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It’s a problem that stumps even gadget gurus: batteries that suddenly decline in capacity, or die altogether. Was it charged correctly, and what is the right way to charge a particular type of battery? Could it be the mysterious phenomenon known as the “memory effect”? And what does the temperature have to do with it? Some of our favorite gadget guys explore all things battery.
- Rob Pegoraro Consumer Technology columnist, The Washington Post
- Wayne Rash technology journalist; Washington Bureau Chief of eWeek; contributing editor of TechWeb; and Blogger at CTO Edge
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Batteries are a mystery to many of us. You get a new phone, and you're excited about it because it goes nearly three days before it needs charging. And then one day, you realize it seems to need a charge almost daily. And you wonder, was it something you did? You tried to remember the right way to charge a battery. Are you supposed to drain it fully then charge it or charge it fully and never drain it completely? And isn't there some important rule about the first time you charge the battery?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMaybe you should have read the manual, but it really doesn't matter because you've got your eye on a phone with some cool new features. And so your old phone and its battery are headed for the trash. But wait. They don't go in the trash. Now, where are you supposed to recycle these things? We've got answers to all your battery questions in studio with Rob Pegoraro, the consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post. Rob, good to see you again.
MR. ROB PEGORAROThanks.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Wayne Rash, technology journalist and the Washington bureau chief of eWeek. He's also a contributing editor of TechWeb and InformationWeek and a blogger at CTO Edge. Wayne, good to see you.
MR. WAYNE RASHNice seeing you again, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIHaving just returned from CeBIT, the big trade show in Germany, when did you get back?
RASHI got back Friday night and...
NNAMDISee a lot of interesting new things?
RASHI saw a lot of interesting new things.
NNAMDIMore stuff for Rob to talk about in his column.
RASHMore stuff for Rob to talk about.
RASHLots and lots and lots of tablets. Everybody pretty much knew what Apple is going to be bringing out, so they all were ready for it with lots of new features.
NNAMDIHow many new tablets are there?
RASHThere were 39, and that was not counting either Motorola or Apple, neither of which were at the show.
NNAMDIRob's gonna be really busy with this one.
PEGORAROI feel like tired already.
RASHYou haven’t lived until you've seen a 3-D tablet showing a soccer game.
NNAMDIWhoa. Anything else interesting?
RASHActually, there were. There were a number of interesting things out there. A lot of Bluetooth add-ons for tablet devices. A lot of audio and docking add-ons so that you can play, you know, a stereo, so that you can hook up your tablet to your high-definition television. A lot of stuff like that. It was very heavily mobile oriented. There was a -- there's a LG phone that will show you 3-D without glasses.
NNAMDIAh-ha. We're hating on you for even being at this conference. You know this, don't you?
RASHYes, I do. And, of course, we won't even go into the fact that since I was in Germany, of course, we have to deal with the beer and the sausages and...
PEGORAROThat sounds terrible.
RASHOh, it was awful.
NNAMDILet's talk batteries, please.
NNAMDIWhat frustrates you most about batteries? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the battery conversation there. Rob, we'd like to start with the basics. What's the first thing people should know about the battery they're putting in their gadgets?
PEGORAROOh, it's never gonna last as long as you want. You know, there has been actual progress. You know, I look at how laptops can run these days, and a lot of that is not so much necessarily battery technology, but processors have gotten more efficient. Companies like Intel have realized, you know, these things are fast now. Let's try to make them use less electricity, you know, not put out as much heat. And so that helps the battery last a little bit better. It's something people could try to optimize with each new update, but still, you know, if...
NNAMDIThey never last as long as...
NNAMDI...you really want it to.
PEGORAROThat sooner or later, you're gonna be looking at the screen thinking, oh, no.
NNAMDIWhen you get a new device, you're usually eager to start using it, and many of us, well, we don't get around to actually reading the manual. But, sometimes, there are special instructions for charging the battery the first time around.
RASHYes. It depends on the device. It depends on the kind of battery, and it depends on what sort of state the battery arrives in. There are companies that will fully charge the battery before they ship it to you. There are companies that don't ever fully charge anything, because, you know, why? And it depends on the kind of battery. So let's say you're using a cell phone. The instructions will say charge it overnight, at least 14 hours.
RASHWell, you know, chances are you don't need to do that. You just need to make sure it's fully charge. If you're using a laptop, it's pretty much the same thing. But there are devices, depending on the type of battery you've got, that you really do need to do that and that you really do need to let it run all the way down before you recharge it again. It just depends on the device.
NNAMDILet's talk about some of those types of batteries, Rob. It's my understanding that there are three basic types of batteries we tend to use in most electronic gadgets. One type of battery, nickel cadmium, is the reason many people think batteries have something called the memory effect.
NNAMDICan you explain that?
PEGORAROThe nickel cadmium is the oldest kind. If you have rechargeable double AAs, they've been sitting in a desk drawer, that's probably -- or even newer ones, that's probably what you're looking at.
PEGORAROAnd that -- you have the issue that if you, you know, recharge it before it's run down all the way, eventually, it sorts of forgets that it can store that much electricity. And -- but that's not the device -- the kind of battery you're probably gonna see in most current devices. Your phone, your laptop, a lot of rechargeable devices like cameras, you know, you might a have nickel-metal hydride battery, where you don't have the memory effect. If you drive a hybrid car, that's probably what you have.
