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Why Is a Laptop's Battery Dearer Than a Lawnmower's? 427

Posted by timothy
from the laptop-certainly-is-cuddlier dept.
Barence writes "PC Pro's contributing editor Paul Ockendon has bought a new lawnmower powered by lithium-ion batteries — part of a recent flood of such lithium-ion-powered garden and workshop tools which are taking over from NiCd and NiMH thanks to lighter weight, longer life and lack of the pernicious 'memory effect.' This is pretty much the same battery technology used in laptops, mobile phones and MP3 players, so volume manufacture is already established. Yet laptop manufacturers charge more per Watt-hour than lawnmower makers. This blog investigates whether such a seemingly ludicrous situation can be justified."
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Why Is a Laptop's Battery Dearer Than a Lawnmower's?

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  • by Firemouth (1360899) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:19AM (#30444402)
    Greed.
  • Size matters (Score:5, Insightful)

    by damn_registrars (1103043) <damn.registrars@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:21AM (#30444414) Homepage Journal
    The reason why laptop batteries are more expensive per unit energy than a lawnmower battery is because you're only willing to tolerate a certain physical size for a laptop battery. On a lawnmower, by comparison, an arbitrarily large battery is generally acceptable provided it is not too extraordinarily heavy.
  • Heat? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rekoil (168689) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:29AM (#30444508)

    It very well might be that heat dissipation requirements deem that laptop batteries be more efficient (read: latest-generation designs, which invariably will cost more per kWh), where lawnmower batteries can get away with models that throw off more waste heat.

  • Explosions. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:29AM (#30444514)

    When you pack a battery into 1/3 the space you would ideally want it in it has a tendency to explode. The price discrepancy is trying to minimize the likelihood of it literally burning you. A mower has a lot more space for heat dissipation. It's also less likely to cause third-degree burns on the off chance it does overheat, since you don't use it on your lap.

  • Re:Such a what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pleappleappleap (1182301) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:30AM (#30444528) Homepage

    Or someone has a vocabulary big enough to use the word "ludicrous" without having learned it from a Mel Brooks movie.

  • by Speare (84249) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:31AM (#30444544) Homepage Journal
    Some of it is chemistry, and some of it is brand name inflation. Lithium batteries have a range of formulations. The lowest-cost formulations are suitable for low-amperage discharge, while better formulations can be discharged at a much higher current and still maintain a cool temperature and good recharge longevity. Heat is the real enemy here, so cramped cooling-starved long-running applications like laptops also demand better batteries than a weed-whacker that runs occasionally and has a chance of good airflow. In the radio-controlled hobby, there is a huge range of prices for essentially commodity batteries. These are usually Lithium-Polymer, a step above the usual laptop Li-Ion, but the same economics are in play. There are some "well known names" that are sold in all of the domestic R/C retailers. There are some generics sold in Hong Kong that sell for 1/3 to 1/5 the price, and some are even higher quality in longevity testing. Lithium is lithium, so unless there's an amazing return/warranty policy, it's usually not worth the brand name price.
  • Re:The Market (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ephemeriis (315124) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:32AM (#30444562)

    Because any manufacturer is going to charge the most that you are willing to pay. In lawnmowers, there are cheaper alternatives. With laptops, there are not. Pure market based pricing.

    While I'm certain that's part of the issue, I think you're missing a more obvious difference - the form-factor.

    A laptop is supposed to be relatively small and portable. Laptop manufacturers will advertise how thick their laptop is, how many pounds it weighs, and how many hours it'll run on a battery. Thus, laptop batteries - while they may be made with the same technology - are as small and dense as possible.

    A lawnmower, on the other hand, has wheels on it. While you'd have a hard time shoving a 1 ton brick around your yard, it probably doesn't make much difference if the thing ways 15 lbs or 25 lbs... It'll still move easily enough. And if you're going to make it self-propelled it'll matter even less. The same thing goes for the size/volume of the thing... It isn't like this thing has to fit into an overhead bin or a backpack. Hell, your cutting deck is already several feet square - the battery probably isn't going to be the biggest thing on it.

    So you've got laptops (and cell phones) where you're trying to build a tiny, dense battery... And lawn mowers where you just need enough juice to run the mower for a couple hours and it really doesn't matter how bulky the thing is.

    And folks are surprised that there's a price difference why?

  • Ben says (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kenp2002 (545495) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:34AM (#30444612) Homepage Journal

    "The cost of goods is what the market will bear.." It cost that much because people will pay that much. Expectations are such that consumers are willing to pay more for non-essential "gadgets" in relation to "tools". A person will buy a $2000 dollar laptop but wouldn't dream of buying a $2000 push mower (outside of premium or elite marketing).

