Not Your Everyday Banana

by Bart Arondson

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Looking at the battery for my Fuji x100s: $35 for an 1800 mAhr battery. Two AA (Eneloop, or any equivalent) rechargeable batteries would cost a total of about $5, have more capacity, wouldn't make the camera any bigger, and would provide a lot more options while traveling. They'd run at 3V instead of 3.6V, but that's probably more of a coincidence than an impossible technical hurdle - there have been cameras that run on AAs in the past.

So what's the argument in favor of these proprietary batteries?

Edit:

Many answers and comments are casually saying that lithium batteries recycle the flash faster, and so on. Please substantiate your claims. Here are two references demonstrating that Nickel Metal Hydride (Eneloops, etc.) recycle the flash the fastest by far, the total opposite of what you are claiming:

http://www.slrlounge.com/the-best-aa-battery-for-flash-the-ultimate-practical-review-of-aa-batteries-for-photography

http://www.scantips.com/lights/flashbasics1e.html

Edit 2:

Seems like form factor is the leading legitimate reason (though for cameras aren't tiny, I don't see how this is a big deal), but the two things mentioned the most are Profit and Lithium-Is-Just-Better. I think this question can only be answered with another question, which is, if those two things are true, Why do Flashes not use Proprietary Batteries?

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Profit. (There really needs to be a way to make a one word comment. Sometimes one word is enough.) –  Michael Clark May 12 at 4:28
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AA batteries are such a pain!! People will always complain about draining batteries. Always. They're OK for TV remotes but not camera lenses and flashes. –  BBking May 12 at 4:40
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@BBking Off topic, but I wish there were torches (flashlights if you're American) that had Li-ion batteries so that they're rechargeable and don't get dimmer –  Brian Funt May 12 at 14:19
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@MichaelClark I used the zero-width space character. –  Tim S. May 12 at 15:24
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These are comparing Lithium non-rechargables. –  JamesRyan May 12 at 15:39
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11 Answers 11

Although only the manufacturers themselves know for sure and there could be different reasons from one manufacturer to the next there are two obvious possibilities that receive most of the attention from the users of cameras and their proprietary batteries.

Profit. Limiting the amount of competition in the marketplace by not using standard, off the shelf batteries means the camera manufacturers can charge more for the proprietary batteries that fit their cameras. Even though third party batteries are usually available, the market tends to look down on them more than they would if something with the name Energizer or Ray-O-Vac was printed on the side. In some cases third party batteries are superior to the OEM batteries, but the lack of brand name recognition scares many buyers away.

Increased capability. Many cameras can communicate with the proprietary batteries. This allows them to identify each unique battery and tell the camera such things as how many shots since the battery was at 100%, the power level of each battery in your collection when it was last inside the camera, the current charge state of each battery in the camera, and the recharge performance of each battery. Beyond communicating with the camera, different chemistry allows different batteries to discharge at different rates and with varying amounts of endurance. A proprietary design can be designed to meet the optimal needs of the camera design in a way than a standardized off the shelf battery may not.

In reality the reason manufacturers use proprietary batteries is probably some of both of the above.

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interesting. Which noname batteries are good for canon? I have some and found that they have maybe half the charge as my canon batteries, even though they state more mAh on them. (same experience with noname cellphone batteries) –  Michael Nielsen May 12 at 8:04
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Don't forget the size argument for small P&S cameras which are itself as thin as an AAA battery. Or even for slightly bigger ones a flat battery might just fit better into the body design (see the "bulge" in a canone A1300) –  PlasmaHH May 12 at 8:32
    
@MichaelNielsen, I've found Hama to be better than no-name-at-all for a 40D and a 350D (though I've obviously had the batteries for that for some years now and they're not as good as they were.) –  Chris H May 12 at 9:40
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This makes lots of sense actually. I have a lot of experience with using different batteries for my RC planes, and the different battery chemistries vary enough that it's a good idea to know what pack you're using. Cameras read the voltage to determine how much capacity you have remaining, and different packs have different capacity-to-voltage curves. So, your 'shots remaining' indicator will probably be wrong with un-known battery packs. –  Jasmine May 12 at 17:36
    
@MichaelNielsen See photo.stackexchange.com/a/34791/15871 –  Michael Clark May 12 at 22:42
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Partially functionality and partially profit. With my Canon 5D Mark iii, I use a battery grip. The battery grip provides two power options. One, I can use 2 of the typical Canon proprietary battery packs in parallel or I can use 6 AA batteries that take up roughly the same amount of space.