NNAMDIYup. That's what I have, a hybrid car.
PEGORAROMost laptops, smartphones, they use lithium ion or lithium polymer, which also doesn't have memory effects, but it's a more expensive kind of battery. That's why you don't see that as rechargeable AA, for instance.
NNAMDIAs Rob was pointing out, Wayne, most of the gadgets we use now, smartphones, laptops, have lithium ion batteries. Can you tell us what the characteristics of lithium ion batteries are?
RASHLithium ion batteries are able to hold a great deal of energy for the amount of space they take up, which is the primary reason why they're so popular in things like mobile devices, cameras and laptops. They have their own little set of quirks. There was a period of time, for example, when lithium ion batteries would spontaneously catch fire.
PEGORAROA slight problem.
RASHYeah. It was a slight problem.
RASHYou can go to the Internet and see pictures of burning laptops from that.
NNAMDII remember that.
RASHThat problem has been pretty much solved. The battery manufacturers figured out that they have to manufacture the batteries in a much cleaner environment than they had in the past. And once that happened and they didn't get stray metal filings into the batteries, then that problem stopped. But the lithium ion batteries are significantly different in how they work from the way that the nickel-metal hydride batteries are.
RASHSo if you have a lithium ion battery, you have to make sure you recharge it frequently and don't let it go all the way down, because you'll significantly reduce the number of recharge cycles that the battery will take. With nickel-metal hydride, you should let it go all the way down and then recharge it in order to keep the number of recharge cycles up. They operate completely differently, even though they're both readily available and they're both use in a lot of mobile devices.
NNAMDISo lithium ion batteries, you can charge partially without a problem.
RASHAnd, in fact, you should.
NNAMDIThe nickel batteries, you have to charge them fully.
PEGORAROThere's two kinds of nickel.
NNAMDIYeah. There's nickel cadmium and...
RASHAnd nickel-metal hydride. Nickel-metal hydride works best if you let it fully discharge and then fully recharge, which is why, in many cases, if you get a battery that -- if you get a device that's using those batteries, you'll generally get AA batteries delivered with it, and you'll frequently get two sets. And the reason you get two sets is because it comes with the charger. It comes with the set that should be in your, say, camcorder or something, and then another set that you recharge. And when one totally runs out, you swap the batteries, recharge it to the camera. And then use the other one while the first one recharges.
NNAMDIWell, in theory, lithium ion batteries should last forever, but in reality, they don't?
RASHNo battery lasts forever.
RASHA lithium ion battery, if you consistently recharge it when it's about 10 percent discharged will last for as many 5,000 recharges. Nobody ever actually uses them that way, and that's the reason these things never last as long as you think they should, because everybody mistreats them. They're used at temperatures that are different from what the ideal temperature is, because with the lithium ion battery, well, it's not supposed to be more than, say, 86 degrees or so for maximum life. And, you know, most of us do things, like I do, where we keep them in our shirt pocket. Well, my shirt pocket is next to my body, and, you know, my body is hotter than 86 degrees. So that's gonna shorten the life of the battery in my phone.
NNAMDIDo you have any tips or tricks for -- to keep batteries going longer?
RASHWell, yeah, I mean, the biggest reason batteries run out quickly is because you got too much stuff turned on. So let's say you got a smartphone, you know, Rob's got his Android phone there. I've got a BlackBerry here. And they've all got the ability to turn on wi-fi. They can turn on Bluetooth. They can turn on GPS. And if you don't actually need any of those things...
NNAMDIDon't turn them on.
RASH...don't turn them on. Or if they're turned on, turn them off. So, for example, when I went to Germany, I turned off the Bluetooth, because, hey, my car is here, and it's just not gonna go that far. And I turned off -- I did actually didn't turn off the wi-fi, because the wi-fi worked perfectly well in Germany. But, you know, it's one of those things where if you don't need the feature, then turn it off.
PEGORAROThe advice I give on that is sort of simpler just -- in a lot of respects, phones are, you know, Android is designed, the operating system is designed to sort of ignore certain features if you're not using them. The wi-fi if you're not on a network, it's not gonna keep that receiver operating full tilt. But one thing, if you use anything GPS related, that's gonna kill your battery really fast. So, you know, if you're running low on battery, don't be checking in on ForceWare every time you enter a new shop. You know, you don't need to tell Facebook where you're at every minute. You don't need to have Google Maps running in the background.
RASHExactly. And that...
RASHAnd they are -- those are very, very -- I mean, GPS is great to have, but, man, does it suck up battery power.
NNAMDIWe're talking batteries on this Tech Tuesday with Wayne Rash. He's a technology journalist and the Washington bureau chief of eWeek, contributing editor of TechWeb and InformationWeek and a blogger at CTO Edge. He joins us in studio, along with Rob Pegoraro, consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post. You can call us, 800-433-8850. Have you ever replaced a cell phone battery, or do you end up buying a new phone before you do that? Call us with your battery experience. 800-433-8850. Here is Nicholas in Martinsburg, W.Va. Hi, Nicholas.
