While rechargeable batteries offer the best value for most everyday jobs, old-fashioned alkaline batteries still come in handy for emergency use. But is there really any difference among competing brands? We found conflicting information on this point. Energy expert Michael Bluejay insists that "capacity is pretty similar from one alkaline maker to the next" and cites several tests to back up his claim, but most of them are several years old. More recently, a test of batteries at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, reported at DealNews.com, found that name-brand alkaline batteries performed almost identically to generic brands and concluded that it makes most sense to buy based on price alone.
However, the most recent tests we've seen of alkaline batteries contradict these findings somewhat. Both the Battery Showdown conducted by Bitbox, a British electronics maker, and the latest battery tests at ConsumerReports.org found slight but significant differences in performance between brands. Tests at Which? magazine found still more dramatic differences, with some brands outperforming others by a wide margin. Moreover, users on Amazon.com and other sites we consulted are much happier with some battery brands than with others.
Taking all these sources into account, the best alkaline battery appears to be the well-known Duracell CopperTop (Est. $11 for 16 AA). In one professional test, these batteries are among the top performers, holding out longer than other alkaline batteries when powering a flashlight. Their life when used in a power-hungry digital camera, by contrast, is unimpressive, but no worse than other brands.
CopperTop batteries get strong reviews from users as well. We found more than 500 reviews in total at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, and on both sites more than 90 percent of owners recommend them. Most reviewers say the batteries are long-lasting, and many note that they are less likely to leak than other brands. However, reviews we found on the manufacturer's website seem to contradict this point. Many users who say they used to be loyal Duracell customers complain that the newest generation of Duracells is very prone to leakage.
Duracell's chief competitor, Energizer, does not fare as well in the same professional test. The Energizer Max (Est. $10 for 16 AA) is no better than the Duracell at powering a camera, and it doesn't last as long as the Duracell in a flashlight. However, its user reviews are generally strong. In roughly 300 reviews on Amazon.com, about 85 percent of owners recommend the battery for its long life and good value. As with the Duracell, we saw some complaints that these batteries leak. However, users who contacted Energizer's customer service folks about the problem report they are responsive and helpful.
One battery that does surprisingly well in the professional test mentioned above is the Kirkland Signature Alkaline ($15 for 48 AA), a store-brand battery from Costco. It outperforms most other alkalines in the test, including the Duracell CopperTop and the Energizer Max, at a significantly lower price. However, the user reviews we found for this battery were appallingly bad. In the 60-plus reviews we found, it earns less than two stars out of five overall, and the vast majority of comments complain about leakage and ruined equipment.
Another surprisingly strong performer in comparison tests is the Ikea Alkalisk ($2 for 10 AA). In the extensive Bitbox comparison test, the Ikea battery was "the clear winner" for both high-drain and low-drain performance, delivering more power than its competitors at a very low price. However, since the Ikea website doesn't host reviews from owners, we couldn't find any user feedback to back up this result.
There may be some question about whether any alkaline battery is better than any other, but there's no question at all about the difference in performance between alkaline batteries and lithium batteries. In professional tests, lithium batteries consistently outperform alkalines by a wide margin, especially in high-drain devices. In the United States, Energizer is the leading manufacturer of lithium batteries and the only brand that's covered in professional tests.
Energizer sells lithium batteries under two brand names: Energizer Ultimate Lithium (Est. $6 for 4 AA) and Energizer Advanced Lithium (Est. $8 for 4 AA). The Ultimate Lithium is the more powerful of the two. Energizer claims its Ultimate Lithium battery will last up to nine times as long as its alkaline batteries in a digital camera, while the Advanced Lithium lasts up to six times as long. The Ultimate Lithium also has a longer shelf life: up to 20 years in storage, compared with the Advanced Lithium's 10 years. The one drawback of the Ultimate Lithium is that it's available only in AAA and AA cell sizes, while the Advanced Lithium also has the 9-volt size required for many smoke detectors.
The Energizer Ultimate Lithium consistently trounces the competition in tests of disposable batteries. It lasts longer than any alkaline battery in both high-drain and low-drain devices, though its advantage is greatest with high-drain ones. It also handily outperforms the Energizer Advanced Lithium in the one comparison test that directly pits them against each other. The Ultimate Lithium also has better reviews from users at Amazon.com. In more than 775 reviews, owners give it 4.5 stars out of 5 overall, saying it's long-lasting and great for use in cameras. They also like its long shelf life and ability to perform at low temperatures.
The Advanced Lithium, by contrast, gets about four stars overall from roughly 200 users. Although owners praise its long shelf life, they're not as impressed with its life span as they are with the Ultimate Lithium's. They like the fact that this battery comes in a 9-volt size, but some reviews warn that it doesn't fit into all devices. Given that there's little difference in price between the two, we consider the Ultimate Lithium a better value for high-drain devices that take AA or AAA batteries. The Advanced Lithium, however, is a useful option for smoke detectors and other devices that require a 9-volt battery.