Ask the Experts: Generic vs. Name Brand – How to Differentiate
Portable Power Solutions
In today’s marketplace, there seems to be a disparity in cost when it comes to batteries. What should the professional consider when purchasing new batteries?
There are three key considerations: What value do I place on reliability—is my reputation at stake? Secondly, am I looking for long-term cost efficiency? Finally, how intense is my battery use? All these factors depend on the type of production you are involved in and the nature of your organization. A typical rental house for example, would tick all boxes; as they tend to work batteries extremely hard—a scenario where higher cost is more than justified by long-term cost of ownership and reliable product.
Customers should consider the battery design and construction, its capacity and longevity and the kind of customer support the manufacturer offers. While generic batteries are usually significantly cheaper than name-brand ones, they often lack features and technology that will help your production run safely and reliably. In the long run, you may have to purchase many more batteries and chargers. The poor design of generic batteries and chargers means they may malfunction and are unlikely to last as long.
How can you tell if a battery from a particular manufacturer is a worthwhile investment?
Battery technology is often underestimated, as a recent experience of a well-known manufacturer with “dreams grounded,” attests to. The reality is that you, as the consumer, can’t see what’s inside the battery. Even if you could, most battery cells look very much the same. In fact, manufacturers of cheap generic batteries can purchase them inexpensively in large, uncontrolled lower-quality batches. The result is that some battery brands on sale in the UK, are actually on sale in the Far East for as little as 60 USD. The cells in these batteries are rarely premium, and have not been balanced or matched with one another. How do we know this?
Simple, the price for premium cells and matched cell packs are much, much higher. There are batteries on the market in the UK where the cell-tolerance matching is as high as -20% to +10%, which can be disastrous, since as all battery industry insiders know, it’s cell balance, that determines battery performance. In comparison, Anton/Bauer is matching Li-Ion cells to 5 millivolts, or 0.125%—a challenging specification, that leads to a reliable, long-life battery. Repeated tests demonstrate the improved life cycle performance on cell packs using exactly the same premium cells, but differing in balance criteria; we consistently see a two to threefold improvement in cycle life under lab conditions.
A further differential is that our cells are made in factories with the highest precision tooling capability available today, in clean room manufacturing environments; again this results in higher costs, but more safety and more reliability. The same choices are made in regards to quality housings, onboard electronics, weld tabs, etc., all of which can enhance or reduce reliability and service life.
So how can you tell? Products sold on price alone are unlikely to be high quality. In the end, you need to look at the reputation and track record of the battery supplier.
Is there a distinction in the exterior of different batteries, too?
The casing of a high-quality battery sets it apart from cheaper batteries using standard plastic housings. One has to understand that a battery cell is actually very delicate; in a production environment batteries are subject to multiple impacts. Without durable casing, when a battery is dropped or thrown in a bag with other equipment, the force of the impact can go through the housing, through the cells forming an electro-chemical weak point, leading on to cell imbalance and failure. At Anton/Bauer, we’ve developed an IMPAC® case design made from high-impact polymer, the same material used in motorcycle helmets, so if a battery is dropped, the impact spreads out over the housing without affecting the cells inside. This attention to detail by a manufacturer should not be overlooked. It is so important that Anton/Bauer has now moved to the next stage, with internal honeycomb housings protecting each individual cell.
Are there differences in the connection between the battery and camera from one manufacturer to another?
Yes. Today, the main choice is between the Sony V-Mount and Anton/Bauer Gold Mount. Basically, the professional is looking for the best mechanical and electrical connection between camera and battery. With heavier, high capacity batteries, mechanical stability is more of an issue; with high current applications the electrical aspect is critical. We argue that the Gold Mount, with its wide mechanical contact surface area and robust locking system, is superior in mechanical terms. For example, if you put a V-Mount battery on a Sony camera, you have one narrow, centered mechanical contact point.
One heavy battery or two batteries will wobble, applying pressure to the electrical contacts. An Anton/Bauer Gold Mount—such as the QR-SDH—actually uses original Sony parts, but has four additional screw fixation points to the camera. A heavy battery sits rock solid on the back of this, locked into place. Electrically, we have also paid attention to detail, as our contacts are gold-plated, eight-sided for a large contact surface area, self-cleaning and designed to handle over 20A each.
The mechanical and electrical interface provided by a Gold Mount avoids crushed and burnt out contacts, especially in high-current scenarios, which cause the battery to fail or even burn, forcing you to replace it and the camera back at your expense.
What is the difference in chargers available today at varying costs?
As with batteries, a high-quality charging system will last longer in the field, too. In fact, a well-designed charging system can keep going for many years. Our Quad 2702 has been in production since 1994 and charges all modern batteries. A poor-quality charger, however, is not much different than a mobile phone charger—offering one, pre-set charging algorithm, no matter what battery it is charging. Due to component variation, charging tolerances can be and are extremely varied. If incorrect, that leads to overheating and voltage overages that will significantly impact the overall battery life. We have seen tests where a charger programmed to charge to 0.1 Volt above the optimum for a given cell chemistry actually halves the normal service life. Recent cell chemistry developments have lead to a wide range of cell chemistry options; there are all sorts of Li-Ion mixes, each requiring different charge parameters. Yet many customers still believe that if the battery fits mechanically, the charger will somehow still charge properly.
The Anton/Bauer solution is radically different to the rest of the market—interactive or smart charging. Basically the battery and charger communicate, and the battery then dictates the charge algorithm to be employed. As new technology comes onto the market, the charger program is upgraded accordingly. The customer does not need a new charger, and can be confident that the new cell technology will be identified and correctly charged—this means a longer life and more safety, as you really do not want to overcharge a Li-Ion battery.
One key piece of advice is that whatever system you use, make sure that the battery and the charger are from the same manufacturer. That will improve safety, liability and the chance of proper charging.
What else sets battery manufacturers apart from one another?
Anton/Bauer believes that professional camera operators do require information on and control over both the run-time during a shoot and the life expectancy of their batteries. To that end, we provide digital batteries with remaining run-time information on the display and also communicate capacity or run-time information to camera viewfinders. This is different from the LED batteries that show a percentage of capacity only. As a battery ages, it loses capacity, yet a full, but aged battery, say at 40 percent of original capacity, will still show full, even after charging, misleading users into overestimating their remaining run-time in the field. This leads to a lack of confidence in the battery system and frequently to a camera operator demanding way too many batteries in his or her kit. Anton/Bauer batteries store all relevant data, such as capacity, cycles, age, etc., and can all be tested by our chargers with battery discharge curve print-outs and life status data, allowing users to better manage their inventory.
Another key differentiator is customer support. Anton/Bauer, supported by the Vitec Group, maintains a high level of service support around the world. When it’s your job to travel, we’ll ensure that you have a team that can respond when you need them. A company that offers an extensive customer support network furthers your investment and will provide added peace of mind, wherever your productions may take you.
In all, there are many variables to consider when purchasing batteries for your video or broadcast production needs. That’s why it’s important to thoroughly vet manufacturers and their offerings. While a high-quality battery system may cost more upfront, it really is an investment that will result in many years of reliable production. An inexpensive solution, on the other hand, may have quality issues that end up requiring you to purchase countless additional batteries (and chargers) over the years, costing much more in the long run.
Martyn Sly-Jex is the EMEA Business Development Manager for Mobile Power at Anton/Bauer.