    Perception of a product influences price. A battery for a laptop is "techie, electronic, computer related" while a battery for you kid's eleectric car is a "consumable, toy, non-essential" and a battery for a lawnmower is "utlility, get-it-done, tool" in perception.

    Those perception influence product pricing. There is no conventional "miniturization" in Lithium batteries per say that you have to pay a higher costs to shrink the battery, it seems more driven by natural market dynamics.

  • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:36AM (#30444630)

    I think you mean capitalism (mostly the same thing, but sure). You know, the whole, priced to what the market will bear nonesense that is the fundemental underpinnings of our economy. In this case, the cost of batteries for garden tools is lower because NiCa and other technologies are still viable alternatives, whereas in the laptop segment they are not. In other words, there are more competitors and a higher supply in one market segment than another.

  • Re:The Market (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Andy Dodd (701) <atd7@nOspaM.cornell.edu> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:36AM (#30444636) Homepage

    Yup, I wouldn't be surprised if the lawnmower variants have some chemistry/construction changes such that:
    1) The cells are slightly larger/heavier per Wh despite similar chemistry
    2) The cells are optimized for a somewhat different charge/discharge regime than a laptop

    The above could easily make significant changes to the cost of the batteries.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:38AM (#30444684)

    To be more precise

    Batteries =~ Printer Ink

    Do you think HP makes its profit on the laptop hardware or the new battery you need to buy 18 months later?

  • by Kagato (116051) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:39AM (#30444690)

    You can get cheap lithium-ion batteries for laptops. Third party knock off brands usually sent straight China. They don't work as well and in some cases can even cause damage. If laptop batteries were easy to make the third party market wouldn't be full of bad batteries.

  • by Firemouth (1360899) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:41AM (#30444716)

    I guess technically that's greed, charging what you can but without it where would we be?

    Thriving?

  • by AlecC (512609) <aleccawley@gmail.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:42AM (#30444734)

    I don't think this is likely, because there isn't a lock-in effect with lawnmowers. Having bought a Brand X lawnmower, when you replace it (quite a few years later, hopefully) you will have no need to replace it with another Brand X. The point of initial low prices on things like consoles is to achieve market dominance: games manufacturers make games for the most popular consoles so players buy the consoles which makes them the most popular. The de-factso standard for lawns - flat grass - is in the public domain.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:43AM (#30444758)

    For the same reason that you people will pay more for the same headphones if the package says "digital ready" or some similar bullshit statement on them..

    Because people are stupid enough to pay more for stuff if they are told it's higher tech.

  • Conratulations. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Inominate (412637) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:43AM (#30444766)

    You just spent an entire paragraph explaining the short, simple post you replied to.

    The question posed in the story is simple. Why do computer manufacturers screw customers on battery prices? Because they do, because they always have, and most importantly, because they can.

  • Re:Size matters (Score:3, Insightful)

    by uradu (10768) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:44AM (#30444778)

    I would be surprised if that were the case. The chemistry of all these Li-Ion cells is mostly the same, and regardless of the final outside shape of the battery, internally most use standardized cells connected either in parallel or series to achieve the desired current and/or voltage. I bet you that if you took apart that lawnmower battery, inside you'd find the same basic cells as in that laptop battery, just more of them.

    So I would say the lawnmower batteries are mostly cheaper because of some subsidy. Look at other technologies using Li-Ion batteries that are more established, such as power tools: the battery for my Ridgid power drill is $99, which is very much in line with laptop batteries.

  • by fooslacker (961470) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:50AM (#30444864)
    Unlikely, people don't do things for the heck of it.
  • Not Greed .. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Archangel Michael (180766) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:50AM (#30444868) Journal

    More like "Lack of standards"

    There is no "Laptop battery pack", each laptop seams to have is own wattage/voltage combo that is unique to that model / brand.

    The fact is, there should be a "standard" set of standard "sizes" available, like we have for regular batteries (A, AA, AAA, C, D, 9v, etc).

    It isn't "greed" so much as it is the cost of making a large number of short run batteries. When it costs almost as much to get a battery as it does a new laptop, there is something wrong.

  • Really? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @11:58AM (#30445012)

    Of all the ridiculously priced items out there, why did he pick these batteries? Batteries for laptops need to be smaller, lighter, and more careful about heat dissipation than those in a lawnmower. The 66% premium sounds about right, just like the premium one has to pay for the rest of a laptop compared to a big old desktop PC.

    If he wants to rant about prices, how about laptop accessories? I wanted to buy a second wall charger for my laptop, but they were charging $75 for it. What about the price of any cable or charger sold at chain stores? Radio Shack, who used to sell packs of resistors to me for 50 cents, wanted me to pay $25 for a USB cable. It's as if they want me to buy everything online [monoprice.com].