NICHOLASHey, Kojo. Thanks for having me on. Yeah. I got a major gripe with my cell phone battery. I recently got a new BlackBerry, and my problem is that the area where I live in, there's a lot of dead zones. And I can bring this thing to work with me with a full charge, and then, the place where I have to keep my phone at work is a dead zone. And I have dead zones on the way to and from about a half hour commute. And my question is, is there any way that I can keep this thing, because, obviously, when it's searching for a signal, the battery life just depletes unbelievably quickly, at least on my phone? Is there any way of just kinda of circumventing that?
RASHWhat carrier are you using?
NICHOLASI use T-Mobile.
RASHOkay. Well, T-Mobile is a GSM carrier. Normally, GSM doesn't search and use up battery power quite as fast as the other CDMA-type phones. So the best way to do it is if you're not getting -- if you're in an area where you know you're not gonna be using it or you know there's no signal, turn it off.
PEGORAROThe other thing you could do, they may have -- some carriers will say these femtocells, which will sort of boost the wireless signal over the air to where you're at, but, you know, they won't give you them for free. And it can annoying to pay for this gadget that will improve your -- for your wireless reception. Otherwise, yeah, maybe just put it in airplane mode. If you're not getting a signal anyways, there's no point in this thing wearing out its battery looking for something where it's not gonna get any useful service out of it.
RASHNow, since you have a T-Mobile Black Berry, one thing you can do, which most people don't realize is if you go into your settings, you can turn off the GSM if you're in an area where there's no signal and turn on your wi-fi, if you've got wi-fi, and then make your phone calls over wi-fi. And that works with a BlackBerry that you get from T-Mobile.
NICHOLASOkay. Great. Appreciate the advice.
NNAMDINicholas, thank you for your call. We move on to Reshma (sp?) in Washington D.C. Reshma, your turn.
RESHMAHi. I have a question about my laptop computer, the battery, and it doesn't last very long. It is an old computer, and I understand that. So when I kinda looked up different solutions online on how to resolve this, it said that it's good not to keep it plugged in when you're not using it. I mean, does that have any real effect on the battery?
PEGORAROIt shouldn't have a whole lot of effect. If you look at what the manufacturer say, Apple, Dell, HP, basically their interest boil down to, you know, don't keep running on battery all the time. If there's an outlet, plug it in. But, also, don't keep it plugged in and never use the battery. So, you know, if you unplug it for, you know -- so you don't have the laptop cord running across the living room rug and then plug it in at the end of the day. That's fine. It shouldn't make a big difference.
PEGORAROOne thing you can't get around is just age and specifically charge-discharge cycles. Every laptop battery has a finite number built in, and older ones, you know, may not run as long. For instance, Apple. They've decided to optimize heavily towards long battery life at the cost of, you know, you can't get to the battery. So Apple advertises, like, a thousand cycles before you're down to 80 percent of the original performance. You won't get as much in an older battery. So is this like a three-year-old laptop, four, five?
RESHMAYeah. About five years old.
PEGORAROThen it's probably due for a new battery.
RASHYeah. And the other thing to remember is that the charging systems in five-year-old laptops are not nearly as sophisticated as the ones they have now. And these days, charging systems know when to stop charging the battery, And in those days, they didn't. So your battery will sit there and get -- keep getting power put into it and that would help actually reduce the life of the battery.
NNAMDII was about to ask about that, Rob, because the manufacturers of most laptops advice you not to constantly charge and discharge the battery. But these batteries don't have a problem with the memory effects, so why should that matter?
PEGORAROIt's the charge-discharge cycles. That's the issue. You're sort of cutting into the potential lifespan. But, you know, you can go too far in trying to worry about this. I hear from readers who take the battery out of the laptop, which is great, but, you know, the electricity does go out from time to time. With the battery, you have this uninterruptible power supply. You'll never lose your work without it. Boom. You know, everything is gone and all because you're avoiding a potential problem down the line you might have if you only use the laptop this one way.
NNAMDISince I got an iPad, I never take my laptop any place, so it stays plugged in at home. I don't think I've unplugged it in a long time. Does that affect how it -- how the batteries charge?
RASHI think it's gonna depend on how old your laptop is and what kind of...
NNAMDIIt's about a...
RASH..recharging you've got.
NNAMDI...year and a half maybe.
RASHIt may not be a problem. It -- if you have a reasonably modern recharging design on your battery, it may just stop charging it when it doesn't need it. But since it's charging and then letting it sit, which slowly discharges these batteries because all rechargeable batteries have another characteristic, which is that if they're just sitting, they, sort of, spontaneously discharge, which means you got to charge them again. And every time you have that discharge and charge, that's another cycle. So eventually, it, by itself, will wear out that battery.
PEGORAROAnd if you're in sleep and standby mode, that's another trickle of energy coming out of the battery.
NNAMDINow I cut it off completely. Reshma, thank you very much for your call. Hopefully...
NNAMDI...we were able to help.
RESHMAYes. Very much.
NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our Tech Tuesday conversation on batteries. If the lines are busy, go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on batteries with Wayne Rash, technology journalist and the Washington Bureau chief of eWeek. Wayne is also a contributing editor of TechWeb and InformationWeek. He's a blogger at CTO Edge. Also joining us in the studio, Rob Pegoraro, consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post. Back to the telephones. Here is Paul in Alexandria, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Paul. Are you there? Uh-oh. Paul dropped off. So we have Jeff in Baltimore, Md. Hi, Jeff.