When I use the AA batteries, the camera performance suffers significantly as power is less readily available due to the difference in the type of power provided by the batteries. This results in lower drive speeds for continuous shooting. Additionally, advanced functionality, such as tracking shutter counts on the battery and power level since the battery was last in the camera are not possible since the batteries themselves do not report their identity to the camera.

Now, as to why the batteries cost so much, third parties are able to produce batteries that are compatible for far cheaper, so clearly their is a significant mark up on the batteries, so profitability is also a factor, but performance is also. (Note that the cheapest third party batteries often aren't as good quality as the name brand, but there are still quality third party batteries that are comparable for less than the name brand cost generally.)

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This was the first answer to actually provide an apples to apples example where proprietary lithium is better, but we still have to understand why. Your Canon batteries are 1800mAhr and 7.4V. Your six AAs would be 7*1.2=8.4V and at least 2000mAhr, so better in both respects than one Canon battery but not two. So, if the Canons are run in series to increase voltage to 15V, then I guess that explains the zippier experience (can you run it with just one Canon battery to confirm/debunk this?). –  Greg Smalter May 13 at 16:07
    
@GregSmalter - I'll give it a shot, but I'm fairly certain it doesn't make a difference. When I don't have the battery grip in, it still operates faster than the with the AAs in the battery grip. Couldn't it still have something to do with the battery chemistry impacting the amps the battery can produce though? Having a lot of stored power in a chemical cell doesn't necessarily mean it is readily available for rapid discharge. –  AJ Henderson May 13 at 16:13
    
@GregSmalter Don't forget that the despite the nominal voltage of ~3.7V, a fully charged Li-ion cell is closer to ~4.2V. Li-ion can drop down to ~3V (some sources say ~2.7V) without damage, though most cameras won't go that low. Alkaline cells drop down to ~0.8V, and again a camera won't go that low. Alkaline maxes at ~1.6V and spends most of its discharge at ~1.2-1.3V. Ni-MH and Ni-Cad have a nominal voltage of only ~1.2V (though their discharge curve stays at a higher voltage for longer). –  Bob May 13 at 17:34
    
Oh and we never asked what kind of AAs you were using. NiMh are much better for high currents than Alkaline. –  Greg Smalter May 14 at 3:02
    
@GregSmalter I've used both Ni-MH (Powerex 2700s to be exact) and Lithium non-rechargeables, both with similar results. The powerex batteries do end up closer to the performance of the official batteries though, particularly compared to the significantly less powerful Energizer rechargeables. –  AJ Henderson May 14 at 3:04
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The battery being 3.6 gives it away. It is a lithium battery. Lithium batteries are dangerous, they can explode if not charged correctly or protected from physical damage properly. You don't commonly get AA sized lithium rechargeable cells either, they tend to be a little larger to accommodate protection circuits.

In order to allow the use of high capacity lithium cells, and to shop said cells with the product, they can't just allow you to throw in anything you like. The regulations are pretty strict, unfortunately. I suppose they could use NiMH cells instead, but in a camera where high currents are required to re-charge the flash they are less suitable.


As for the NiMH vs. lithium, lithium cell can provide far more current. Sanyo don't give a maximum discharge rate for Eneloops, rather a maximum temperature, but their datasheet gives 4000mAh (2C) as the upper limit of testing. A cheap lithium cell can provide 14C or more: http://www.candlepowerforums.com/vb/showthread.php?384874-Test-Review-of-Efest-IMR18650-2500mAh-(Purple)-2014

You are looking at over 100W from a single cell. Especially for an efficient LED flash you don't even need a big capacitor and virtually zero cycle time. This extremely high discharge rate is also one of the things that makes lithium so dangerous.

