Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: La Crosse BC-900 Battery Charger

A month ago I posted about three of the best high end NiMH battery chargers out there and mentioned that I decided to purchase and review the La Cross Technology BC-900 AlphaPower Battery Charger. (Note: the BC-900 has been replaced by the La Crosse Technology BC-9009 AlphaPower Battery Charger, which appears to be the same package, just a different color, and for the same price). While the charger has its user interface quirks, steady use over the past few weeks has proven to me that it is the best battery charger deal out there, period. The link above takes you to Amazon, the cheapest place I've found for the charger (currently $40 shipped).

Before I get into the details about how well the BC-900 works, let me explain why it is a good deal. Actually, the picture above will save me some time -- the $40 package at Amazon contains everything shown above, plus a few things I couldn't fit in!

Specifically, you get:

  • BC-900 charger and power supply
  • Carrying case
  • 4 AA batteries (2600 mAh)
  • 4 AAA batteries (1000 mAh)
  • 4 C adapters (letting you put AA batteries into something that takes Cs)
  • 4 D adapters (requires C adapters to adapt As to Ds)
  • Instruction booklets
What makes this such a good deal is the extra batteries (worth $5-8) and the C/D adapters (which I haven't seen anywhere else).

Charger Functionality:

A top of the line battery charger should do three things: charge, discharge, and let you know what is happening. The BC-900 does all these things very well.

Sure, in the instructions and sales literature it talks about four different modes (Charge, Discharge, Test, Refresh) but really, all the modes just boil down to combinations of charging and discharging:
  • Charge: Just charge the battery until it is full.
  • Discharge: Discharge the battery completely, then charge it until it is full.
  • Test: Charge the battery, discharge the battery, then recharge the battery to full.
  • Refresh: Discharge the battery fully, then recharge, then discharge, then recharge, etc. Stops when the capacity (measured during discharge) stops increasing. This can take DAYS, but is a good way to rejuvenate really old batteries.
Another really great thing about the charger is the ability to charge (and control the mode) of each battery separately. This is awesome for me, because I no longer have to worry about matching batteries during charging, or discharge batteries to get them to match. 95% of the time I just need to charge batteries at the slowest rate (200 mA) which is the default. So I just pop them in the charger and remove them when they say full, even if the other ones aren't done yet.

I can also control charging rate (200 mA, 500 mA, 1000 mA, 1800 mA (two batteries max)) with a few pushes of a button. Discharge rate will always be half of charging rate. If you do the math, this means that the test and refresh modes take a long, long time to complete at the lowest charging rate. Since most newer batteries don't suffer from memory effect (inability to take full charge if you don't discharge them before charging) most of the time I don't bother with the discharge cycle. As my batteries age, I'll probably start doing full discharges before every fifth charge or something like that, but for now, I'm not too worried.

Display and User Interface:

One of the great things about the BC-900 is the display. In addition to displaying the mode, it also displays the instantaneous voltage (good for estimating how much charge the battery has or how soon it will finish), time spent (dis)charging, capacity in mAh, and (dis)charging current.

Specially notable is the capacity display shown in mAh. For instance, in charging mode, it will display how much charge the battery has taken. This lets you know how much the battery was used or if the battery is starting to suffer from memory effect. Similarly, the discharge mode displays the capacity discharged or charged depending on the current state. Finally, the test and refresh capacity shows the status of the most recent discharge (for the most accurate estimate of capacity). Not too many chargers let you know exactly how much capacity an old battery has left; the BC-900 does. That alone is worth a lot.

Also, there are buttons which let you set each battery mode and charging rate individually, but I have yet to master them. The first few times I tried to set battery rates/modes individually I reset the modes of the other batteries (not a big deal, but I need to spend more time figuring it out). Again, though, most of the time I just need to charge at 200 mA, which is as simple as putting the batteries in the charger and walking away.

I did use the 1000 mA charging rate once when I left an SB-20 on all night and rendered a set of batteries (that I needed) stone dead. So, I popped them in at 1000 mA for a half-hour while I was setting up other things and had enough charge to get what I wanted done.

One thing that really bugs me is the lack of a backlight or LEDs. Just a single red/green LED for each battery would let me see at a glance when the batteries were finished charging without crossing the room. Minor, but on my other chargers, I find it very handy to be able to see if they are full at a glance.

Batteries and Adapters:

While batteries are pretty cheap commodities (good NiMH batteries cost between $1.50 to $2.00 each) it is always handy getting extras. In this case, the batteries alone are worth maybe $10, easily boosting the value of the BC-900 package over the BC-700 charger (which is near identical). And what can I say, the included batteries are... functional batteries. The first few charges didn't get me to full capacity, but now I'm getting 2400-2500 mAh out of them.

A big plus for me is the adapters included in the package. Yes, they are pretty cheap and no, I haven't needed them yet. But, since similar adapters cost about $2 each new, that's another $8 added to the value of this package. Again, this is an EXCELLENT deal.

Add the carrying case in, which while not necessary, is useful, and it's an even better deal. The carrying case, by the way, has slots for the adapters and would be useful for carrying around a store of batteries with the charger. Why I'd need to do that... well, maybe if I was shooting with three-four speedlights on a regular basis, it'd be handy. I have no problem taking it for free though!


I'm a numbers guy -- I love numbers and stats. And more than anything, this charger gives me numbers. I can tell exactly how much charge a battery has taken, check the status of my batteries, or just pop batteries in whenever I need to and know that they'll be charged safely.

And that is the real key -- convenience. The La Crosse BC-900 makes battery charging very convenient for me and gives me all the information I need to maintain the large stock of batteries I need around my house. If you use a lot of batteries (which is pretty much any family) you WILL save money with this charger.

Speaking of money, honestly, I would have bought this charger for $40 without the extras. Add the extras in, and I think this is one of the best purchases I've made. I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but there's a reason I keep repeating this stuff.

I love this little charger!

Note: On Nov 2nd 2009, I started this post and the charger was $38. On Nov 4th, the price bumped up $2 to $40. On November 7th, the price dropped $3 to $37 (with the tag 'Friday Sale'). Not sure why these fluctuations occur, but I'd recommend monitoring the price for a few days if you have the time. Don't wait too long though, with the newer model out (La Crosse Technology BC700 Alpha Power Battery Charger) at only a few dollars less but no extras, I suspect they may phase out the BC900 soon. Current price is below: (link removed)

Note: Almost a year later, it appears that the BC-900 was replaced by the BC-1000. Consensus is that it is the same charger, maybe with a few bugs out of the firmware, and a different color to the case. I highly recommend the BC-1000, especially with the package (batteries and such). My charger (and batteries) is still working perfectly! The updated link to the Amazon page is below:

Lighting Setup:
For those who enjoy lighting setups, here is the setup for the battery shoot. White seamless in my garage, charger/subject sitting on a cake pan (don't tell my wife!). Key light was an SB-20 shooting through an umbrella quite close to the subject at camera left (to keep spill off the background. To further reduce spill on the background, I put the umbrella cover over the back side of the umbrella.

Background light (SB-20) through a red gel. In the image it is positioned in front camera right with a clothes gift box lid as a gobo to keep the red off the subject. Blue hair light which cross lights with the key at minimum power (1/16th). Looking at this image I think I should have restricted it a little bit to keep it off the background, but that caused only minimal problems in post.

The trickiest part of the shoot was getting the key at the right angle to illuminate the display. I'm still disappointed that I couldn't keep the display numbers from shadowing on the back of the display.

1 comment:

Electronic said...
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