Laptops, ergonomics, and batteries

When the battery life on Martin's laptop dropped off a cliff, he upgraded from a 6-cell battery to a 12-cell battery. But he made one little mistake.

Although I've worked with computers since around 1964, the first computer I bought for myself was an original Compaq Portable, in 1983. That computer was portable in the same way a large bag of groceries that's mostly canned goods is portable. It weighed 28 pounds, had a 9-inch CGA-compatible green screen, and had no battery. Its ergonomics were less than exemplary, and working on it tended to make my wrists and upper back hurt. Carrying it on an airplane trip stressed my arms, shoulders, and lower back.

Fast-forward to 2009. I currently use several desktop computers in my office and a laptop on my desk at home. I have been able to adjust the placement of the monitors and keyboards of the desktop computers so that they don't hurt my neck or wrists much, but the laptop is just not very adjustable. The best I can do with the keyboard height is to raise my chair up. The screen is always too low.

About a month ago, the battery life on this Compaq Presario V6000 went to hell. It was never very good; the 6-cell battery that came with the unit lasted for maybe 90 minutes when it was new, running on a balanced power scheme, before it asked to be plugged in. But recently it would only last 10 minutes before Windows Vista decided it was critically low and went into hibernation, with no warning at all. My attempts to condition the battery by running it down and recharging it came to naught.

Frankly, batteries have been the weakest point of laptops as long as I can remember. When the Intel 486 chip was introduced, it took a year before people found battery technology with enough density to make 486 laptops feasible. And I don't need to remind you about the laptop battery fires of the last year or so.

I installed Ubuntu 8.10 on this laptop (as a multiple boot option) the weekend before last, and one of the first notices that Ubuntu gave me was that the battery would only charge to 17 percent of capacity. Score one for Ubuntu over Vista for giving an accurate message.

I decided to upgrade to a 12-cell lithium-ion battery rather than replace the old 6-cell battery with another of the same. The online reviews on this battery indicated that some people were getting 5 hours of use out of it on V6000s, and that the additional height improved the ergonomics of the laptop a little. I found one for about $80 (delivered) at USB Phone World via, and had it in a few days even though I'd opted for the cheapest possible shipping.

I powered the laptop down, folded it closed, turned it upside down, slid the battery release both ways until it moved and the battery popped up, and removed the old battery. I slipped the new battery in, turned the laptop right-side up, and the battery fell out.

I turned the laptop over again, and played with the battery release. There was no spring action, so I looked at the mechanism and deduced that left was the open position and right was the closed position. I slid the release right and inserted the battery again. It went in with a satisfying click.

I tried to slide the release left, to double-check that I could take it out again, but it wouldn't budge. I went looking for the original manual and couldn't remember what I'd done with it.

I turned the computer right-side up, powered it up, and went online. I found the repair manual for the V6000 on the HP site. The battery replacement instructions were to slide the switch left for removal, insert the new battery, and then slide the switch right to lock the battery in place. Crap. The way I'd inserted the battery, it was in a Roach Motel.

Unless Dr. Who loans me his sonic screwdriver or some kind soul tells me a way to get the battery out without breaking anything, this is the last battery the laptop will ever have. Fortunately, it's behaving pretty well, and I do like having the screen up a little higher.

Even so, using the laptop for an extended period, as I'm doing now to write this post, still stresses my wrists, neck, and upper back. And I don't especially like carrying the extra weight of the 12-cell battery. But at this point, it's stuck -- and so am I.