JEFFHi, hi. So my question is since these batteries are so delicate and expensive, why a cigarette-type label, you know, as on cigarette packaging isn't just legislated on to each battery because you guys didn't use a whole lot of words to describe how to charge it, and it would save us a lot of money.
RASHWell, you know, if you, actually, read the manual in most of these devices, it will actually tell you this. If you're really interested, you can go to the Internet and research, say, lithium-ion battery care and it will give you all the glory details.
JEFFI'm not even high tech enough to get into all of that. I'm just wondering why it's not right on the battery itself.
RASHWell, because once you have the battery inside the device, you'll never see the instructions.
JEFFAh. Okay. Phones wouldn't be that way, but -- or at least mine isn't. Okay. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you. Here's an e-mail we got from Mark. "We consumers have problems dealing with the batteries we have to keep going, but I think manufacturers also have a problem. When I recently replaced a battery on my laptop, I found dozens of deals for replacement batteries online, all, apparently, with the same specifications and design but with a huge range of prices, as cheap as $16 and as high as $180." Manufacturers have not done a very good job explaining their products to consumers, Rob.
PEGORAROWell, it's sort of an opportunity. You know, I've come up against this myself. You -- you know, you have, say, a five-year-old laptop like the prior caller. You're looking for a new battery for it. And, yeah, you can go with the OEM part from the original manufacturer. And, you know, there's nothing to worry about. Obviously, it's gonna work if you know what you're dealing with. But then, there are other companies that either offer same performance at a cheaper price or, you know, higher capacity, a longer battery life at the same price or higher.
PEGORAROAnd, yeah, the confusing part is, often, it's companies you haven't heard of until you started doing the shopping. And then, you know, yeah. You just, sort of, have to do a little research, what have other people said about this company and so on.
NNAMDII think Anthony in Falls Church, Va. has a related problem. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYWhy, good afternoon, and thank you. Here's the interesting thing that happened to me. Bought a battery charger for a BlackBerry, plugged it in. It not only didn't charge the battery, but it discharged the rest of the juice. Took it in to the store. It appeared that the charger had killed the BlackBerry. Now, the most puzzling thing of all is took the BlackBerry back home. I had left the original charger in another place. Plugged it in, and it charged back up. In the mean time, I got a BlackBerry replacement. Any explanation for the mystery?
RASHI believe this is the problem they call a defective charger. (laugh)
RASHIn other words, the charger you bought didn't work.
ANTHONYYeah. But at the store, they couldn't get it to charge with other chargers. That's what made it -- that's why I got the BlackBerry replaced.
PEGORAROThey couldn't use your BlackBerry to charge.
RASHYeah. It could be that -- you know, it -- I don't -- without knowing more about the situation, it's hard to diagnose it from here. You probably should take them up on the replacement BlackBerry because my guess is...
ANTHONYOh, I did. Yeah. I had to because I couldn't be without the phone.
RASHThere's obviously something wrong with the charging system and the charger that you bought. It obviously damaged something in the electrical system in the BlackBerry. But the original charger, apparently, worked well enough to charge it. But I sure wouldn't want to rely on it.
ANTHONYWell, no. Yeah, yeah. I agree. My -- the pet peeve underlying is still, to this day, reinforce the notion that I have that each individual apparatus only works best with the original piece of equipment that comes with it. And why is that not standardized so all equipment, you know, has the same port to accept the same cable.
PEGORAROActually, it pretty much is. The phone industry, it's taken them a long time to sort of realize the merits of this. But you buy any new phone, it's gonna have a micro USB port. Like a regular USB port, except it's been hammered thin. So the other ones may have a mini USB port not quite as thin, and that's now the case for pretty much every phone out there except for the iPhone, which has Apple's dock connector. And in my experience -- and I can assure you, I have quite a few phones floating around the office right now, an embarrassing amount actually.
PEGORAROAnd I'll just grab any micro-USB cable off the shelf, plug it in, and it charges. The only exceptions I see are some tablets, like the Barnes & Noble Nook Color I tried. It looks like a micro-USB cable, but it's not. And so it will not charge with that. It does need its own cable.
RASHI understand that there's European standard that requires the commonality between chargers. And that's encouraging the phone companies to adopt the micro USB, which also seems to be mechanically more robust than the old mini USBs, which seemed to have a fairly high failure rate. So you're going to see more and more phones go into the micro USB. I'm a little surprised Apple is still able to get away without doing that. But I think you're going to find that it -- almost everything will have the same micro-USB port.
RASHAnd because the voltage and current standards are the same for all of them, you'll find that they'll be interchangeable. I already interchanged them on a regular basis. The only difference I have before Rob is I finally got tired of all the phones, boxed them all up, and shipped them out. But...
PEGORAROIt's on a to-do list.
NNAMDIAnthony, thank you so much for your call. Rob, how long your battery lasts is obviously what it's all about. But start looking up battery life and you'll get information like the following -- to determine the battery life, divide the capacity by the actual load current to get the hours of life. Most of us are starting at a more basic point. What does a battery life actually mean?
PEGORAROI was gonna say it was my understanding that there will be no math.
PEGORAROAlso, I should stipulate it's my wife that has the electrical engineering degree not me. When I'm testing battery life, I don't look at that. I look at, you know, what's the worst-case scenario for something? So, you know, I used to, on the assumption that you would use a phone to talk on, which is obviously not the case anymore, you know, I do a talk-time test, where I'd basically, you know, call my desk at work and have it just -- the phone listen to the hold music. But then you sort of look at how people actually use smartphones. And they're more like Internet devices that happened to have a speaker and a microphone.
