Best Cheap Batteries
- Published on
- By Maralyn Edid
Batteries are one of those can't-live-without artifacts of modern life. What with all the wireless gadgets we possess, it's quite possible that you're burning though a few dozen batteries a year. Replacement costs add up quickly, which puts a premium on finding the best (as in, longest-lasting and most reliable) and cheapest battery around. Frugal consumers may be tempted to buy the no-name dollar-store variety, but experts insist that's a bad choice. Super-cheap batteries are destined to disappoint -- they have short life spans and some are prone to leaking. Stepping up a notch to a name-brand battery costs a bit more upfront but saves money in the long-run and delivers significantly better performance. We found several good cheap batteries that should keep your electrical gadgets fully powered up without draining too much from your wallet.
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.
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.
(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.)
NiMH Batteries, Alkaline Batteries
Battery Technology.Batteries contain chemicals, and the particular combination of chemicals inside a battery determines its technology. The most common battery technologies for household or consumer products are alkaline and NiMH.Alkaline batteries have been around for more than 50 years and account for the vast majority of batteries made and used in the U.S. They're very energy intensive, but the charge degrades gradually whether sitting idle or in operating mode. Alkaline batteries are low-drain devices with a long shelf-life (usually five to seven years, sometimes longer) and are well-suited to applications used intermittently, such as flashlights, and to devices with relatively low energy requirements, such as clocks and TV remotes; alkaline batteries can be used in digital cameras, as well, but there are better alternatives (see below). As "primary" cells, alkaline batteries cannot be recharged once depleted. Our picks for the best cheap alkaline batteries are the Duracell CopperTop AA (starting at $10/20-pack) and Rayovac AA Alkaline (starting at $10/30-pack).
By the way, a new type of rechargeable alkaline battery recently hit the market, but Fusionteq.com aren't sold; they point to the very limited number of recharges the battery can take (a few dozen) and the drop-off in electrical potential (voltage) with each recharge.
NiMH batteries, introduced in the 1990s, have supplanted nickel-cadmium (NiCD) batteries as the preferred technology for consumer applications that draw lots of energy (i.e., high-drain devices), such as digital cameras and power tools. Like NiCD batteries, NiMH batteries are rechargeable but far surpass the older technology in terms of energy capacity. The upfront cost of NiMH batteries is about twice that of alkaline batteries, and the cost of a charger specifically for batteries (a must) will set you back another $15-$20. But the current crop of NiMH batteries can be recharged hundreds of times for mere pennies a charge; given the price of replacements, you should recoup your investment quickly. (Hint: Recharge before the battery fully drained to prolong its useful life.) Our runner-up pick for best cheap NiMH battery is the Sony Rechargeable AAA 900mAh (starting at $8.60/4-pack), which can be recharged up to 300 times. The Energizer Rechargeable D 2500mAh (starting at $10/2-pack) has a recharge capacity of 100 times.
The downside of these so-called secondary (rechargeable) cells is their high rate of self-discharge. NiMH batteries degrade quickly, meaning shelf-life is limited -- especially if not stored at sufficiently cool temperatures. GreenBatteries.com says a NiMH battery will give up as much as 40% of its charge within 30 days when sitting in 70-degree heat and continues losing capacity as time passes. Regular NiMH batteries must be charged before first use.
A relatively new technological advance is low-self-discharge NiMH batteries that come packaged already charged up. Although consumers and experts suggest giving the battery a charge before its maiden voyage -- pre-charged batteries may not be fully charged when leaving the factory and do lose some juice between there and your home -- the shelf-life of pre-charged NiMH batteries is a few years rather than months. Our pick for best cheap battery, the Sanyo Eneloop AAA NiMH Pre-charged 800mAh (starting at $9.50/4-pack) claims to hold 75% of its capacity after three years of sitting idle and can be recharged up to 1,500 times. Low-self-discharge batteries are quite versatile. Because the technology holds capacity far longer (remember, cool and dry storage conditions are critical), Stefanv.com says it's an acceptable substitute for alkaline batteries and suitable for high-drain devices used intermittently.
