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Cheap Laptop Batteries: Good Deal or Risky?
First Published in PC World & Computerworld Magazine

Brian Nadel, Computerworld

Friday, November 07, 2008 3:15 PM PST

It was five years coming, but the battery of my ThinkPad R50 finally met its maker. On a recent trip, it conked out after powering the notebook for only half an hour -- three hours short of what I'm used to getting out it. Now it refuses to be recharged at all. Clearly, it's time for a new battery.

It's a fact of life that sooner or later, every laptop battery hits old age. Most do well for between 18 and 36 months, depending on how heavily they're used. Then they slip into a slow decline and lose the ability to take a full charge.

The reason? A typical battery pack can be recharged between 300 and 500 times before the chemicals inside start to wear out, with the result that a battery that once powered a system for three hours can now run for only an hour or less. That's when it's time to replace the battery.

There are two basic types of notebook batteries: the brand-name batteries that the manufacturer sells and the aftermarket batteries that are available from third-party resellers -- often for a significantly lower price. The trade in aftermarket batteries is growing quickly, perhaps by as much as 30% a year, according to Don Saxman, an analyst at BCC Research in Wellesley, Mass.

"This is the result of the enormous popularity of notebooks," Saxman explains. "Lots of people buy a second battery, and the longer you keep a notebook, the greater the chance that it will need a new battery."

We all want to save money, but not if it puts our notebooks at risk. Buying an aftermarket battery often goes against the advice of laptop manufacturers, and in some cases can even void the warranty. Is it worth it to save a few bucks?

I went on a mission to find out whether aftermarket replacement batteries are a good deal, safe and reliable or a dangerous fraud.

Bargain Hunting

With the Lenovo replacement battery for my ThinkPad R50 selling for $160 -- about half what the notebook itself is worth -- there was certainly room to save some money. I also went looking for a new battery for my two-year-old MacBook Pro. Both machines have worn-out batteries that power the systems for half the time or less than they could when they were new.

With the battery part numbers in hand, I did a little nosing around on the Web. I found several places that sell batteries for a wide variety of notebooks made in the past 15 years, from ones introduced earlier this year to relics like the 12-year-old Texas Instruments Extensa 600. Many of the companies also sell AC adapters and batteries for mobile phones, digital cameras and handheld devices.

It turns out that lots of places carry replacement batteries for the ThinkPad R50; the same battery works with ThinkPad T40 series notebooks. Only a handful of online stores had a power pack for the MacBook Pro.

I was able to find both the batteries I needed at two Web stores: Laptops for Less , based in Anaheim Calif., and Laptop Battery Express , based in Grafton, Ohio. But before contacting them, I did a little research. I Googled their names to see if anybody had reported faulty products or bad experiences, or if there were pending legal actions against them.

Both appeared to be reputable businesses that have been around for several years. The products they sell include a one-year warranty and a 30-day money-back guarantee.

Both retailers can quickly ship out a battery in an emergency. For instance, Laptops for Less has its warehouse near the FedEx hub in Memphis for next-day delivery.
How They Performed

Over the course of a month, I ordered six batteries for my two notebooks and tested them out (see "How I tested" ). Two came from Laptops for Less, two came from Laptop Battery Express, and one battery each came from Apple Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd. With one exception -- a dead battery from Lenovo, which the company quickly replaced -- each of the new batteries worked perfectly and powered up the notebooks completely.

Without a doubt, aftermarket batteries are a good way to replace a dead battery without spending a lot of money. Despite costing $20 to $70 less, the aftermarket replacements proved to be just as good and reliable as the originals in my tests.

All of the aftermarket batteries I looked at fit fine. They just snapped in, and the systems powered right up. And the aftermarket replacements powered the notebooks for about the same amount of time per charge as the reseller replacements did. (See "Replacement batteries, side by side." )

Other than some minor cosmetic differences -- for instance, the plastic on one R50 replacement was a slightly different shade of black and not as shiny as the original -- I couldn't tell them apart from the manufacturers' batteries.

