Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power Chargers

portablepower Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power Chargers

With every generation of smartphone — soon with quad-core superphones — comes bigger screens, faster GPUs and speedier network connections.  This quite often results in shorter battery life. Not to mention all the googling, random fact checking, and tweets we’re punching out, battery life is a huge issue.

With a bag full of mobile battery packs and solar chargers we set out to find the most reliable solution to keep your smartphones and other gadgets topped up for when you run out of juice on the go.

Scosche solBAT II
scosche-99x99 Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power ChargersI’ve always loved the idea of solar chargers. Whether you’re on the road or at home, they can reduce your inner techie’s footprint by using nothing but the sun to keep your electronics humming along. Just leave ‘em in the sun and plug in whenever you need the juice.

It sounds flawless in theory.

In practice, though, unfortunately the solBAT II has a long way to go before it will ever be a part of this utopian ideal. The $30 solBAT’s specs sound alright: A 1500mA li-ion battery, full USB port with 5v/500mA output; a solar panel on the reverse with a suction cup cradle for easy window mounting. Indicator lights. Nothing wrong there.

So why is this not the best charger to toss into your bag to keep your mp3 player or smartphone alive for those extended mountain-trail treks? The problem is that the charger needs to be in direct sunlight for four to five days! Yes, four to five days, before you’ll have a full charge. If the solBAT II is your choice for backpacking emergencies, you might be roughing it in the woods for a business week before you can charge your cell and call for help. Considering most smartphones need to be charged daily, this doesn’t exactly match up with the schedule.

Scosche recommends charging the battery using the included USB cable for the first use. After doing so, the solBAT II only charged my iPhone 4 to 32% before dying completely. If I had waited five days for that charge, I would have been less enthusiastic about giving this backup battery a second chance.

For the second attempt, it’s been sitting in my kitchen window for two days and shows no charge on the indicator. I can’t justify giving the Scosche solBAT II more than a 3/10 for most uses. Unless you’re only taking it along to refuel non-essential, low-drain devices on the road or forgo the solar panel entirely, or you live in Africa or Arizona, it’s simply not going to cut it.

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IOGEAR GearPower GMP1001B
grpwr-99x99 Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power ChargersDespite the lack of solar charger, this little beast was far more impressive by comparison. At only $20 on Amazon, the GearPower’s price is right. With 2000mAh, it has more capacity than the solBAT II. Only slightly larger than a business card and 78mm (0.37 inches) thick, its tiny form factor has probably one of the best size-to-function ratios out there — perfect for keeping in your pack or purse for emergencies. The large, single button and four blue LED lights quickly let you know how much charge you’ve still got on the battery.

Depending on your phone or device’s own battery capacity, IOGEAR says the GearPower will deliver up to two full charges. In practice, it did fully charge the iPhone 4 slightly more than 1.6 times over.

The only downside of IOGEAR’s answer to the backup battery is that, of all the portable chargers we’ve tested, this is the only one without a full-size USB — likely because it’s too thin for a port that size. This means you won’t be able to use your iPod’s USB cable to charge, but rather will have to sift through the handful of adapters to find one that fits.

But, considering this is the only point really standing against the GearPower, I’d give it a solid 9/10 for price, portability and reliability.

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Duracell PowerSouce Mini
mini-99x99 Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power ChargersAn impressive little thing. With a 3Ah li-ion battery, two USB outputs and colour-coded charge indicator, it stands out above the other two as a more heavy-duty backup. It’s original selling price was $60, but it’s selling on Amazon for $25 at the moment, putting it in line with the other two.

What makes this one different, though, is its ability to charge two devices at once using the swing-out mini-USB arm for one and the full USB port for the other.

Despite being released in 2008, the PowerSource Mini is defending its place as a very portable, very reliable backup.

In testing, it charged an LG Shine Plus in no time, followed by, again, the iPhone 4 — and has a bit of extra power left over. It’s a bit bulkier than the solBAT II and the GearPower, but not by much at 6.7 x 2.4 x 8.2 cm (2.6 x 0.95 x 3.25 inches), meaning it still won’t take up too much space or add too much weight in your jacket pocket or bag.

