Review: Seven off-the-grid chargers for your portable devices
When the power grid is close at hand, most smartphones and tablets have no problem lasting through a full day. But take that plentiful electricity away, and keeping our gadgets going becomes more difficult—despite many recent advancements, battery technology hasn’t kept up with our constant need for more power. And given that these days we’re taking our gear to more—and more-remote—places than ever before, having enough durable power is even more of a challenge.
Of course, some will argue that taking technology camping, for example, is silly when you’re trying to escape the trappings of city life. But a mobile phone can, quite literally, be a lifesaver in an emergency, and portable power does more than keep your iPhone running longer, since all sorts of devices, from radios to hand warmers to flashlights, can use a USB port as a source of power. Even in an urban setting, you want to be sure your mobile devices continue to work when the power goes out, especially given the ever-quicker demise of landline communications.
I tested a number of portable chargers, batteries, and accessories designed for off-the-grid use, some of which can work indefinitely out of reach of a power outlet. As it turns out, during the several months that it took to work on this article, the city I live in suffered severe flooding and a record-setting ice storm, each of which left me without power for several days, giving me ample opportunity to test many of the devices in settings that were uncomfortably realistic.
Before getting to the stars of the review, a general recommendation: Most of these accessories do not include the necessary cables for charging your phones and tablets, and the cables that come with your devices may not cut it in a demanding environment where they may get trampled on, compressed, or exposed to environmental agents. I encourage you to consider adding a rugged third-party cable to your backpack or emergency kit. My current favorite is Tylt’s $30 Syncable, which comes in a variety of easily recognizable colors, as well as both Lightning-connector and Micro-USB versions. Over several months of very demanding use, the Syncable I’ve tested has proven to be practically indestructible.
Bracketron’s $80 SmartLantern (4.5 of 5 rating) is tiny and lightweight enough that I could toss it in my backpack without a second thought. It holds a 7800-mAh rechargeable battery, enough to fully charge your iPhone four or five times. The 2.1A output will also juice up an iPad, though fewer times—and more slowly than the iPad’s own charger.
Adding to the SmartLantern’s versatility is a tiny—but surprisingly bright (64 lumens)—eight-LED light. That bulb can be used either as a flashlight or, by sliding the top of the SmartLantern out of the main enclosure, as a lamp that can easily illuminate a tent or (more dimly) your average-size living room. Bracketron says a full battery charge should provide up to 48 hours of illumination.
According to the company, the SmartLantern’s battery should hold its charge for about a year. If you want to store the device in your emergency-preparedness kit, you’ll need to remember to give it a boost of power from time to time using the included USB charger.
At a mere 7.5 ounces in weight, and just 4 by 2.5 by 2.5 inches in size, the SmartLantern is perfect for camping, where you can use its built-in metal loop to hang it from a branch or inside your tent, and just as easily stow it away in your pocket when you’re on the go (the company helpfully provides a carrying bag). In my tests, the SmartLantern performed very well, providing plenty of power and illumination.
Eton BoostTurbine 2000
Eton’s $70 BoostTurbine 2000 (3.5. of 5 rating) combines a 2000-mAh battery with a hand crank in a package that weighs less than four ounces and is just 5 by 2.2 by 1 inches in size. The battery provides enough power to fully charge a typical smartphone once, and can itself be recharged via USB or—as you might guess—that hand crank. (Eton also sells the $90 BoostTurbine 4000, which offers 4000 mAh of reserve power and can recharge tablets, a feat that escapes the model I tested.)
According to the company, the hand crank generates power at a 2:1 ratio. One minute of turning, at two turns per second, generates enough battery power for a thirty-second phone call, which should do in many emergencies. A set of LED lights on the bottom of the BoostTurbine gives you an idea of how much charge remains in the battery.
The BoostTurbine performs reasonably well when kept charged via USB. When the aforementioned power outage hit, the battery promptly recharged my iPhone, and even provided plenty of power for a USB-powered radio. Hand cranking, however, is another matter: The device is small, and its shape is blocky with a slick finish, which makes holding it in one hand while turning the surprisingly stiff turbine with the other a little too much of a challenge, particularly if you have big hands.
Still, this gadget makes for a good emergency-preparedness companion (particularly if you can remember to keep it charged), with a compact body that looks good and is available in four different colors.