    And I won't even start on text messages and other cell phone baloney. Ranting about that could be a full time job.

  • Re:Not Greed .. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by idontgno (624372) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:02PM (#30445088) Journal

    You're describing the effect. "Greed" describes the cause.

    It's against the profit interests of laptop manufacturers to standardize batteries because then they'd have to compete with each other on them. Since these batteries are essentially commodity items, the only competitive variable would be pricing. And no producer likes competing on price.

  • by mirkob (660121) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:34PM (#30445624)

    I understand profit, that's why we're in business, to make money. But charging more for something just because the consumer is willing to pay more for it... I guess that crosses the ethical line for me.

    That's not supply and demand, it's not because it's any better than the other, it's not because its more expensive to make. You're just doing it because you can, and I call that greed.

    that's where the theory of capitalism fail, if every laptop owner know that it has been ripped of money for nothing in return
    than, maybe, market would work (and low the price),

    but the main component that influence the market today are publicity and obfuscation of real characteristics and flaws of product

    not informed comparison of products, where intelligent and informed people could decide if they want more reliable, more durable or cheaper product of a certain kind and, buying it, influence the market production.

  • Re:Not Greed .. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:35PM (#30445658)

    Unque to the brand, but rarely to the model. I see generation after generation of Dell, HP, Gateway laptops use the exact same battery packaging. Same with power tools. Each manufacturer may have their own line of tools that share battery packs, but my DeWalt and Craftsman tools can't swap batteries.

    And for that matter, I doubt that a dell battery pack is unique to Dell once you break it open. There are fleets of laptops that use nearly identical battery packs that only seem to vary by cosmetics and attachment mechanisms. I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that they use identical LI cells.

  • Re:Not Greed .. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:40PM (#30445742)
    Let's not forget the added amount of safety testing / compliance that must happen with a high power battery pack that actually ends up sitting directly on your lap and flying in planes, etc. I doubt that anywhere NEAR the engineering has to go into a battery for a lawn mower as they need to put into one for a notebook. A battery overheats in a lawn mower and the customer wants a new battery. A battery overheats in a notebook and the internet goes crazy with "exploding / burning notebook" stories and the customers want a bunch of money from the vendor.
  • by OttoErotic (934909) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:41PM (#30445772)
    on the site created for the heck of it back in the day... ...whose corporate parent now makes enough money off of ads to justify its continued operation
  • by Sandbags (964742) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:42PM (#30445782) Journal

    No. Laptop batteries are priced higher due to size constraints and weight constraints. Just becaus eit says LiIon does NOT mean that the battery in your laptop and lawnmower are even remotely the same.

    Larger batteries are cheaper to produce.
    Batteries not limited by shape design are cheaper to produce
    Batteries not limited by expensive structural components (lawnmower batteries can be placed in cheap, thick, sturdy casings and noone cares, slim laptop batteries require magnesuim or titanium reinforcement to hold together).

    Arguing why laptop batteries cost more per watt hour is like arguing why Half-A batteries cost more than D-Cells for the same reason. Or why cell phone and camera batters have even larger differences in priceing per watt hour vs laptop batteries.

    Also, every laptop practically has a unique battery, which requires manufacturing, storage, logistics, etc. Lawnmowers are likely using generic cells, like the ones being mass rpoduced for cars and other industrial purposes. A battery is a battery to a lawnmower. They simply cost less. I'd bet half the price or less.

    The fewer of a thing you make, or the more unique it is from other things, the more it costs.

    This is not capitolism, it's logistics, manufacturing, and HARD COSTS.

    STFU, and do some market research before you get on a high horse and spread FUD about things you know nothing about.

  • Re:Conratulations. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by amorsen (7485) <benny+slashdot@amorsen.dk> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:44PM (#30445810)

    It's good for the manufacturer, for sure, but it's certainly not a free market. In a competitive market, large margins are unsustainable because your competitors will undercut you. Of course as soon as you are talking software, the market is by government fiat not competitive.

  • Re:Conratulations. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gander666 (723553) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:52PM (#30445946) Homepage
    True, but we really don't have a free market, and cases like this happen all the time.

    Not sure about most major laptop makers, but there is a healthy aftermarket for Apple MacBook batteries. Offering more capacity, or lower replacement values.

    In the case of the instrumentation, it is not a trivial task to build a tool that can scan in one axis, and measure with nanometer resolution in Z with a range of up to 5mm, something Taylor Hobson does quite well. The barrier to entry is pretty high.