PEGORAROSo now, what I'll try to do is, you know, fire up a Web radio program. So it's gonna be using the mobile broadband service full time, you know, keep the screen set illuminated, even if I have to, like, tap it every half hour or so. And then just see how long it lasts. And I'll try to do the same thing on a laptop or a tablet, something where the Internet connection is in use all the time.
NNAMDIExactly what does battery life mean, Wayne?
RASHIt means how long it's gonna take before you got to recharge it. You know, and battery life can vary significantly even within identical devices, because it depends on how you use it and what stuff you've got turned on in your device. So when they talk about battery life, it really -- if you really care what they say and what it means to you, then you need to look at all the stuff in the fine print down there where you can't really read it without your reading glasses, because how they define battery life depends on a lot of different factors.
NNAMDIHere is Jim in Clinton, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMHey for the team. I'm running an Android phone off of a cigarette lighter and using GPS. Is the cigarette lighter charging the battery or maintaining the battery? What's going on there?
PEGORAROYou mean what they called a power port in the cars now?
RASHYeah, they call it the power port because it's no longer politically correct in some cars to smoke. But yeah, it's charging your phone. It's like plugging it in anything else with a charger. And doing that, you don't have to worry about the GPS eating up your battery power because it's getting it from the car.
JIMAnd it maintains the battery in its current state as charged?
PEGORAROYou should see that. There should be a little charge indicator on the top right of the phone. And that should certainly be enough power to keep it -- to have the battery not drain. Sometimes, that's not case. I was a testing a phone that could share its Internet connection with a laptop over a USB cable or Wi-Fi. And although the USB cable could charge the phone, the Internet connection -- I think it must have been Wi-Fi -- it was draining battery faster than that. So it was kind of a frightening experience to have this thing going downhill that quickly.
RASHYeah. You can have a lot of things happen like that. But if all you're doing is doing GPS and having your phone there, you know, it doesn't require so much power that you can't get enough out of your power port on your car.
JIMOkay. So I can take the entire trip with this thing plugged in and not worried about where the battery being discharged. Can we say that?
RASHI would say so, unless there's something wrong with your car's charger.
PEGORAROOr this is a very, very long trip we're talking about.
RASHYeah. Or something goes wrong with your phone. But, you know, the car will provide enough power to keep the battery charged and operate the GPS.
NNAMDIJim, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us as we discuss batteries. What frustrates you most about batteries? 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Rob, since people complain so much about the battery life of their cell phones because their cell phones are doing so much more, you apparently have one simple piece of advice -- if you're sitting still anywhere, charge the phone.
PEGORAROThis is the first commandment any tech journalist covering the consumer electronic show or a CeBIT. Yeah, if you're standing still, if you're sitting down, recharge your device. Because certainly at CES, when you're on your phone full time and it's probably working harder to pick out a signal because there's so many other devices, yeah, just recharge as often as you can. You know, it feels -- it can seem sort of wrong because I remember my phone used to run much longer on a charge. I could go the weekend without recharging it.
PEGORAROBut that's because when I have this Palm phone with a really lousy Web browser that I didn't wanna use, the e-mail program is terrible, there was no real mapping application, there weren't these location-based services hitting GPS, sure, it lasted a lot longer. It wasn't working as hard.
NNAMDIWell, aren't you using up your limited number of recharges by like constantly recharging?
PEGORAROI hate to say I'm completely knuckling under to the smartphone industry, but the reality is, you know, I bought this phone a year and a half ago. And when I'm eligible for a new one, I probably will get one because the technology has advanced so fast, you know, a new phone I get will be thinner, it'll have the bigger screen, camera is on the front and the back, I could plug it in to my TV, maybe it will have better battery life. I hope so. But you never know.
NNAMDIWe got an e-mail, Wayne, from Fatma (sp?) who says, "How about apps like Battery Doctor?" What do you think of Battery Doctor apps that apparently are supposed to tell you exactly where your battery charge is, how many -- how much capacity you have left in minutes, maybe seconds?
RASHI've never actually tested them. You know, it's no reason why it couldn't work. You -- generally, with the apps that I have seen -- I don't know about Battery Doctor -- but the apps that I have seen, the first thing you have to do is set a baseline where you have your battery fully charged and then you charge it -- discharge it completely so that it knows -- so the app can figure out...
NNAMDIExactly the way.
RASH...exactly what it's got to work with. But once that's done, it should be able to measure what your power draw is, give you a reading. But remember, that information is going to change. Because if you go farther from your cell site and your phone's got to put up more power or you turn on the Wi-Fi, then all of a sudden your 32 hours of battery life may become 12 hours.
NNAMDIHere is Dan in Alexandria, Va. Dan, you're turn.
DANRob, Wayne, Kojo, great show. How timely and stimulating, in my case.
DANJust discovered a free app from the Android market, which I've downloaded onto my Samsung Epic, called Battery Booster. And in addition to a little monitoring, a little graphic and percentage of battery use -- battery life remaining, it also has a battery tweak tab that allows you to set, like you were mentioning earlier, to turn off the Wi-Fi or GPS or Bluetooth connections when they're not in use. And it'll do that automatically for you when you go in and set it.
