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Macworld, One Last Comment

Apple

January 7, 2009 12:25 AM PST

I wasn't going to comment on this Macworld. I mean what is there to say? It is definitely in the running for worst keynote ever. But then I remembered this was the last one that Apple was going present at, so it is my last chance to make a comment on a Macworld keynote.

There was only really one announcement made that didn't invoke loud snoring, and even it wasn't a surprise. So I'm only going to comment on one of the announcements, one product, and even then only one feature of that product. I want to talk about...

The 17" Macbook Non-Removable Battery
Not the part about the fact that you can't replace it yourself, or that you can't carry a second one for long trips. Not even about the fact that without the battery door how are you going to upgrade the RAM or the HD like you can with the other Macbooks. Not about the 179.00 replacement cost. Or the fact that in typical Apple form they are telling you that a product's negative feature is actually a huge positive. No I mean the battery.

They are talking up the battery big. Since the rest of the 17" Macbook is old news by now I guess it's really all they have to talk about. An 8 hour battery in a 17" notebooks is impressive there is no doubt. I am pretty sensitive to marketing hype however, especially from Apple. Also I spent considerable time last summer researching and experimenting with the various high current, high capacity battery technologies, so I want to fill in a few gaps in what they are saying.

Here are a few quotes lifted from they keynote and the Apple site.

"A giant leap for batteries"
"revolutionary"
"breakthrough"
"advanced chemistry"
"innovative new charging method"
"radical step"

This 'new' battery is a Lithium-Polymer battery. This technology has actually been used in consumer products since 1996. They are readily used in many many other products including things like the Kindle, several Thinkpads, the OQO as well as existing iPods and wait for it... the Macbook, Macbook pro 15", and the Macbook Air.

The site gives the following quote "Apple’s team of scientists and electro-chemists developed advanced chemistry that extends the battery’s lifespan.." I didn't know Apple had a crack team of electro-chemists. Apple certainly didn't invent this battery. I have to way of verifying their involvement in any 'advanced chemistry'. There are several chemical variations in use today and more in the research sector, so maybe they did have a contribution to make.

In the keynote Phil said these batteries are so advanced they actually have an individual circuit for each cell. Actually these batteries require this just to pass safety regulations. All LI-POs sold have these circuits. I couldn't even buy raw cells this summer unless I also bought protection circuits and agreed to a page of disclaimers not holding them liable for any harm caused by mis-use. These batteries, like their cousin the Lithium-ion are very temperamental and must be protected against over current, over charging and over discharging -or very bad things happen.

As for the advanced charging method, there are widely known and used methods for increasing the life of these batteries. Cell balancing circuits are widely used in today's products for this purpose, as are various 'adaptive' charging methods. These technique to expand the lifespan of the battery. It is true that many existing products do not employ these techniques however, but this is due to their high cost - not because they aren't as smart as the Apple electro-chemical scientific genius engineers. Not everyone can charge 3k for a notebook.

"Up to 1000 recharges". That one is pretty hard statement to make. There are many factors that affect the life of Lithium batteries, heat, discharge current rate, amount of discharge between charges and the amount of time it sits on a shelf before being used, just to name a few. Battery cycle life, just like battery capacities, are always given under the most ideal (and un-realistic) conditions. By the way, Li-Po battery actually have a greater life cycle degradation rate (means worse) than Lithium-ion batteries. Apple did at least set the expectation that the battery will only hold 80% of original capacity at 1000 though. So the bottom line is don't expect to be getting 8 hours right up to charge number 999. The reason I pick on this one is that there actually IS a much newer and better (revolutionary??) battery available that will live for thousands of cycles and last over 10 years. I'll talk about this one later.

One thing they are not talking about is the safety issue. Both Lithium-ion and Lithium-Polymer are right up there as the least safe batteries in use today. These batteries are highly susceptible to over heating, overcharging, over-discharging (even at low current), shorting and being punctured. These chemistry's are inherently prone to thermal run-away and have been known to cause spectacular fires, give off plumbs of toxic smoke and even explode. The Li-Pos are much more fragile than the lithium-ion due to their construction. Just poking a hole in a charged one with a sharp object will light them up. Fun examples of what these things look like when they fail check this site out. So why pick on Apple for this? The other manfacturers are all using the same 'dangerous' batteries. Yes this is true, no difference here, except maybe that the 17" has more of these cells in a smaller area than the other guys. But hey thats a good reason they protected it in all that aluminum right? Well maybe. I know in some of the previous battery recalls the manufacturers were recommending that you immediately remove the battery from the laptop and put it someplace it couldn't start a fire while you waited for the new one to arrive. Not saying it will happen, but if one of these babies did light up, it probably wouldn't stop at the laptop case. It might not stop at your desk either. But still why pick on Apple for this? Because as I mentioned earlier there IS a better battery available that is also much safer than LI-PO and doesn't have the thermal run-away problem.

Apple - made from the best stuff on earth. - Oh wait, that's Snapple, not Apple.

Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePo4)
This is the new leading edge type of Lithium battery. When I first read the words 'revolutionary' and breakthrough' I assumed Apple had started using LiFePo4's. I was wrong. The LiFePo4 battery is made by A123 Systems and others. It is used in power tools, RC vehicles, new hybrid car power systems, electric scooters and even the 'killacycle'. The LiFePo4 battery has the best lifecycle in its class. There are some that don't degrade to 80% for over 7000 charge cycles with a projected life of 10 years! They can be safely discharged 100% with no damage or degradation. They will not explode or burst into flames when punctured. They are more tolerant of high temperatures, charging conditions and they can safely source much higher current. They are comparable to Li-Po in energy density and available for only a marginal increase in cost (and falling). Essentially these are the 'Apple' of the lithium battery world. This is a battery I wouldn't mind having built permanently into a notebook computer. This one WILL last for the life of the computer and WON'T burn my house down. Apple did not choose this battery.

Summary:
Apple's 17" battery - a very impressive stuffing of 95 watt-hours of existing technology into all that extra space available due to its mammoth footprint. For reference my 3 year old Dell 15" laptop has an 85 watt-hour (removable) battery, the 15" Macbook has a 50 watt-hour. So is this "a giant leap for batteries"? Meh. More like a giant pile of hype. Color me unimpressed.


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