On the other hand, Eton’s $70 FRX3 (4.5 of 5 rating) ranks near the top of the devices I tested. A true emergency-preparedness tool, it combines half a dozen or so functions in a compact package (6.9 by 5.8 by 2.6 inches, 1.3 pounds) that you can take with you anywhere. Plus, it’s both lightweight and rugged, making it perfect for a camping trip.
At its core, the FRX3 is a portable radio that can tune FM and AM stations, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Weatheradio Canada SAME weather-alert systems. The device also incorporates an LED flashlight that can be used for illumination and for signaling, and a digital alarm clock that supports both 12- and 24-hour formats. In the spirit of preparedness, the radio’s handle glows in the dark, making it easy to locate, even in the middle of a pitch-dark night.
The FRX3’s rechargeable battery is augmented by two external sources: a solar cell embedded in the handle and a hand crank that pops out in the front. Crank power that isn’t being used by the FRX3’s own functions is sent to a USB output for recharging your other devices.
I was able to test the FRX3 under a fairly realistic scenario: The recent ice storm that hit the northern part of the continent left me without power (and heat) for three days, during which this compact powerhouse provided me with an uninterrupted supply of light, power, and news coverage with very little effort. As it turns out, the kids also loved cranking the handle, which kept them occupied and entertained under the blankets. (Serendipitous because, as an adult, I rate the hand-cranking as the least fun part of owning this type of device).
Speaking of the crank, it works quite well. Charging an iPhone proved to be a predictably tedious affair, but my family nonetheless managed to produce more than enough juice to make an emergency call or two, and a few minutes of cranking provided plenty of electricity to power the FRX3’s other functions for hours on end.
If you’re looking for something a bit simpler, HiNation’s $155 HiLight, (4.5 of 5 rating) is among the best power solutions I’ve seen. Though it doesn’t sport fancy looks or a slew of features, and it’s a relatively bulky 7.5 by 7.5 by 1 inches, it does a few things really well.
First, the HiLight incorporates a large battery that provides 14 Wh of power through its USB port—enough to charge an iPhone at least three times, according to the company. The pack is supplemented by an equally impressive solar cell, which can fully recharge the HiLight itself in about ten hours’ worth of sunshine. Unfortunately, the 1.0A output of the battery pack means that if you choose to use it to recharge an iPad or other tablet, the process will be very slow.
Second, the HiLight also sports a high-power LED, which makes it a perfect companion for either camping or emergency preparedness. I didn’t get to test the light in a tent, but it was plenty to illuminate my living room during a power outage. (HiNation says a full charge provides 20 hours of light.) The device also features a special hibernation mode that helps the battery last longer when it’s not being used, and a convenient rubber lampshade that helps you focus the LED’s light in a smaller environment.
These features are neatly supplemented by a compact and robust build: The device is made from a safety-orange or gray plastic that’s highly visible, water resistant, and floats, and it includes a nylon-webbing handle for carrying and hanging. Best of all, the whole package weighs less than a pound, making it a perfect companion for long trips.
(Note that the HiLight’s price is currently 990 Swedish Krona, which at the time of publication was roughly $155.)
K-Tor Pocket Socket 2
K-Tor’s $65 Pocket Socket 2 (4 of 5 rating) is unique among all the hand-turbine chargers here in that it eschews USB ports in favor of a standard 120V power outlet.
The Pocket Socket 2 is also the most comfortable of all the generators I’ve tried, thanks to a wide (7 by 2.3 by 2.3 inches) body that weighs less than a pound and offers a firm grip, along with a crank that requires very little effort to operate after the first couple turns. The device’s design is such that you can use both arms in a large, sweeping motion to power the turbine, making it easier to crank for extended periods of time (particularly if you can work in tandem with a friend).
The Pocket Socket 2’s outlet is rated at 10W, which is enough to handle even a tablet’s USB charger. Of course, the downside to the AC-outlet approach is that you must keep that charger on hand, with the generator, if you want to power your electronics. Still, having a proper 120V outlet also means that you can power non-standard devices as well, regardless of what cockamamie connectors they may use.
However, the Pocket Socket 2 does not include a built-in battery, presumably because such a battery would need to be impractically large in order to be able to provide 120 volts. As a result, this device won’t provide your gadgets with an immediate battery boost, which may diminish the Pocket Socket 2’s usefulness in an “I must make a call right now!” emergency.
