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When it comes to smaller handheld digital devices, nothing drains batteries faster than a busy digital camera. The conventional wisdom these days is to have three sets of batteries—one in the camera, one in your pocket, one in the charger.

Increasingly, today's digital cameras use funky-shaped lithium batteries, and come with rechargers. However, many digital cameras still use AAs—especially if you don't have the latest and greatest model. And you (or your kids, if you're on a family trip) are likely packing other AA-depleting devices such as MP3/CD/tape players, game handsets, etc.

The capacity of rechargeable AA nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries keeps growing: A few years ago, 750 mAh was common; batteries in the 1800–2300 mAh range are now common. That's good news for battery life—one set of charged batteries may be enough for your trip—but also can mean longer recharging times.

Consumer-oriented companies such as Duracell, Eveready, Monster, Panasonic, and Rayovac are joining the traditional photographers' battery players, including Kodak, Lenmar, Maha, and Sunpak. Drugstores are carrying consumer low-price—but often heavier and slower—models.

Chargers that do the job rapidly (15–30 minutes to 2–3 hours, versus overnight) are increasingly available, and are worth paying the extra money—and maybe the extra size and weight. Downside: This shortens the working life of the battery.

Reality: You're unlikely to ever put a set of batteries through that many charging cycles anyway; they'll be lost or obsolete long before then.

TIP

Be sure to heft the package before you buy: Cables and power bricks are often hidden to make the charger look smaller and lighter. And read the charging time info; in general, you'll pay more for higher capacity, faster charging time, and lighter weight.

Another important piece of advice: Don't recharge lower-capacity batteries in a charger meant for higher-capacity cells—it may hurt the batteries! For example, don't try recharging 1850 mAh batteries in a charger meant for 2300 mAh batteries. You can go the other way safely (for example, recharging 2300 mAh batteries in a charger meant for 1800 mAh batteries) it just may not recharge the batteries fully.

Here's an overview of some of the current chargers that can hold rechargeable AA NiMH batteries (Figure 2 shows a few of those listed). Prices are manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) in most cases; you may be able to find them for less. Some of these chargers also handle AAA batteries, offer car cords, and/or can handle 120/240 volts. Check carefully before you buy! Most of these vendors have a number of other choices in addition to those listed here. Models also seem to change rapidly; by the time you read this, you may find slightly different ones.

Figure 2Figure 2 (Left to right) Top row: Eveready Energizer CH30MM 30-minute charger, Kodak Rapid Battery Charger 2000, Monster ProCharge 2100 Digital Camera Power Pack. Bottom row: Panasonic BQ-390A, Rayovac I-CS 15-Minute Rechargeable System, PowerEx MHC401FS Charger Kit, Sunpak ES-CL4W4M4 Super Quick Charger.

  • Eveready Rechargeables: Energizer CH30MM 30-minute charger ($34.95), 12 oz., 1850 mAh. Compact AC brick with fold-down prongs, well-ventilated charger.

  • Kodak Rapid Charger 2000 with AA Batteries: ($34.95), 5 oz., 1850 mAh batteries, 3-hour charging, fold-down power prongs.

  • Lenmar Model PRO415-23 Mach 1 SpeedCharger ($39.95), 2300 mAh, 1-hour charging for 1600 mAh.

  • Monster ProCharge 2100 Digital Camera Power Pack (comes with eight 2100 mAh batteries), 1 lb. 12 oz., about 75 minutes for four 2100 mAh batteries, includes car adapter, $99.95. Heavy!

  • Panasonic choices include its lightweight (3 oz.!) BQ-390A charger for 2100 mAh batteries. Fold-in prongs makes this the portable best choice, but be prepared for charging of a set of four batteries to take up to four hours.

  • PowerEx (a.k.a. Maha Energy) offers a 1 lb. 2200 mAh AA Batteries & MHC401FS Charger Kit for $50 that includes eight batteries and can recharge in possibly as little as an hour, plus they offer an array of other chargers, with battery capacities and charger speeds frankly too complicated for me to wade through here.

  • Rayovac's I-C3 (In-Cell Charge Control) 15-Minute Rechargeable System ($50) takes the speed record, charging up four 2000 mAh NiMH cells in15 minutes. (I timed it). Includes a car charging cord. Not the smallest/lightest, but definitely the fastest!

  • Sunpak (a.k.a. GE/Sanyo) provides the ES-CL4W4M4 Super Quick Charger ($79.95). 1850 mAh, 60 minutes or less, and small, or Sunpak's PicturePlus Ultra-Fast Charger (est. $20–30), 2200 mAh, 1 lb. including auto, recharge in as little as two hours, AA or AAA.

My preference: Use Rayovac's 15-minute I-C3 charger wherever weight and space permit (e.g., for cars); otherwise, pack the Panasonic or something else equally small...but you may as well buy Rayovac I-C3's for your extra batteries anyway. And carry four or eight extra non-rechargeable AA's, just in case you need to swap in new ones.

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