"It's hard to tell them apart," says BCC Research's Saxman. "Often, notebook makers buy batteries made by a third-party manufacturer, while aftermarket battery packs frequently come from the same factory that made the originals. It's confusing, to say the least."

Frequently, the only things that separate the two types of batteries are whose name is on the label and how much it costs. In fact, the MacBook Pro battery that Laptop Battery Express sent me was actually an Apple-branded battery with all the markings, including a serial number.

The company's supplier said it was left over from a production run made for Apple. Whether this violates agreements between the factory and Apple is for their lawyers to fight about. All I know is that I got a battery for $30 less that appeared to be identical and gave me no problems.

Sometimes aftermarket batteries are even better than the originals. Due to added efficiencies that manufacturing plants have developed in the time since the notebook and its first battery pack were made, some replacement cells can be lighter or contain more capacity.

Two of the six batteries I looked at stand out. The MacBook Pro battery from Laptops for Less weighs 2.3 oz. less than Apple's battery but delivers about the same capacity; it ran for only five minutes less than the reseller replacement. Then there's the R50 replacement battery sold by Laptop Battery Express, which has a higher capacity but weighs 0.2 oz. less; it ran for an extra 10 minutes.

Each was significantly less expensive than the manufacturers' batteries, which sounds like a win-win to me.

Are They Safe? And What About My Warranty?

The aftermarket battery trade is a fact of life and will likely grow in the coming years, but that doesn't mean the notebook makers have to like it. I asked several leading laptop manufacturers if they believe aftermarket batteries are dangerous to use and if using them invalidates the notebooks' warranties. While Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell did not respond to my repeated queries, Lenovo and Toshiba agreed to discuss the issue.

Neither manufacturer said that aftermarket batteries are dangerous, but they stressed that their batteries were designed and manufactured expressly for their equipment. A Lenovo representative said, "We do not support the use of nongenuine Lenovo batteries in ThinkPads. ThinkPad batteries are designed and tested with ThinkPad notebooks to ensure safety, compatibility and performance."

While using an aftermarket battery doesn't invalidate a notebook's warranty in and of itself, the manufacturers probably wouldn't repair a notebook under warranty that has been damaged by a faulty aftermarket battery, according to company representatives. In other words, a faulty aftermarket battery does invalidate the warranty.

As a Toshiba Corp. marketing executive said to me, "Toshiba does not guarantee the system's performance, reliability or safety as they relate to aftermarket batteries."

This is ironic, since notebook makers like Apple, Dell, Sony, Lenovo, Toshiba and others have an uneven record when it comes to the batteries they sell themselves. Together, they have recalled millions of bad batteries over the past few years. Some of the power packs weren't up to spec, while others were potential fire hazards. So it seems that no battery, regardless of who makes or sells it, is immune to problems.

"Most replacement batteries are perfectly safe," observes Vishal Sapru, manager of power systems at market analysis firm Frost & Sullivan. "But you really need to be wary." His advice is to seek out a reputable dealer with a history of supplying high-quality products that provides a year's warranty on the battery and an initial money-back guarantee.

The reward is that you'll pay between 15% to 50% less than the manufacturer product for substantially the same battery. "In some cases, it really is the same battery," says Sapru. But he warns against batteries listed for less than 50% of the reseller price: "Below that, there's potentially something wrong with the battery and the seller."

Excellent advice is to steer clear of used batteries or those listed on eBay. I wish I had heard this advice five years ago when I bought a battery for my Gateway notebook on eBay for $20, compared with Gateway Inc.'s $150 product. It was listed as a new battery in the original packaging, but it held only a 20% charge, making it worthless to me.

"In other words," explains Laptop Battery Express's DuBois, "shop carefully and be comfortable with your battery purchase. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Brian Nadel, former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine, is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.