MyFC’s €199 PowerTrekk (4 out of 5 rating) is not priced for the budget conscious, but it’s unique among the products I tested in that it works just about anywhere, at any time of day or night, as long as you have a couple essential substances on hand.
The PowerTrekk contains a 1500-mAh rechargeable battery that offers enough juice to charge your iPhone once, with a little power left over for, say, running a USB flashlight. The 5-watt USB-power output is not quite powerful enough to recharge a full-size iPad that’s in use, but it should be able to keep the iPad’s battery from discharging further for as long as the PowerTrekk’s own battery lasts.
You can charge the PowerTrekk’s internal battery using a standard USB charger, but the PowerTrekk’s innovative feature is that it can use special fuel cells that, when combined with water, generate electricity. Each single-use fuel-cell puck produces enough electricity to give a current iPhone about half of a full charge, even if you’re hundreds of miles away from the nearest outlet.
The pucks, which weigh roughly 1.5 ounces each, are easy to operate—just pour water into the PowerTrekk, insert a puck, and seal the device—and they can even be taken on an airplane. Except for a slight hiss when you first insert a new puck in the device, the PowerTrekk is silent while running, and it doesn’t emit any significant fumes or odors that I could detect.
My only nitpick with the PowerTrekk is that although the device’s 8.5-ounce weight and compact (2.6 by 5 by 1.7 inches) body make it good for trips, its battery is quite a bit smaller than those of the other products here, and you don’t get much juice from a single fuel cell. A larger battery would be great for extended trips in the wilderness—the pucks aren’t heavy or bulky, but you can stuff only so many things in a backpack, so a higher initial reservoir of power would save space overall, even if it ended up making the PowerTrekk itself bulkier and a bit more expensive.
Still, if you can get over the price of the pucks—roughly €5 to €6 each, depending on the quantity you buy—the PowerTrekk is a unique option. It’s the only charger I tested that you can pull out after an extended period in storage and use in complete darkness without any physical effort.
Power Practical PowerPot V
Modern camping accessories never cease to amaze me. Tools that were heavy and humdrum when my dad and I used to go into the wilderness as a kid have turned into compact, lightweight technological wonders—in the space of barely twenty years.
Power Practical’s $150 PowerPot V (4 of 5 rating) is a perfect example. It is, as its name implies, a cooking pot—made of hard-anodized aluminium—that incorporates a thermoelectric charger. All you need is water (or, say, soup) and a source of heat, and as long as both those resources are available, the pot will provide enough electricity to power a smartphone or other USB device. (The PowerPot doesn’t include a battery—like the Pocket Socket 2, it provides power only while in active use.)
The PowerPot’s actual pot can hold one quart of liquid and weighs a mere 12 ounces when empty. It comes with a lid that doubles as a skillet or bowl, and a heavy-duty charging cable that resists heat and provides a standard USB port for connecting your device to be charged. An adapter that provides Mini-USB, Micro-USB, and 30-pin Dock connectors is also included, as well as a carrying bag and what is probably the cutest USB light I’ve ever seen. (The company says that a Lightning-connector version of the adapter will be available later in 2014; in the meantime, you can use any USB-to-Lightning-connector cable, such as the rugged Syncable I mentioned above.)
If you’re a camper, the PowerPot is a no-brainer, particularly if you combine it with a biomass stove such as the BioLite CampStove (4.5 of 5 rating) that I reviewed at the end of 2012 (and that’s become a faithful companion on practically every backpacking trip since). The PowerPot works with just about any kind of heat source—including a campfire—and costs only marginally more than a high-quality traditional camping pot of comparable size and weight. It’s also handy as an emergency-preparedness tool, at least as long as you have clean water and a gas cooktop, or some other heat source that doesn’t require electricity to run.
I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of practically every one of the devices here. As someone who camps (and, recently, loses electricity) frequently, I come across all sorts of gimmicky products that at best offer questionable benefits, and at worst tend to be completely useless. But every one of the gadgets here is built with an eye towards helping you out when power is unavailable. And you don’t need to be an outdoors enthusiast to enjoy their benefits: When you combine the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing more and more frequently with the ubiquitous nature of mobile technology, each one of these products is worth some serious consideration even if it will never (we hope) leave the confines of your emergency kit.
UPDATED 3/6/2014, 7pm, to change price of the HiNation HiLight from $185 to $155, as the manufacturer recently lowered the price.