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Editorial: rechargeable batteries are a vintage gadget's Achilles' heel

Chris Ziegler
One of my favorite activities around the holidays is visiting my ever-growing collection of discontinued (and often hilariously outdated) mobile hardware that I keep in storage. It's an annual tradition for me -- an opportunity to pull stuff out of the box, make sure all the devices, accessories, and documentation are insect- and vermin-free, clean the battery contacts, blow off a years' worth of dust, and generally check that everything's in good working order. Let me tell you, I feel like a kid in a candy store each and every time I pull out and open those bins. I'll know that when I stop feeling that way, it's time to sell off the collection -- but for now, it's still every bit as exciting as when I started buying random gadgets from my childhood a decade ago.

On the surface, you might assume that electronics are timeless. They're made of materials that are designed for daily use and abuse, after all, and it'd be easy to think that a gadget left in storage -- unused -- would remain in exactly the same condition as the day you left it. I've learned the hard way, though, that the reality is a little more unpleasant: plastics seem to dry out and become brittle as the years go by, and things start cracking and shattering. Boxes and packaging degrade, almost as if they're recycling themselves whether you like it or not. And batteries -- particularly alkalines -- will leak all over the place, eating through circuitry and oxidizing contacts beyond repair.

And actually, in many cases, it turns out that batteries are the single biggest threat to preserving the legacy of these little time capsules. From my experience, everything else can be pretty effectively managed -- you just keep devices stored in a cool, relatively dry place, and as long as you handle both boxes and the gadgets themselves with kid gloves, you probably won't break anything. Batteries are a different story.

They've stagnated a bit over the past several years, but looking at the broader picture over a couple decades, both battery technology and power management circuitry in mobile devices have taken a number of quantum leaps. We've gone from giant, heavy lead acid and gel cells -- effectively car batteries -- to nickel cadmium, to nickel-metal hydride, to several generations of lithium-ion. On the power management front, we've learned how to maximize battery lifespans by regulating the current delivered to them, power supplies have moved from heavy bricks inside the case to ridiculously tiny wall adapters, and usually, you no longer have to have a battery installed for a plugged-in device to be powered on. Seriously, the level of sophistication is mind boggling: a modern lithium-ion cell can pack nearly half the energy density of TNT and still deliver it in a perfectly controlled fashion (well, most of the time).

When a battery rolls off the factory line -- be it rechargeable or single-use, regardless of chemistry -- its death warrant is effectively signed.

Problem is, even the most thoroughly modern battery on the market today has an expiration date. When a battery rolls off the factory line -- be it rechargeable or single-use, regardless of chemistry -- its death warrant is effectively signed. Some will die sooner from use since lithium-ion cells are only good for a certain number of charge cycles, but even an unused battery will eventually become a paperweight with the crushing, unrelenting march of time. For your Nokia or your MacBook, that's not really a problem -- these devices have been manufactured in such ridiculous quantities that OEM batteries will be available for many, many years to come and third-party batteries for many more years beyond that. More importantly, you'll tire of these gadgets long before the supply of batteries will -- and they're too common to ever become collectible.

For vintage equipment, though, the story is a much bleaker one. Assuming their batteries have been properly removed and stored separately, the devices themselves should be physically unharmed, but getting them powered on is another matter altogether. No widely-accepted standards for the sizes, shapes, and power outputs of rechargeable batteries exist even today, much less in the late 80s and early 90s; tablets, PDAs, and early laptops often require their own proprietary NiCad packs that you'll never hope to find. If you're lucky, you might be able to salvage one off eBay or Craigslist, but it's an empty victory -- none of these batteries have been manufactured in the last decade, and they're all totally dead and useless. In the worst cases, these devices require a functional battery to be powered on, regardless of whether they're plugged into the wall. In a way, it feels like the saddest, most artificial and unnecessary form of "bricking" you can imagine.

If you're handy around a soldering iron and you've got a good electronics supply store nearby, you might be able to MacGyver something.

Sometimes, these batteries were little more than a handful of standard NiCad cells soldered together and heat-shrunk to form a single pack. If you're handy around a soldering iron and you've got a good electronics supply store nearby, you might be able to MacGyver something. But the fact remains that hundreds of models of devices that were absolutely critical in shaping the smartphones, tablets, netbooks, smartbooks, and notebooks we're all using today are at risk of being rendered dead simply because you can't find a battery for them.

Is there a solution? I'm not sure -- but I hope so. What I'd like to see is a company that specializes in the just-in-time manufacture of rare or discontinued battery types. Creating a company like that and making it profitable probably requires technology or techniques that haven't yet been invented -- and even so, you'd undoubtedly be paying a massive premium to commission such a battery pack -- but for vintage electronics enthusiasts like myself who want to preserve the legacy and impact that these devices have had, $100 (or more) might seem like a small price to pay to see that crappy monochrome LCD come to life one more time.

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