Cheap laptop batteries: Good deal or risky business?

You can save up to 50 percent with an aftermarket battery for your notebook -- if you dare

A good diagnostic test for measuring battery life in a PC is PassMark's BatteryMon, shown below. (Coconut-flavour.com's coconutBattery is a similar program for Macs.) After you fully charge the battery, the program will report the cells' maximum capacity in milli-amp hours.

A good diagnostic test for measuring battery life in a PC is PassMark's BatteryMon, shown below. (Coconut-flavour.com's coconutBattery is a similar program for Macs.) After you fully charge the battery, the program will report the cells' maximum capacity in milli-amp hours.

As a Toshiba 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 percent 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 percent 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 US$20, compared with Gateway's US$150 product. It was listed as a new battery in the original packaging, but it held only a 20 percent 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.

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