The most common sizes for alkaline batteries used in consumer products are AAA, AA, C, and D. Rechargeable NiMH batteries for the home market come in the same sizes. One size battery cannot be substituted for another, so be sure to read the owner's manual. Sometimes alkaline and NiMH batteries are interchangeable -- it depends on the application -- but Michaelbluejay.com notes that replacing multiple alkaline batteries with multiple NiMH batteries in a device gets tricky because of the difference in electric force. (See the section on power below.) Traditional alkaline batteries can be thrown into the garbage, but for safety reasons it's best to dispose of one or two at a time. NiMH batteries must be recycled.
Other battery technologies that occasionally pop up in reference to consumer products are lithium and lithium-ion. Lithium batteries have about double the energy capacity of alkaline batteries and a longer life span. They also cost more and must be recycled. Lithium batteries are often used in medical devices like pacemakers and hearing aids, as well as PDAs and watches. Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable and boast a longer shelf-life than the NiMH technology. For any given size, Li-ion batteries have a higher energy density and voltage than other rechargeable technologies. Lithium ion batteries are typically found in consumer electronics, like laptops and cell phones.
Batteries Power.Batteries are little storehouses of energy waiting to be released. All it takes is connecting to a device, which completes the circuit and sets off an internal electrochemical reaction that unleashes the energy and powers up the device. The amount of energy a battery can discharge over a period of time -- i.e., battery capacity -- is denoted as milliampere hours, or mAh. The unit of electric potential is called a volt.Put differently, the chemical composition of a battery affects how much energy it can store/discharge, and the power needs of the application affect how quickly the energy is used up. How long it takes for a battery to run down (i.e., service hours) depends on the device to which it's connected.
Batteries with the same internal chemistry (alkaline batteries, say, or NiMH batteries) produce the same number of volts regardless of size. Alkaline batteries produce 1.5 volts (a 9V alkaline battery is merely a housing for four 1.5V cells strung together) and NiMH batteries produce 1.2 volts. (Beware of substituting several NiMH batteries for several alkaline batteries; the total voltage may not be sufficient to power the device.)
The number of milliampere hours, however, varies by the particular battery model, and a higher mAh indicates it's likely to last longer (depending on the application, of course). According to Wikipedia, capacity for AAA batteries is usually 1200mAh and 2700mAh for AA batteries. (Not all alkaline battery casings or packaging specify the mAh.) Alkaline batteries lose charge (voltage) at a relatively slow, steady rate and their useful life is pretty much over when the electric potential sinks to about 1.1 volts, which is approximately the minimum necessary to keep most devices running.
The energy capacity of NiMH batteries also varies by size and manufacturer. Again according to Wikipedia, that would be 800-1000mAh for AAA batteries and 1700-2900mAh for AA. The mAh on pre-charged NiMH batteries also varies; an older Sanyo Eneloop AAA model boasts 2000mAh while the latest version on our list claims 800mAh. NiMH technology depletes at a steady rate until suddenly there's insufficient juice to power a device; again, at about 1.1 volts. Experts caution that the charge often depletes faster than the mAh rating would suggest, so keep that charger handy.
Let's assume you've decided to spurn the appeal of the cheapest no-name batteries for the slightly higher-cost alternatives. Will you get your money's worth? Battery reviews by experts and consumers confirm two important facts about these energy storehouses: performance largely depends on the device being powered and on storage conditions. Some consumers do a good job matching the battery with the application it can support, and others, not so much. Not surprisingly, then, battery reviews often reflect the wisdom, or lack thereof, of this decision.
We also came across a fair number of reviews claiming the batteries weren't fresh when purchased; that is, either dead on arrival or useless within a short time. In all fairness to manufacturers, though, it's impossible to know how the batteries were stored between the date of production and the date of arrival in your home; improper storage can adversely affect battery longevity. And while battery reviews bemoaning the consequences of careless storage on the part of consumers are rare, we did read conflicting advice about the utility of keeping batteries in the freezer. A batteries review on Green Batteries says sub-freezing storage helps preserve the capacity of alkaline batteries in hot climates and slows the self-discharge rate of NiMH batteries regardless of climate. Energizer and Duracell, however, caution against storing batteries in the freezer and say the extreme cold and humidity can corrode or otherwise damage the seals and casing. Sanyo, on the other hand, says storing pre-charged NiMH batteries in freezing temperatures is a good idea.