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Please see question edit regarding flash recycle times. There are lithium AA batteries. And NiMH does better with high current than Alkaline or lithium. It provides the fastest flash recycle times. –  Greg Smalter May 12 at 15:05
    
Li-ion batteries also come in standard sizes. –  Navin May 13 at 3:32
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@GregSmalter: Lithium primary-cell (single-use) chemestries are different from rechargeable-cell chemstries. I don't think I've seen AA-format rechargeable lithium batteries--only primary-cell ones. –  supercat May 13 at 6:29
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Li-ion rechargeable batteries can have AA-format, look at the 14500 size - the only problem is that they give 3.6 volts instead of 1.5 volts. Circuit protection is integrated (and if you let them fully discharge, you can't charge them anymore...) –  Magnetic_dud May 13 at 8:17
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@Magnetic_dud, you can get dummy batteries as well, so a dummy battery and a 14500 gives 3.6V where 3V is expected, normally perfectly fine. Alternatively a 14500 can replace 3 NiMH AAs in series for the same voltage (OT: I did this in a headtorch for cycling, to make room for LEDs) –  Chris H May 13 at 14:30
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They are not more expensive just because they are proprietary. They use a different technology which performs better with the flash's large bursts. Lithium-Ion as opposed to Ni-Cad or Ni-MH. You can get non-proprietary Li-Ion batteries specifically for cameras.

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Please see question edit regarding flash recycle times. –  Greg Smalter May 12 at 15:04
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Recycling speed and longevity are different issues. Ni-MH run down far faster when providing higher current. –  JamesRyan May 12 at 15:48
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You can buy lithium batteries EVERYWHERE! They come in standard sizes and this is not a reason why camera makers choose to use proprietary non-standard packs. –  Jasmine May 12 at 17:33
    
I said that in my answer. You didn't use to be able, they require different chargers. If manufacturers had introduced them without changing the format people would have been setting their cameras on fire by trying to charge the wrong type in them. –  JamesRyan May 12 at 20:35
    
@JamesRyan No, all Li-ion batteries in the US have a protection circuit on the battery itself. Also, there are standard sizes for Li-ion batteries, but each camera uses a different package. –  Navin May 13 at 3:34
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It's the same reasons why someone would take over a small country: control and power :)

Control:

  • A manufacturer can achieve their own custom compromise between size and capacity.
  • They can tailor the size and shape of the battery to the camera casing.
  • They can achieve an extremely high reliability rate and consistent capacity.

This last point is crucial. AA batteries have earned a bad reputation lately because their performance can vary greatly between brands. Lots of people skimped and bought AA batteries which were too poor and found their camera's battery-life much shorter than advertised. There were a huge number of complaints regarding this, particularly that in some locations, good quality cells are hard to come by.

In interesting case study is to look at the evolution of Pentax DSLRs. The K-x was the last DSLR by any manufacturer to use AA batteries exclusively. it managed 1100 shots-per-charge officially. Most people got much less. Pentax then followed with the K-r which took either 4 AAs or 1 Lithium-Ion. They shipped it with AAs which gave good battery-life but once they were replaced, users got less consistent results. A year later, Pentax introduced the K-30 which also took both type of batteries. This time, they shipped it with a Lithium-Ion battery. It costs them more to do so because when a proprietary battery is included, the manufacturer also includes a charger. With AAs, chargers are almost never included.

Power:

Lithium-Ion batteries can output higher voltage which lets them run processors and image-sensors at a higher performance.

They can charge however much they want for additional batteries. Same for the charger. Customers are most-likely to return to the original manufacturer for additional batteries.

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Yes, this! The control is very appealing. I read an interview with Pentax engineers several years ago (I think wheb they introduced the first model which didn't take AAs... I'll see if I can find it) where they take about exactly this frustration. –  mattdm May 13 at 4:04
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Most of these answers here so far have avoided answering the question. One person alluded to the answer, greed! There is no reason whatsoever why the camera manufacturers couldn't come up with a standardized specification for a smart battery listing all their specific requirements, including a general size, and then put the specification out there for implementation. Yes, yes I realize that there are different sized cameras but what I'm talking about are batteries developed for each different size range of camera, especially with the SLR's that within each range the cameras are all of a similar shape and size.

Providing a hardware/software API the manufacturers could get their battery time remaining, charge time remaining, charging statistics or whatever and we the public could get the generic battery that would perform the same as that delivered with the camera at a price that wasn't exploitive. No other reason that it isn't done except for the greed. Same thing would apply to the required charger. Just like most of the phone manufacturers have gone to a standardized micro USB charging connection.