DANOn the other hand, though, we're all human and I have my own ID10T error story. Today -- I guess yesterday, I was in the car and I was powering up my Bluetooth window visor -- mounted Bluetooth device from the power port or cigarette lighter. And I forgot to unplug it from the power port cigarette lighter when I parked the car. So my car battery is dead right now, and AAA is on its way. (laugh)
NNAMDI(laugh) I'm sorry.
PEGORAROOne battery problem after another here.
NNAMDIThe only reason I laughed is because you said AAA is on its way. There's going to be a risky (unintelligible). It is kind of funny the things that happened to you.
DANNo pun intended.
RASHThat Bluetooth device must suck up a lot of power to run down a car battery, unless it was parked for a long time.
PEGORAROI assumed it has very good Bluetooth coverage in it too.
DAN(unintelligible) it was Christmas present. But the other thing I came across in storage in the basement last evening was an old APC...
PEGORAROUninterruptible power supply?
DANYeah, uninterruptible power supply. And I haven't used it in -- I don't know -- five years or more. So I was gonna look up the serial number and the model number and see if there's an upgrade. But it's -- what would you say the likelihood is that if I plugged it in after five years unused that it would actually work?
RASHWell, they use lead-acid batteries. As far as I know, lead-acid batteries can sit around unused for a very long time. I have a number of APC uninterruptible power supplies sitting around in my office, some of which are quite a bit more than five years old. And eventually, the batteries, because of the same charge-recharge cycle that we've talked about, you know, they do stop working. But...
PEGORAROYou know, that happened to me, I guess, last year. I bought a UPS, I guess, right after Hurricane Isabel when my, you know, computer got forcibly shut down five times in the afternoon when the power is flicking on and off. And, yeah, the battery did finally wear out. So, you know, I looked up on APC site. And of course, the problem with a lead-acid battery is so heavy. The shipping charge is a major fraction of the actual replacement battery cost.
RASHI actually found there's a couple of third party vendors who will sell you an APC-compatible battery for a fair amount less than APC, and they seem to be identical batteries. I'm trying to remember the name of the one that I've been buying replacement batteries from, but I can't remember. I think RefurbUPS or something. But they provide -- as far as I can tell, there's absolutely no difference between them and they work just fine. And, you know, you still got to deal with what you're gonna do about the battery, which means recycle it somehow.
NNAMDIDan, thank you so much for your call. Hopefully AAA will get to you very quickly. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, more of our Tech Tuesday conversation on batteries. If you've already called, stay on the line. If the lines are busy, either shoot us an e-mail to email@example.com, go to our website, kojoshow.org, or you can send us as tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBatteries, that's what we're talking about on Tech Tuesday with Rob Pegoraro, consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post, and Wayne Rash, technology journalist and Washington Bureau chief of eWeek. Wayne is also a contributing editor of TechWeb and InformationWeek and a blogger at CTO Edge. Most phones, with the exception of Apple, allow you to replace the battery. When can you expect to replace a phone battery on average, Rob?
PEGORAROYeah. Like I was saying, in my case, I'm pretty sure this -- whoever replaces the battery of my current phone will be the next buyer of it.
PEGORAROYou know, we'll try to flip it on eBay. Yeah. More often I find, you know, you will see people will buy a backup battery just to sort of trade that in. But nowadays, because phones all have the same chargers, it's just easier to bring an extra charger. You'll find an outlet somewhere, although the airport, some of them sure do make it difficult to find this outlet.
NNAMDIThey sure do. They sure do. You could be in a huge airport and find only one or two outlets where you can charge a battery.
PEGORAROAnd the one outlet you'll find will be always right underneath the speaker broadcasting airport CNN.
RASHRight. And probably in the main traffic path. But it's there because they're going to use it to run the floor scrubber. But hey, you know, it does work. Unless you're in some -- there was one guy who was arrested for charging his phone battery somewhere in Europe on an outlet -- I mean, in France, I believe it was, or some place.
PEGORAROContraband outlets then. Always something new.
RASHHe was arrested for stealing electricity to charge his cell phone.
NNAMDIAs Rob said, most of us are likely to replace the phone before we replace the battery. Some people are surprised when they use a camera, for example, and the battery doesn't last very long. Why not?
RASHWell, cameras have a different kind of power usage than phones do. Normally with cameras, especially if you're using a flash, you're drawing a lot more power than a phone ever uses. And generally that means, first of all, you probably have a different kind of battery depending on the camera. You may have a nickel-metal hydride battery instead of a lithium-ion. Again, it depends on the camera. But if you have that kind of a battery and it's, you know, in case of a nickel-metal hydride, it's probably a AA battery in the camera, they just don't have that much energy that they store so they run out.
RASHYou find that pricier cameras will -- I mean, I've got a couple of Nikon cameras that I use for work. You know, they have lithium-ion battery. It's good for 800 to 1,000 pictures. And they last a lot longer that I'm likely to last.
NNAMDI(laugh) Here is Dan in Silver Spring, Md. Hi, Dan.
NNAMDIYou're on the air, Dan. Go ahead.
DANYes. First half of my question is I have a laptop sitting in my home that I'm not using for traveling that much. It's always charging its battery. I didn't have taken it out. Would it make any harm to the battery? And my second part of the question...
