The Comic Book World Of Capacitor Marketing

The Economist is an interesting publication, a British weekly newspaper that looks for all the world like a magazine, and contains pithy insights into world politics and economic movements. It’s one of those rare print news publications that manages to deliver fresh insights even to hardened web news junkies despite its weekly publication date.

It was typical then of their wide-ranging coverage of world industries to publish a piece recently on the world of supercapacitors, with particular focus on Estonia’s Skeleton Technologies. This is an exciting field in which the products are inching their way towards energy density parity with conventional batteries, and news of new manufacturing facilities coming online should be of interest to many Hackaday readers.

Exciting though it may be it was not the news of a new capacitor plant in Germany that provided the impetus for this piece. Instead it was the language used by the Economist writer delicately skirting the distinction between the words “Supercapacitor” and “Ultracapacitor”. Images of flying crimefighters in brightly coloured capes spring instantly to mind, as Captain Ultra and Superman battle an arch-villain who is no doubt idly bouncing a piece of burning Kryptonite against the wall in readiness for the final denouement.

The Big Bang Thery doesn't feature a capacitor store, maybe it should. Chester from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons.
The Big Bang Theory doesn’t feature a capacitor store, maybe it should. Chester from Toronto, Canada [CC BY 2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons.
In fact the comic book wars are a good analogy. Just as Marvel’s Captain Ultra and DC’s Superman fought among their respective cohorts for shelf space and juvenile hearts and minds through the final decades of the last century, industrial behemoths in the world of energy storage capacitors battled for control of the unseen but equally lucrative non-volatile memory power market that was then their chief application.

In one corner were NEC and Panasonic with their supercapacitors, in the other were Pinnacle Research Institute and Maxwell with their ultracapacitors. Zap!, Pow! Let battle commence, even if “Zap!” is not necessarily the sound you want to hear around a fully charged high volume capacitor.

The two terms were each originally coined by the inventors of successive iterations of the technology, but by the time they encountered each other in the marketplace they were both applied to substantially identical products that performed essentially the same function. You can’t even slide anything thicker than a cigarette paper between the definitions of their prefixes:

super: above; over; beyond

ultra: beyond; on the other side of

So the two terms are equivalent words for the same product whose only difference today lies in the marketing spin of whichever manufacturer you are talking to. The question is then how to avoid causing confusion in the mind of a non-technical reader when referring to them, and as is so often the case in matters of language that is not an easy one to answer.

Differences in language sometimes arise through local custom, for example you may say “Flashlight” while I would say “Torch”. At other times they come from the decisions of lone arbiters of the tongue, for example in the work of seminal lexicographers like Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster. When modern lexicographers encounter competing language they take a more careful approach, eschewing this prescriptivism and instead going for a descriptive approach in which they look at the language as it is used. They maintain huge corpora, large bodies of written language, upon which they perform statistical analysis to extract solid evidence for their linguistic studies.

Google Trends is rather unequivocal in its verdict.
Google Trends is rather unequivocal in its verdict.

Sadly here at Hackaday we do not hold a corpus of contemporary English to aid our writers in their research. We do however, thanks to the Web, have a resource that is every bit as useful when comparing two discrete words, in the form of Google Trends. Comparing how the two words fare in terms of Google searches is a very handy way to quickly see which has the upper hand, and in this case the answer is particularly evident. “Supercapacitor” has in the region of five times the search volume of “Ultracapacitor”, so is the clear leader in terms of usage.

Looking at the regional story it becomes evident that “Ultracapacitor” has a little more traction in the USA than elsewhere in the world, but it remains the loser even there. It’s probably safest to refer to them as “Supercapacitors” to avoid confusion, unless you are referring to a product specifically branded as an ultracapacitor.

Questions of language so often descend into semantic arguments that dance on the head of a pin, but there is a practical side to this discussion. If you ever turn a piece of your work into a product, its success or failure can hinge on something as simple as a poor choice of wording. We once encountered a company that made small aggregate crushers — a *very* cool product that would crush anything! — whose sales were transformed when they dropped their preferred term “Compact crusher” and adopted the industry’s favoured “Mini crusher”. It’s therefore worth doing this kind of research and being prepared to throw your linguistic objects of worship from their pedestals if they don’t make the grade.

Elna supercapacitor image: Elcap (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

70 thoughts on “The Comic Book World Of Capacitor Marketing

    1. Might well be the company is HQ’s in Estonia because of it’s unique national approach to web infrastructure (or low taxs, though Estonia’s not the Eurozone country that comes to mind for that) and the manufacturing plant is in Germany because “Made in Germany” are words that are as reassuring to many consumers as “and they all lived happily ever after” are to small children.