    In batteries, the barrier to entry is also not trivial. Unless you are going to buy components and assemble them, you have a pretty hefty investment in production required. The point being that in verticals like that, penetrating the market is not simple.
  • Re:Not Greed .. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by brainboyz (114458) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:54PM (#30446000) Homepage

    Actually, I'd bank more on the idea that it's an engineering thing. Think about it, if you design a system that needs specific inputs do you want a battery that is designed to efficiently deliver power at that voltage, or do you want a battery that provides a higher voltage and then you get to waste energy (via heat) to bring it down to the appropriate level? When it comes to laptops, battery life and heat levels are key. Converting voltage levels would make things worse on both counts. Add the fact that each laptop has a slightly different form-factor and you need custom shapes too.

    Now, if you want an awkwardly shaped, warmer than usual, and loud laptop that has a shorter than average battery life for the given energy capacity, by all means don't let me stand in your way protesting against the manufacturers for standardized batteries. I'll deal with swapping out a $200 battery every two years or so or not bother so I can upgrade performance, then donate the old laptop so it can be used as a desktop for someone who can't generally afford a new computer in general (they don't care that it only has 2 hours of battery life instead of the original 5).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:55PM (#30446024)

    Segmenting markets, or creating artificial barriers between markets is not capitalism. It's a monopolistic practice.

    In a capitalist system there are no barriers between markets, there's no such thing as a "market segment". Segments are created artificially to line companies' pockets.

    They intentionally avoid things like having laptop batteries work in lawnmowers or vice-versa. In fact... most laptop manufacturers artificially design their laptops and batteries so that a generic battery from someone else cannot be plugged in.

    The logic's wrong.. based on that thinking LCD's should be uber-expensive, because they're really the only viable option for computer monitors.

    Computer keyboards should be really expensive also, those are even more specialized than displays... there aren't other viable input device technologies.

    See the problem?

    It's not about competing technologies it's about many producers trying to sell the most units.

  • by Jodka (520060) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:05PM (#30446186)

    When you ebay stuff, would you prefer the winning bidder be the one who offers the lowest bid? When you shop for groceries do you purchase the lowest quality goods which you can find for the highest price? When you look for job do you seek out employers who sould compensates you at the lowest rate? Do you comparison shop online for the highest prices?

    People who make the opposite of those choices are engaging in, as you describe it, that "priced to what the market will bear nonesense that is the fundemental underpinnings of our economy."

    When you haggle in the market, you being reasonable, it's the other guy who is the greedy bastard. When you try to maximize revenues and minimize costs that is rational self interest. When others do that, it is greed.

    My point is not that you should deliberately make bad choices and act against your own financial self-interest. It is that you are a hypocrite for acting in your own financial interests while criticizing others for doing the same.

  • Re:Not Greed .. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gknoy (899301) <gknoy@@@anasazisystems...com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:25PM (#30446576)

    I'd be surprised if engineers for Sony, Dell, or Asus were unable to design a laptop to work with one of a standardized set of batteries, which differ only in form factor and energy/voltage output. They use commoddity hard drives, CD-roms, and memory chips, after all.

    Sure, it's more challenging short term, but being able to buy generic (or brand-name) batteries would be fantastic (for consumers). Laptop vendors would hate it, though, as others have already said.

  • by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:40PM (#30446894) Journal

    If I ran a gas station, and I was charging you $8/gallon to fill up a certain type of car, I would be accused of many crimes. I would be fined, thrown in jail, termination of business, or all the above.

    No, you would not be accused of any crime. You would not be fined, thrown in jail, etc.

    You just wouldn't get any business from people who drive that type of car. Depending on how many people drive that certain type of car, loss of such business might effect your bottom line and cause your business to fail.

    From the first line of your post, you proved you do not know the first thing about business or the law. Your second shows a similar lack of knowledge about both the history of electric power and the laws governing utility operations.

    Please learn about the topic before you post such drivel.

  • Re:Conratulations. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @02:50PM (#30447996)

    Just come out and say it. Market segmentation = if you can get away with it, do it. And its all based on the ignorance of that market.

  • Re:Ben says (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Trepidity (597) <.gro.hsikcah. .ta. .todhsals-muiriled.> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:03PM (#30448208)

    Did you forget half of classical economics? Prices are set by an intersection on the supply/demand curve, not by the demand curve alone. And if there is a large profit margin (gap between production cost and market price), it ought to attract more supply, driving down price (the vaunted "invisible hand").

  • Re:Conratulations. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by winwar (114053) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @06:57PM (#30451398)

    "Blecch, the Phillips screwdriver is one of the most brain damaged things ever invented, much less standardized. Torx is far better..."

    Depends on your perspective. I can tell what size Phillips I need at a glance. And I have that size or the size isn't that critical. On the other hand, I HATE torx because they don't have those features.

    If you needed to torque something to spec, what was wrong with bolts, square head, six and 12 point drives, etc. that they needed yet another standard?

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