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Cheap Batteries Buying Guide

The variety of battery types is staggering. There are tiny round-cell batteries for watches, the ubiquitous small cylinders for devices such as TV remotes and game controllers, mid-size square or rectangular batteries for computers and power tools, large batteries for cars, and lots more in between.

Some are "primary" batteries that can't be recharged and others are "secondary" batteries that can be recharged hundreds of times. The internal chemistry of each battery type also differs. For example, old-style batteries contain zinc chloride or carbon zinc; the standard cylindrical alkaline battery contains zinc and manganese dioxide; the newer rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries contain nickel oxyhydroxide and an alloy that absorbs hydrogen. The chemical composition (i.e., the technology) affects longevity and the kind of device the battery can power up.

To keep things from getting too confusing, this buying guide focuses on cheap batteries for the consumer market; that is, cheap alkaline and cheap NiMH batteries used for things such as clocks, toys, MP3 players, digital cameras, flashlights, remote controls, GPS systems, wireless keyboards and computer mice.

The brand-name battery powerhouses include Duracell, Energizer, Sanyo, Sony, and Panasonic, and the generic bigwigs are Camelion, Rayovac, Rhino, and Kirkland Signature (Costco house brand). On a per unit basis, the price difference between brand-name and generic batteries can be substantial. For instance, a 12-pack of AA alkaline batteries from Energizer starts at less than $11 compared to less than $7 for a 12-pack by Rayovac; a Kirkland Signature 48-pack goes for $13.63. Ditto for rechargeable NiMH batteries; a four-pack of AA 2700mAh batteries from Sanyo costs nearly $17 compared to $13 for a pack with similar specs from Powerex. The disparity in performance between the top and second-tier brands is often noticeable but rarely extreme. It's the very bottom-of-the-barrel batteries, the kind you can buy in bulk for a dollar, that lag so very far behind.

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While researching the best cheap batteries, we found that consumers care most about reliability and durability. For alkaline batteries that means holding a charge between infrequent uses and/or providing power for a decent length of time when used continuously. With rechargeable NiMH batteries, consumers expect sufficient power for periods of intense activity and/or power when needed on devices used regularly. Although consumers are turned off by batteries with limited longevity, sometimes the batteries' failure has more to do with the device it's attached to; in other words, the battery may not be appropriate for the application.

Our picks for best cheap batteries include two rechargeable NiMH and two alkaline batteries. At the top of the list are Sanyo Eneloop AAA NiMH Pre-Charged Rechargeable Batteries 800mAh (starting at $9.50/4-pack), which consumers say beat out the competition in terms of holding a charge through heavy use. Second in the NiMH category are Sony Rechargeable AAA 900 mAh NiMH Batteries (starting at $8.60/4-pack), also for longevity despite a few contrary reports by users. In the alkaline battery segment, our top pick is the Duracell CopperTop Alkaline AA (starting at $10/20-pack), hailed by consumers as dependable and long-lasting. We also like the Rayovac AA Alkaline (starting at $10/30-pack) batteries for their overall value. Although we've singled out the AAA or AA version of the cheap batteries on our list, research indicates that both sizes deliver similar performance.

Apart from the advice offered above to steer clear of the no-name, old-technology batteries often labeled "heavy duty" or "general purpose," we have some concerns about the Energizer Rechargeable D Batteries (starting at $10/2-pack); consumers gripe about their limited capacity and short active life before needing a recharge.

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(Note: Batteries come packaged in multiples -- sometimes a four-pack, sometimes a 10-pack, sometimes a 40-pack, etc.); the greater number of units, the lower the per unit cost. Different vendors carry different-size packages.)

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