  1. Is Hackaday running out of money?
    You’re putting up ads like in every third article over last days. That’s really kind of annoying!!111

    https://hackaday.com/2016/11/02/mastering-ball-screws/
    https://hackaday.com/2016/10/27/parts-you-should-know-a-universe-of-useful-injection-molded-standoffs/
    https://hackaday.com/2016/10/28/apple-sucks-now-heres-a-thinkpad-buyers-guide/

    plz stop or mark the paid “content” with some flag so we can implement some filters

      1. It’s not even an ad. It’s a content-free spiel of “oh hey I googled the relative popularity of two near-identical terms”. There’s nothing hacky, nothing electronicky, nothing technical, nothing, well, anything.

        This is “dog ate my homework” territory.

        Really. Did anyone at HAD really think this would bring any value to your readers? If so, please slap them.

    1. Maybe, but I read articles like these all the time in industry. You depend on your suppliers to get you information. It can be conflicting, but that’s where either users (industry) or knowledgeable writers (here in their specific fields) can help to muck through the details. A lot of times, I find both sides to be right within constraints, so it comes down to those details to determine where a specific solution applies.

      Ball Screws: it’s actually pretty hard to get a low cost ballscrew that has a real specification. Ebay and chinese sources don’t count unless independently verified.
      Standoffs: Very useful, I didn’t even know where to start. And not everyone has a 3D printer to whip up their own.
      Thinkpad: silly, but also useful for those looking to find that demarcation line of where tech changed. I’m not going to argue the for or against of post IBM engineering. This is more a note of “these have been reliable in the past, and here’s where things changed on the Intel Inside end of things and what that means if you want to do X”.

      The site is driven by users, both in readership and tips. Bias will exist if there’s a reason for it, as in they sent in good information. I know I can’t speak to Ballscrews like the Misumi guys can. If you think you have a better topic, write it up in something they can read (English, Swahili, whatever) and send it in. Might get posted if it draws interest.

    2. Not to mention the recent blatant attempt to pick the garbage can industry out of the dumps, how many cans do you need, one or two right? Not if you get some shill to extol the advantages of using their lids as a base for solar reflectors!

      ;-)

    3. Even if they were ads which they are not, Why filter them on a site you use regularly? Do you want them to run at a loss and possibly just so you can look at free shit all day? Brian can we filter comments like the above please.

    4. If this is an ad for one particular capacitor manufacturer then I have to say I’ve done a pretty poor job. Mentioning most of their competitors, then deciding their choice of language is the minority word for the product. Or maybe your point is that it’s an ad for the Economist. Fine newspaper, you must all go out and buy it, directly. There you go.

      Coming up, we endorse an SUV.

        1. I hope you both carried out proper risk assessments AND arranged for sufficient liability insurance before giving that advice in case he makes the fonts too small and sues you for it :)

  2. Don’t capacitors typically have a couple of their ratings stamped on them? Voltage being one, Capacitance in farads being an other and often times the temperature rating too….

    There! Made it easy for you!

  3. I would have expected to read something about the term double layer capacitor here.
    At least in my view, this is the correct term to describe the device, without all the super-, mega-, ultra-, hyper- nonsense marketing bloatwords.

  4. Oh and most non technical people aren’t going to give enough fucks to rub together if you said “Now, with new MEGASUPERBADASS-capacitors!” or if you said, it has “capacitors” because they don’t know what the fuck a capacitor is anyway.

    The rest of us that know better – know to look at the datasheet when buying such components. And quite honestly, when I come across such marketing, which is typically on motherboard boxes talking about the ounces of copper of or type of caps on the board (looking at you Gigabyte), I just ignore it, because it’s fucking meaningless for the most part anyway and turn to trusty reviews and use my technical knowledge to weed out the salty – I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about – reviews when someone powers up their motherboard and new processor with no heatsink all laying on a sheet of aluminum foil for “ESD protection”.

    But the UK sounds like one of those places where you have to protect people from their own stupidity pretty heavy handedly anyway. And I mean we do it here too with food and other shit you put in your body, because people don’t seem to get that smoking can kill you, because they keep doing it, sooooo they must not get it and free will be damned, we must legislate that everything gets a label and those labels better be goddamned clear about what it is and what it isn’t and what it can do, and what it cannot do and what it might do and unicorns ARE NOT REAL.

    Because lawyers.

    Risks might kill you, maybe.

