day."

  24. stamps Says:

    Dan, where did you find an unlocked Motorola F3 for 50bux? I've been using a Nokia 1100 for a few years but it's taken to randomly dropping out mid-call. That F3 could be a good replacement...

  25. Daniel Rutter Says:

    I bought my F3 on eBay. Looking at Completed Listings on ebay.com.au, some people have been bidding them up to $AU75 or so including postage, but plenty have gone for less than $AU50 all told.

    I like this phone quite a lot - the e-paper display is nifty - but be advised that if you want to send or receive SMSes, the F3 is hilariously bad. The overall interface is pretty mystifying, too, which is something of an achievement given that the phone only has about 3 features.

    If all you want is a tough, lightweight voice-only GSM phone with lots of battery life, though, it's excellent.

    (UPDATE: And then, there's this!)

  26. Itsacon Says:

    IIRC, the selling of NiCad batteries has been illegal here in Holland for several years.

    NiCad laptops weren't bad though, just heavy. My old Compaq LTE Lite could easily do 3 hours from a full charge even when playing Wolfenstein 3D. Try that with a modern laptop.

    The low power usage of a 386 clocked at 25MHz might play a role in that too, though.

  27. phrantic Says:

    I get 4+ hours from my Dell XPS 1330 laptop. As long as I remember to take any discs out of the optical drive, and turn the screen brightness down when I'm inside. And it's only a 6-cell battery, too.

    I'm surprised no-one's mentioned the excellent batteryuniversity.com site yet.

  28. Changes Says:

    Corinoco: no, just my standard fridge for foodstuffs. I do put cells in sealed baggies though. None have yet blown on me during warmup. :)

  29. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Oh, for pity's sake. I wasn't even bloody looking for him, I swear, but here Dave is again, telling us "How to handle internet outages".

    According to the whole first half of the article, Dave once had a dial-up Internet connection. Fancy that!

    And when you can't connect to the Internet, it may be the fault of one or more of the things through which Internet traffic passes. And if you don't know what to do, you should call your "local computer guy".

    And it would appear that Dave was once told to "reset" his router, and so pressed the little recessed "Reset" button, and wiped out all of its settings.

  30. kamikrae-z Says:

    Haha, what's the bet he was inspired to write that article after learning the hard way?

    His articles seem to consist of writing half an article that is vaguely related to the topic at hand (he doesn't mention linux until halfway through the linux article), then giving incredibly silly advice based on unfounded or outdated ideas and principles.

    I can only guess that his computer store must also contain a bubbling cauldron, glass jars filled with weird animal specimens and lots of chicken giblets everywhere, all of which he uses to exorcise the demons from his customers computers (or possibly routers, if your internet happens to be down).

  31. TwoHedWlf Says:

    Haha, Ok, I consider myself a reasonably intelligent, competent guy, but I can see myself pulling a *facepalm* and hitting the button labeled "reset" when someone tells me to reset something...

  32. derrida derider Says:

    Dick Smith, of all places, has a nifty little unlocked Samsung flip phone for $48.

    These basic models (no camera, no MP3 player, no GPS - just a reliable, simple phone) are built for sale in 3rd world countries where they're cheaper than a landline. But its not just 3rd world countries that have a market for no-fuss cheap phones - I've bought one for each of my kids.

  33. Daniel Rutter Says:

    So they do - here it is. It's a Samsung B300, which from what little information I can glean about it online appears to have a couple more features than the Motorola F3 (like an FM tuner, and Java support of some description). The B300 apparently also sucks for SMS, though it can only suck less than the F3, which can barely even show you a whole word at a time. But the reason why the F3 is so dreadful for SMS is also its greatest strength - the e-paper display that's readable even in direct sunlight, and which draws power only when the phone changes what's on the screen. So the B300 probably has significantly shorter battery life than the F3, too.

    They're both so cheap, of course, that you can just buy either of them to see what you think. If you don't care for them, toss 'em in a drawer as an emergency phone.

  34. phrantic Says:

    Yes, but you know what happens when you buy a phone from Dick Smith.


    [Well, it's entirely to be expected. He was The Electronic Dick, after all.

    Background info for people outside AU/NZ: When Dick Smith Electronics was actually still owned by Dick Smith, the company trucks all had "The Electronic Dick" on the sides of them, and that name was used in advertisements, too. It all started going downhill when Dick sold the company. -Dan]

  35. Jimbob3 Says:

    NiCads are great for low temperatures too. Better than NiMh and lets not mention LION

  36. Matt Says:

    "Stuff" has the option to leave feedback.

    "We want comments that are punchy, short and smart.

    Selected feedback will be published in the Your Say section of Stuff."

    Looks like a job for our favourite psychopath, eh Dan?

  37. cutandpastepc Says:

    Regarding condensation:

    I've heard all about condensation over the years being bad for electronics...but on the other hand, my job sometimes requires me to take a very cold (think -20C) laptop out of its very cold bag in the very cold and dry work truck, bring it into the very warm and humid office building, turn it on, and get to work.

    The hard drive suffered a mechanical failure recently, which was probably helped along by this abuse But, otherwise, it's been fine. The machine is almost four years old.

    And, sure, it's really weird using a computer which is so cold that it's wet, where the TFT screen is so slow that it's almost useless, and the backlight is so cold that it's almost as if it's not even on.

    But again: It works fine.

    My take on this is that water condensate from air is not conductive enough to cause logical errors, and that the whole machine warms up and dries out fast enough that galvanic corrosion doesn't have much opportunity to occur.

    And, finally, with regard to batteries in the freezer, if it makes any difference at all: Put them in well-sealed bag. Freeze. Keep the battery inside the bag until it is good and warm. Done.

  38. curlyg Says:

    Dave Thomson Watch: UPDATE

    Dave has just discovered Windows Product Activation (introduced with Windows XP in 2001), and covers it in his own, inimitable, impeccably researched style:


    I eagerly await his article on how the dot-com boom is now over.

  39. Stark Says:

    I couldn't make it past the first part of the "article" this time... I hit this little gem "You might think this is an exaggeration, but anecdotal evidence suggests I didn't just make it up" and my head exploded.

  40. pompomtom Says:

    The stupid: it burns!

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