Overall, the Duracell PowerSource Mini has earned a 8/10 in our books. It does its job, and it does it well.

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Zagg Sparq 2.0
sparq-99x99 Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power ChargersThis one’s a heavyweight. The price is far more — $100 on the Zagg website or $56.63 with free shipping on Amazon — but you definitely get what you pay for. It’s also a lot bigger, at 3.5 x 3.5 x 1 inches, putting it at roughly the same size as a MacBook charger — something I’ve never had to make room for before tossing into my bag.

From what I can tell, though, they haven’t wasted any of that extra space or price.

The Sparq holds an astounding 6,000 mAh in its lithium polymer battery, which can be accessed via the “optimized” or “regular” USB ports. The optimized port, says Zagg, is “optimized for smartphones and devices capable of taking an optimized charge,” meaning it works at the same rate as the iPad charger as opposed to a standard computer USB. What’s more, it holds enough energy on one charge to refill most smartphones four times over. That’s enough to keep two phones running for a weekend-long road trip. Plus, with the extra capacity, it’s not only good for mp3 players and cell phones, but larger devices such as your PSP or PlayBook.

As with the solBAT II and the GearPower, it has four indicator lights and a single button to let you know how much power you have saved.

On one charge, it managed to fill the iPhone 4 twice, topped up a BlackBerry Torch from half and got up to 23 per cent on an iPad 2 before dying, earning the Sparq 2.0 a 10/10 for reliability, relative portability, efficiency and value for the price.

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Just Mobile Gum Plus
gumplus Battle of the Backup Batteries: Hands-on with Portable Power ChargersOne of the more “stylish” portable battery packs for your mobile needs.  The Gum Plus from Just Mobile is for those looking for something more aesthetically pleasing and in line with the way Apple devices look.  It will match your MacBook Air, and charge your iPod, iPhone, iPad and other USB-powered devices too.  This beast has 5200 mAh of power charge and charged our iPhone to about 80% in a little over one hour.

Silver is always better.

Sure, this one is good looking, it even has LED lights that match the older generation MacBook built-in battery indicators.  It has both a regular USB port and a mini-usb for charging it up on your wall. At $80 though it’s a bit pricey.  But we still like it because its solid aluminum design means durability, which earns it a 9/10 not only for being stylish, but for packing a powerful punch.

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World’s first 3D, HD-recording binoculars set for release from Sony

Sony’s latest “World’s First” is set to ring in a new era of voyeurism: The DEV 3D HD video recording binoculars.

While I’m struggling to think of a use for these that any good DSLR and telephoto lens can’t do, I’m sure birdwatchers or sports fans might feel differently. The binoculars record full 1080p HD video in either 2D or 3D, offering three hours of 2D recording time on a single charge. More impressive, though, is the stereo mic with audio input, two Exmor R CMOS sensors, dual f/1.8-3.4, 0.5-10x optical zoom lenses and Memory Stick Pro Duo and SDXC support.

But they’re not just for recording things way out in the distance, says Sony. The binoculars will capture 2D video of subjects only a half-inch away from the lens, or 36 inches away in 3D mode. With 5.4x optical zoom and up to 20x digital zoom on the DEV-5 model, that could make for some pretty stunning macro B-roll provided you hadn’t had too much coffee in the morning.

2011-08-19-slotopendev3-800-1200-640x417 World's first 3D, HD-recording binoculars set for release from Sony

The DEV-5 also features a built-in GPS receiver for geo-tagging clips and shots, a feature passed over for the less expensive DEV-3. Both models, however, do feature electronic auto-focus to keep moving subjects in crisp focus while recording — an option they say is easily overridden by the manual focus dial on the top of the binoculars.

I have to say it’s their “stealth design” that bothers me most.

“The binoculars feature a ‘stealth’ design that eliminates distracting buttons or external details that could reveal a user’s position to wildlife,” reads Sony’s press release. “Both binoculars feature an ergonomic grip area that’s coated with an elastomer material for sure handling and stable operation. Top-mounted controls allow easy operation with gloved fingers, while dual buttons are provided to start recording instantly with either hand.”