    1. Show the man who’s boss — cut the seat belts out of your car and defeat the airbag system. Let them know that you’ll live free or die! (perhaps soon) It is critical to liberty to let tobacco companies spend billions of dollars on advertising to say cigarettes are fun and healthy, but it will kill us all if the government says otherwise.

      1. Point is, WE ALREADY KNOW that smoking kills us. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my life, who doesn’t know that smoking has a 50% chance of giving you cancer.

        They’ve gone on to use big pictures on the boxes, now. SMOKING KILLS, with a picture of a corpse, because they think people who choose to smoke are too stupid to realise what “kills” means. Pictures of throat tumours, in case we thought a tumour was a nice relaxing massage, or a delicious cake.

        It’s just middle-class meddling fuckery, business as usual. Because people who smoke are usually poorer and working class. And the middle classes think we’re all stupid. They won’t put it into so many words, but they do. Because I want to smoke, even though I know it’s bad for my health, I apparently don’t understand the concept of health, or smoking.

        The reason I smoke, is priorities. Relaxation from smoking is more important to me, than the difference it makes to my health. I’ve lived in a world with smokers my whole life. They seem to die, on average, when they’re already old. So I’m trading years off my elderlyhood, for enjoyment of smoking. That’s a choice I make as a grownup.

        But some people are arseholes and can’t understand that. It just doesn’t make sense to them, that others might not spend their life worrying about health, adopting fads, eating fucking Quinoa, whatever that actually is, and reading endless Sunday newspaper listicles about how to drag out your final moments for those extra few important seconds.

        Mostly it’s middle-class people thinking the working-class are stupid. Which I suppose lets them believe the world is a good, just, and fair place, and that everyone deserves what happens to them. Which must be nice.

    2. CPUs without heatsinks, BAD???? Wait I’ve been doing it wrong for a long time now???

      At work one of my test-rigs has an i5 2400 and it runs so cold at idle (28-40*C seasonal) and moderate load that I don’t bother with a heatsink or a fan!!!
      It PROC_HOTs and throttles in DOS. But that utility only runs for less than 5 minutes (40 seconds if not distracted) anyway to flash a keyboard controller over i2c.
      Then it is Windows for all the other utilities.
      My reason (excuse) is how hard it is to (un)plug stuff into the mainboard with the heatsink in the way.

      However, I’ve tested the same i5 in a uATX mainboard with hotter results (60*C+ Idle). So its down to BIOS/OS/Driver and other inefficiencies regarding power-saving options(manufacturer specific).

      The PCH (Badly soldered BGAs) has more overheating issues and the PSU always needs a fan, ironically!

      P.S. A video is on my todo list, Just got to convince my manager to let me video it first, though he already knows of the missing heatsink.

      1. Those CPUs must be spending 99% of their time in shutdown. Modern PC CPUs have that now, clock throttling, shutting down idle parts. A CPU at full pelt will use 70W, and start burning through things.

        Probably be better off with a CPU designed not to run with a heatsink, or at least without a fan. Via did them, way back when, probably still do now. As it is, you’re one software SNAFU away from the thing melting.

  5. Last I checked lead acid batteries are 40Wh/Kg and these are 5Wh/kg a far cry from approaching the same capacity of batteries. My potato powered alarm clock would disagree. 53.7 mAh 216g potato = 249mAh/kg * 1.6v = 0.4Wh/kg (1000wh/kg in the human body!!! we are awesome.)

  6. This is just about wank words for existing technologies, almost everything Apple sells is just WANK words

    Retina Display or high resolution display if you’re not stupid
    iBeacon microlocation or Bluetooth if you’re a normal person
    AirDrop or File Transfer if you’re sane
    iCloud Drive or Remote file storage
    iSight camera or Digital Camera unit

    I just hate Apple

    $650 difference between a product of theirs the price is higher on the larger one, Same same but different same.

    iPad Pro 9.7 $849 < 4K video recording, Slow-motion video support for 1080p

    iPad Pro 12.9 $1499 < 1080p HD video recording, Slow-motion video support for 720p

    Pretty much all companies of late are following or adopting this sort of trend software and entertainment software.

  7. It is not even different technology. Blah. Thanks for the link to economist.com – I’ll go there in the future instead.

    Anyway, I expected an article about ceramic caps (high-K) and their funny changing and changing values when actually used… but sadly there is nothing worth reading in this one.

  8. Surely everyone here is ignoring the elephant in the room, namely the contention that the Economist is an “interesting” magazine. The Economist is not an interesting magazine, it is owned by by a bunch of plutocrats and is devoted to irrelevant commentary on issues beyond its comprehension. The whole notion that economics is a science is entirely mistaken. Economists are charlatans.

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