Cell Phone Battery Basics

With so many cell phone batteries on the market, how can you tell which one is right for you? Before making any decisions, it helps to know a little history.

When cellular telephones gained widespread popularity in the mid- to late-1980s, most models relied on nickel cadmium (NiCD) batteries as their primary rechargeable power source. Relatively inexpensive to produce, NiCd batteries were seen by manufacturers as the best and cheapest alternative to traditional alkaline (source) and lead acid batteries. NiCD batteries also enabled manufacturers to offer a rechargeable product with a decent life expectancy.

But as consumers' usage of their cellular phones continued to increase, so did the frequency with which they needed to recharge their phones, which ultimately revealed one of the major drawbacks of NiCD batteries. NiCD batteries must be fully charged and fully discharged every time they are used, or their overall capacity will become greatly diminished over time. Thus, if a NiCD battery has only 10% of its charge remaining, for example, in the interest of prolonging the battery life the consumer should continue to use the battery until it dies rather than recharge it when it gets low . This phenomenon is now infamously referred to as the "memory effect," and is clearly a major inconvenience for anyone who is on the go and wants quick access to his or her telephone without having to worry about battery longevity.

To address this problem, wireless telephone manufacturers soon began producing batteries that better met the needs of their customers. One of the first such batteries was the nickel metal hydride battery (NiMH). Offering better battery time and a higher resistance to the memory effect, the NiMH battery is now the mainstay of most cellular/PCS telephone manufacturers. The NiMH battery offers good performance relative to its cost, although it is moderately more expensive than batteries made of nickel cadmium.

Despite some manufacturers' claims that the NiMH battery is "memory free" (not impacted by the memory effect), do not be fooled. Memory resistant is probably a more accurate way to describe these batteries. Occasionally (at least once a week), NiMH batteries DO need to go through a full discharge/charge cycle if you want them to last. The only real drawback of NiMH batteries is their tendency to have "leakage" -- the propensity to lose charge while not being used -- when in standby mode.

Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries represent the third major category of rechargeable power sources for wireless phones. Li-Ion batteries are virtually unaffected by the memory effect, and are dramatically lighter than NiCD or NiMH batteries. Often, Li-Ion battery can offer twice the power of a similarly sized NiMH. The only real disadvantage to this type of power source is price. Li-Ion batteries are usually quite expensive, often priced two to three times higher than other batteries.

With this background information in mind, here are two questions you should consider in deciding on which battery to choose for your wireless phone:

  • How much do you want to spend?
    This is going to be one of the key decisions. While NiCD batteries may currently be the least expensive, consider what it might cost you down the road if it isn't charged/recharged properly. Another, more expensive battery may end up lasting twice as long, and saving you money in the long run.

  • What kinds of performance do you expect/need?
    If you rarely use your telephone, you may be able to get away with not buying the top of the line battery. A NiMH would probably suffice for moderate use. If you use your wireless phone more frequently, however, the Li-Ion may be your best bet.

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