NNAMDIWell, the answer to the first part according to Wayne and Rob is depending on how long you have had that laptop.
DANIt's only six months old now.
NNAMDIOh, it probably is able to detect when the battery no longer needs charging, correct, Wayne?
RASHMost likely it can figure out when to turn off the charging and just let it sit.
NNAMDIWhat's your other question, Dan?
DANMy other question is -- I think Rob or -- I can't remember who had said that -- I can make a phone call using a Wi-Fi technology. Can you tell me how does that work?
RASHWell, you can do it only on T-Mobile. Everybody else lets you use Wi-Fi but only for things like e-mail and browsing the Web. But T-Mobile makes it so that you can also make phone calls over Wi-Fi, which would...
PEGORAROAnd that's with your phone number, not like with Skype or in other Internet calling app.
RASHRight. Right. Now if you're on -- if you've got an AT&T phone or a Verizon phone, I think Skype works on those and you can make phone calls with Skype. But...
RASH...only T-Mobile and not all phones of T-Mobile will work with voice over Wi-Fi.
DANOkay. Thank you.
NNAMDIOkay, Dan. Thank you for your call. Onto Brett in Anacostia. Brett, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRETTHi, Kojo. Hi, Nnamdi. Hi, Rob.
BRETTYou have mentioned -- hi, can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
BRETTDo you know any more about booster cells for signal to cell towers? I saw things on Amazon for a couple hundred dollars. I'm not sure if that's what Rob was talking. And then the other -- I wondered about lots of laptops, especially if you're restoring a system, you're gonna have it plugged in, it says in the instructions. Do you have any ideas about what the limits for some programs or applications you're downloading that you really wanna make sure you're in -- that you don't need your battery? I'll take my answer off the air. Thanks a lot guys.
NNAMDIThanks for your call, Brett.
RASHOkay. Well, the first thing about the cell phone boosters -- and I've actually tested these -- is they only work if you've got some signal, which means let's say you've got a cell phone and it works on -- I don't know -- Verizon for example. You've got to at least have some kind of Verizon signal that you can detect because if you don't, then the cell phone booster has nothing to boost. So they work fine, but they don't work without a signal of some sort. It does -- they can work to give you a better signal. The other thing you have to check is you've got to figure out what frequencies your carrier is using and make sure that you get a boost that matches those, because it doesn't do you any good to have a phone that's working on 1,900 MHz when the booster works on 800.
NNAMDIThis e-mail we got from Brent in Rockville, Md. "I saw an online talk about anti-features that a number of device manufacturers have implemented software which will turn off power-saving features or otherwise run out the battery when it fails to detect an expected brand name battery. Hence, users get the impression that the competitor's battery is lower quality. Have your guests heard of this? And if so, can they comment?"
PEGORAROThat's kind of news to me.
NNAMDISee, in the beginning we said that we didn't know that there could be intelligent batteries, but apparently...
RASHWell, there are intelligent batteries but...
NNAMDIOr intelligent devices.
PEGORAROThat's more like malevolent.
RASHI have never heard of this. This may be one of those Internet myths.
PEGORAROYeah. I was gonna say we forgot to have -- get the second half of Brett's question. I guess he was worrying about keeping the laptop plugged in while installing a system update or whatever.
RASHOh, right. If you're doing something where it really, really matters if your computer dies -- like, for example, updating your operating system or something like that -- yeah, you better keep it plugged in 'cause you don't wanna take a chance that, you know, it's gonna take longer than you thought and the battery slowly goes away and you get halfway through a system update and...
PEGORAROHalf-installed updates are not good at all.
RASHNo. You'll find out that you will never be able to use that machine again.
NNAMDIHere is Terry in Falls Church, Va. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRYYes. Thank you. My question is I was told not to keep my cell phone plugged into the car port for the cigarette lighter, that by doing so I could actually do damage to my battery, that the purpose of it was just to recharge, especially when we go on long trips, to recharge it if I needed to while I was in the car, to be able to use the phone. But other than that, not to leave it charged. So this doesn't make sense with what I've been hearing on the program.
PEGORAROThere's a lot of advice. It's almost this sort of like, you know, folk medicine advice that gets handed down around these things. The batteries, the phones, the laptops, they're not that picky. You know, if you put it in an extreme case where you're always running out the battery or you keep it plugged in full time and you never run it on battery, then it might get a little bit cranky. But they're designed to accept, you know, normal use. The phone won't get mad at you if you leave it plugged in.
PEGORAROYou know, the biggest risk you run of having the phone recharging off the power port, or the cigarette lighter, whatever term you prefer, is that, you know, you'll forget to take it out of the car, and then someone will break into the car and take the phone. But that's not a battery issue.
RASHRight. And the thing is that today's chargers, because they're all using the same micro USB and the same voltage levels in all of the connectors, your phone has no idea whether it's being charged from the wall or from a USB connection on your laptop or from the car. It's all the same.
NNAMDITerry, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Lillian in Mitchellville, Md. Lillian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LILLIANHi. I live in a retirement community, and I have a power chair, and I had replaced the batteries in it recently. It had two real large batteries. It cost me 300 bucks to get the batteries in there. And it has -- on the arm of the chair, it has flashing lights that show whether or not you're going and whether or not it's going down. At any rate, now it doesn't seem to hold the battery anymore. And I plug it in every night and I'm wondering if that's something I should not be doing.