I can’t seem to get the image of a glove- and trenchcoat-clad cat-burglaring pervert out of my head, hiding in the bushes outside the apartments across the street and operating a set of these effortlessly with one hand.

The DEV-3 and DEV-5 will be hitting shelves this November, when they’ll cost $1400 and $2000 apiece — right about the time I’ll be investing in some curtains.

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Boeing UAVs copy insect swarms for reconnaissance missions

scaneagle Boeing UAVs copy insect swarms for reconnaissance missions

What comes to mind when you think of killer bees? Danger? Pain? Chaos and death? Or what do you think of when you’re out fishing, and those awful clouds of mosquitos cluster over your head, taking turns at draining you of your sweet, sweet life juices? Maybe “annoyance” or “west nile” comes to mind.

For Boeing, these things paradoxically muster up delusions of efficient search and rescue, among other benevolent concepts. The aeronautics company’s newest “swarm” technology, inspired by the flight and teamwork of insects, is their answer to unmanned aerial vehicles working together as an intelligent group.

Tests in eastern Oregon last month saw different types of UAVs — two Insitu-manufactured ScanEagles and one Procerus Unicorn from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory — working together using the swarm system to map out the terrain and create waypoints for teams on the ground.

“This is a milestone in UAV flight,” said Gabriel Santander, Boeing Advanced Autonomous Networks program director and team leader. “The test team proved that these unmanned aircraft can collect and use data while communicating with each other to support a unified mission.”

The “decentralized swarm technology” test flights, according to JHU/APL principal investigator Dave Scheidt, could potentially improve response times and allow for fewer staff on reconnaissance and search-and-rescue missions. Though swarm is still in its early stages, further tests and demonstrations are planned for early autumn this year.

New Kindle 3G replaces fees with ads

kindle-ads New Kindle 3G replaces fees with ads

Would you subject yourself to ads and interruptions while reading if it meant $50 off your Kindle and no monthly fees?

It seems like a tough choice, but Amazon and AT&T seem to think people will give it a go. The new ad-sponsored Kindle 3G will be sold for about $90, with no data plan, contract or monthly fees. But I imagine it’s going to take a lot of ads to gain back the money they’ll be losing on 3G fees. I don’t know about you, but when I flop down on the couch to read Nietzsche or Dickinson, I don’t really want to be bombarded and interrupted with messages from AT&T’s highest bidders begging me to go out and waste my money on garbage. That might interrupt my train of thought.

Then again, some people might be so desensitized to advertising on the internet (and everywhere else in our modern world), it might not be a big deal to them. We’ll really have to wait and see what the verdict is once people start using these things.

Would you consider it? Let us know in the comment section below.

Coming soon to Starbucks: Free iOS “App of the Week” cards

starbucks-shazam-app Coming soon to Starbucks: Free iOS "App of the Week" cards

Need more incentive to sip overpriced lattes at Starbucks? Sure, they’ve got Wi-Fi. They offer free songs via iTunes. But is that really enough to balance out your $6 venti super-caff two-and-a-quarter-pump shaken-not-stirred vanilla soy tazo twister? Apparently Starbucks doesn’t think so. Which is why the company, along with Apple, will start giving out free “App of the Week” cards to their customers.

The first app set for gratuity is Shazam Encore, the $5.99 iOS app that helps you identify songs playing on the radio, in the pub — or in Starbucks. Shazam probably wasn’t a very difficult choice for the “baristas.” I know I’ve budged long queues and disrupted the counter staff on more than a handful of occasions with a “Hey, what’s this song called?” or “Is this Jack Johnson? Sure sounds like Jack Johnson” or “Whose iPod is hooked up to this thing? We should hang out.”

I don’t think the offer will be easy for customers to pass up, given the popularity these little games and things hold in consumers’ lives right now. Songs are pretty subjective to people’s widely-varying tastes, but — at least in my opinion — apps are more about usefulness or entertainment. Each app will probably appeal to a wider demographic than each song, meaning more hype. Plus, the sweetness of something actually useful will far outlast the sugary drink syrups and folk-pop tracks.

So, free apps: Starbucks wins, and if you don’t get the most expensive drink on the menu, you win, too.