Batteries Longevity.For high-drain devices used intermittently, Sanyo Eneloop batteries are the clear winner. Battery reviews by experts and users alike sing the praises of these pre-charged, rechargeable NiMH batteries for their performance in Bluetooth headphones, digital cameras, power-hungry toys, and the like. Battery reviews on Amazon of the newest AAA 800mAh Eneloops say they easily outlast the competition; one post notes that a cordless phone stays charged when left off its dock for long periods compared to just a day with other brands. Batteries reviews, also on Amazon, are equally effusive about the earlier-generation Eneloop. One user says eight AAA Eneloops with 2000mAh each keep the controller for his hobby cars and planes going through a full day of competitive racing and another reports two AA Eneloops powered his camera through half a dozen 4GB memory cards and an hour of video recording before needing a recharge. In a comparative test of 11 brands, the expert at Stefanv.com determined that Eneloop ranked first for voltage fresh out of the package and was in a very tight race for the top spot immediately following a recharge. Test results also confirmed the company's claim that Eneloop's rate of self-discharge diminishes over time. This reviewer is upfront about his preference for Sanyo batteries, and users posting comments on this site echo the sentiment.Next on our list of preferred NiMH batteries are the Sony Rechargeables AAA with 900mAh. Most battery reviews report decent power and longevity per charge with a variety of applications. One user writes on Overstock that these batteries outlasted the competition when used in an MP3 player, and a batteries review on Rechargeable Batteries says they last a week in a low-drain baby monitor that runs six hours a day. A few battery reviews hedge, however, and insist the actual capacity of the Sony AAA Rechargeables is less than what's specified; one consumer says a high-drain camera burns through a charge in less than 45 minutes.
In the alkaline segment, Duracell CopperTop batteries win kudos for their performance in low-drain devices such as clocks, smoke alarms, and portable radios. Field tests conducted by PC Mag found the AA CopperTop fared well when set in a flashlight (more than five hours of constant use) but slipped when used in a high-drain digital camera during a matchup against three other alkaline brands and three high-performance batteries intended for high-drain applications. (At risk of sounding repetitive, it's important to match the battery with the device at hand.) PowerStream likes the CopperTop for low-current uses and reports it slightly beats out a comparable battery from Radio Shack in terms of capacity (amp hours) and electric potential (voltage). Consumers appreciate the overall value -- i.e., price and longevity -- and one batteries review posted at J&R notes relief at not having to change batteries constantly. The claimed seven-year shelf life of the CopperTops earns a shout-out from consumers, although we read a few reports about dead batteries fresh out of the package.
The other alkaline battery that made our list is the Rayovac AA, considered by users to be a value buy. Price pops up frequently in users' batteries reviews of the Rayovac -- it's hard to beat $10 for pack of 30 -- as do claims that they last at least as long as Energizers and Duracells. That assessment is not universally shared, however; a review posted on Expotv says Rayovacs have a shorter lifespan than the other two but the lower price compensates. A consumer posting on Epinions concludes that Rayovac quality has improved significantly since the writer's youth.
Consumers have little enthusiasm for Energizer's Rechargeable D battery. According to battery reviews, they're turned off by what they describe as insufficient power and limited ability to hold a charge. Battery reviews on Amazon say the 2500mAh seems low for a D cell, and the charge drains away after a day or so of sitting around. Consumers seem surprised at, and disappointed by, the performance of a rechargeable battery bearing the label of such a well-regarded brand name; by contrast, battery reviews for rechargeable AA and AAA Energizers are strongly positive. On Walmart, battery reviews note that the D cell's practical use seems limited to low-capacity devices, such as flashlights and foam cutters, and the rechargeable technology is its only saving grace.