RASHI think I'd call whoever serviced your chair and have them come back and take a look at it.
PEGORAROYeah. For 300 bucks, that makes car batteries look cheap.
NNAMDI(laugh) Indeed it does.
RASHYeah. If it's not holding a charge and they came and replaced it, I'd call them back and say, hey, guys. You know that battery you gave me? Well, try again.
NNAMDILillian, thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you. That brings me to a comment on our website from Anna, who says, "I keep seeing these charging stations that claim they can charge anything. Do they work? Can you really just lay a device on them and charge it?"
PEGORAROYeah. There are a couple of companies with technology of this sort I saw at CES in January. It's called inductive charging where, yeah, you just sort of put the phone on this charging mat, and it recharges it without you having to find a plug. And the technology works. The problem is there's no one standard at the market. There's one company called Powermat. It's been around a while. And the other problem is most devices don't support this. So if you buy a Powermat mat, you need to get the Powermat back for your iPhone or whatever phone you've got so that it will then transfer charge into the battery.
NNAMDIWe all know that batteries and old electronic should never be thrown away with the regular trash. Please remind us about why that's important.
RASHThese batteries contain elements that, if allowed to be released into the environment, are, well, toxic. All of the various batteries we talk about, if it's a lead acid battery, it contains, well, lead. Nickel-cadmium batteries contain cadmium, which is not something you wanna be having in your water supply. It's a situation where you need to have them recycled, and you can have them recycled in a variety of places. One place that comes to mind that gladly accepts such things is Best Buy, but there are others.
PEGORAROI think -- I recycled my old UPS battery, I think, at a Staples. They take that stuff.
RASHRight. I took mine to the Fairfax County recycle center and dropped off my UPS battery there.
NNAMDIAnd it's not just the batteries. Huge numbers of cell phones and other gadgets are being thrown away often with the battery still inside. The District of Columbia, for example, calls these items household hazardous waste. They include batteries, computers, cell phones, televisions, computers, as well as things like paint, aerosols, cleaning fluids. You should know that the District allows you to bring any of these items to the Fort Totten Transfer Station on the first Saturday of each month.
NNAMDIThey will not pick up household hazardous waste, but they'll take it and they'll dispose of it properly. Rob, we've all seen television sets sitting on the curb. Those will not be picked...
PEGORAROSuch a forlorn sight, yes.
NNAMDIThey'll not be picked up by the city.
PEGORARONo, no. I mean, old tube TV sets are a big problem. You've got all sorts of lead in the actual tube itself. Yeah, you -- please don't leave them on the curb. Your neighbors will not appreciate it. Yeah, the -- and the problem is that you will have to sort of pay to get them recycled. The best option I saw, when I had two old CRTs to get rid of, was actually Best Buy, which -- they charge 10 bucks, give you a $10 gift card, thereby in spring you'll spend a little more time in the store. So it's still a win-win for everyone.
RASHYeah. I got rid of a bunch of monitors three at a time 'cause that's the most they'll take at one time, and after a while amassed enough gift cards to -- when I went back to buy a new TV set after my old TV set died, I got a pretty good, you know, price off my TV set. So it worked out pretty well. But, yeah, they -- they're pretty good about it. They will take up to a certain size of TV sets or computer monitor or whatever and they'll give -- they'll charge you 10 bucks but give you a 10-buck gift card. And, hey, you know? I mean, it doesn't cost you anything.
NNAMDIAnd then there's Ahmed in Washington, D.C. Ahmed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
AHMEDHi, guys. Good afternoon.
AHMEDI had a question about, you know, cell phones and charging with the battery or without a battery. And I had an old Motorola StarTAC that if I had it plugged into the wall, even without the battery, the phone would still work. Similarly, with my next phone, to Sony Ericsson T637, it didn't have the battery in and it was plugged in. The phone itself would work. However, with my current BlackBerry, I noticed that if I don't have the battery in and have it plugged in, the phone does not work.
AHMEDSo I was just wondering if you could comment on that itself. And is that something that's unique to specific phones, or is that something that can be done? Because I think that if your battery does die completely or completely malfunction, if you have the charger, you still could use it even without the battery. And I was wondering if you could comment on that.
RASHWell, it's been a long time since I saw a Motorola StarTAC.
RASHMy wife used to have one. You look at it now and it looks like -- it looks huge. You know, today's phones are designed so that when the power goes in, it's intended to charge the battery, and you run the phone off the battery. Whether they will also work to power the phone without the battery, you know, I guess, it's individual. It's one of those things -- well, it's one of those things that is up to the manufacturer how they wanna design it. But I suspect it probably costs -- oh, I don't know -- 5 or 6 cents more to make the thing to do that and...
PEGORAROThat's unacceptable. We can't spend that kind of money.
RASHYou know, that kind of a difference. It's just too much money. So you're gonna find out that you're charging the battery and you're just gonna have to have the battery in there to make the phone work.
NNAMDIWayne Rash is a technology journalist and the Washington bureau chief of eWeek. He's also a contributing editor of TechWeb and InformationWeek, and a blogger at CTO Edge. Right now we're hating on him for having on to CeBIT trade show in Germany. Wayne, good to see you again.
RASHNice seeing you again, too, Kojo.
NNAMDIRob Pegoraro is the consumer technology columnist for The Washington Post. Rob, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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