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Most DSLRs do not charge the battery when it is the camera, the batteries are charged by connecting them to a separate charger. –  Michael Clark May 12 at 22:47
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If you're talking about manufacturer-specific batteries (excluding third-party ones), then I can think of at least one exception: Ricoh is using the same battery in their GR/GRD/GXR series as Sigma's DP Merrills.

If you're talking about the different-than-AA physical sizes, then I think it really boils down to:

  • Form factor (those slimmer-than-AA point-and-shoot cameras)
  • Capacity
  • 'Smarter' batteries that can better interface with the camera to report battery usage

Here's an example for the first two points: Ricoh's GRD series supports the use of 2x AAA batteries as a 'back-up' source (think < 30 shots), somewhat amazingly they have chosen a battery the height of AAA batteries to enable this neat trick. When the GR with its APS-C-sized sensor came out, this feature was dropped most likely due to the extra power draw that a pair of AAAs can't provide.

Also, there are still some contemporary cameras that supports the use of AA batteries, the Pentax K-500 and multiple battery holders for DSLRs' vertical grips come to mind.

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NiCd and NiMH batteries suffer from a serious issue called memory effect. This renders battery capacity much more worse after recharging than Li-Ion batteries. To prevent this, you have to exhaust the battery before recharging, which is not expected in most situations except in some professional environments.

For example when you're going on a trip and you don't use all the battery capacity in a day, would you recharge the battery right that night to prepare for the next day's shots, or wait until tomorrow when it loses all its energy during shooting and don't have any shops around or time to recharge or buy replacement batteries? Normal users don't like to waste money for another pair of rechargeable batteries because they usually don't take so many photos as professional photographers.

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Additionally, custom batteries can allow the manufacturer to create a battery in a custom shape and/or size that may not be available using commodity cells (AA, AAA, etc.)

Lithium batteries typically have a higher change density than NiMH and NiCad. All other things being equal, that means a Lithium battery can be smaller than an equivalent NiMH/NiCad.

Edit:
Other things to consider:

  • Convenience - Some customers prefer the convenience of swapping a single battery over multiple commodity cells. Fewer items to chase around the bottom of one's purse, floorboard, etc.

  • Performance - Cell performance does vary, even among the same type. If one cell is slightly weaker than the others, it will affect the performance of entire battery. Manufacturers may use "balanced" cells in a custom pack to ensure higher performance.

  • Customer experience - Camera manufacturers are keenly aware that not all of their customers are battery gurus. When selling 10,000+ cameras, you're gonna get a non-zero number of people putting in a random mix of batteries (brands, chemistries, charge levels) and being disappointed when the camera fails. This results in customer-support calls (read: more costs) as well as possible bad customer reviews.

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@mattdm: Edited. –  JS. May 27 at 16:07
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If it is important to actually maintain a 3.6 voltage, and I have no idea if it is or not, then using AA batteries can be problematic.

Alkaline AA batteries are 1.5V when they leave the factory, but they quickly drop after use.

Rechargable NiMH AA batteries, such as the Sanyo Eneloop, operate at only 1.2V, and thus 3 batteries would be required. These, however, maintain their voltage even after heavy use*.

So allowing the consumer to use any type AA battery, makes very little guarantees about what kind voltage the camera can operate under. By using proprietary battery types, the camera manufacturer can get better assurance that the battery meets the required needs.

* One reason why NiMH batteries are better for speedlites than alkaline batteries.

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up vote 0 down vote accepted

I think the Profit reason is without merit - See Why do Flashes not use Proprietary Batteries?. We also have no scientific reference explaining why proprietary lithiums would outperform AA lithiums or AA NiMh in any way, but we do have anecdotal evidence that they provide for a snappier/more responsive camera.

Also, for small cameras especially, the form factor can be improved with proprietary batteries.

So mainly, it's because manufacturers place a greater weight of importance on form factor and perhaps on some sort of voltage control/performance factor that we suspect might be present but don't fully understand. While I'd prefer a slightly larger camera using cost-effective and ubiquitous AAs, manufacturers simply disagree with me for the most part.

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I think you are ignoring some very good answers to your other question. There are legitimate differences between batteries for cameras and batteries for external flashes, both in terms of technical demands and consumer expectations –  Michael Clark May 27 at 4:23
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protected by mattdm May 27 at 6:20

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