As a long-time PowerBook user, the biggest cross I’ve had to bear is being tethered to an AC outlet while I’m working. Now that’s become less of a problem, thanks to Valence Technology Inc.’s N-Charge VNC-130, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that offers up to 10 hours worth of juice.
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Wireless networking made surfing the Web on laptops an absolute breeze, but we PowerBook and iBook users still must remain tethered to an AC outlet for anything more than a few hours. My PowerBook G4/500 only manages about 2 1/2 hours out of a single battery charge, so on cross country trips I often find myself scrambling for an AC outlet in the airport terminal, fending off the advances of Dell or Gateway toters in the process. Any time I cover a trade show, I have to make sure to bring my AC adapter with me, rather than leaving it back in the hotel — and suffer with its added bulk and cable mess in my backpack as a result. The N-Charge gives me the best of both worlds — the freedom to work untethered from a power outlet, with hours and hours of juice.
There are some penalties, though: For the N-Charge, the biggest drawback is size. The N-Charge measures about 1/2 inch high, almost a foot wide and about 9 inches deep. It weighs about three pounds. These aren’t insignificant numbers, if you consider that Apple’s PowerBook 15 inch model measures about an inch high, about 13 1/2 inches wide and about 9 1/2 inches deep, weighing in at almost 5 1/2 pounds.
The N-Charge is black and constructed of a rigid plastic material. The top edge of the unit houses a receptacle for the power adapter, and the bottom edge contains a secondary power connector that can be used for cell phone or PDA power adapters (sold separately). The N-Charge sports a five bar green LED meter that shows you how much charge remains; it also lights up and flashes periodically to let you know that it’s charging.
For maximum compatibility with a wide range of applications, the N-Charge doesn’t actually replace the PowerBook’s battery. Instead, it connects in-line between the AC adapter and the PowerBook’s power input. The enormous bulk of the battery makes this the best practical solution, and Valence sells adapters to suit a wide range of laptop computers made by different companies, including either iBooks or PowerBook G4s.
This setup has an obvious benefit — you can use the Valence battery regardless of what computer you have, without having to replace the battery itself. There’s a down side, too. Because the PowerBook or iBook thinks it’s still working off AC power for all intents and purposes, your Mac laptop won’t automatically slip into an energy conservation mode when you’re working on the N-Charge’s portable juice. And you need to keep an eye on the Valence battery’s charge manually, since no dockling or menu item will show you how much charge you have remaining.
Ten hours of power?
The amount of battery charge you get with the N-Charge is spectacular. Running full bore with screen set to maximum brightness and AirPort on, it took me the better part of seven or eight hours to drain the N-Charge dry — longer if I notched down the brightness and turned off wireless networking, and less if I watched a lot of DVDs. And because the N-Charge is a Lithium Ion battery, I don’t have to worry about “memory” impacting its charge life, either.
Valence says that the N-Charge is good for about six hundred charge-discharge cycles, so one of these should last the better part of a couple of years, presuming it gets used almost every day. I use my PowerBook for everything, so I probably will. Of course, this massive capacity takes a while to charge — four hours in practice, depending on how far it’s drained and whether I’ve tapped the PowerBook’s battery in the process.
There’s one design shortcoming: The N-Charge’s surface material is too slippery. Because of the battery’s enormous footprint and its similar dimensions to the PowerBook, it’s natural to use the N-Charge as a platform or lap desk of sorts, sliding it underneath the PowerBook. I don’t know if this is what the designers intended or if this is even a good idea given the heat generated by the bottom of the PowerBook, but the N-Charge’s hard and uneven surface didn’t give my PowerBook good footing. The laptop slipped and slid like a puppy on a tile floor.
Presuming I’m not risking life and limb using the N-Charge in this way, Valence should consider adding some sort of rubberized, non-skid surface on the top and bottom of the N-Charge to accommodate users who find themselves resting their laptops on the battery. Otherwise, some way to affix the laptop to the battery itself — a clamping mechanism, perhaps — might come in handy. Another solution would be to extend the power cable long enough to be able to leave the N-Charge in a bag or in the airplane seatback without worrying about finding room for it near the computer.
US$300 for Valence’s top-end N-Charge sounds like a lot of money, but it isn’t. By comparison, that’s less than the cost of three PowerBook batteries — with superior charge capacity, if my experience is any test, and no need to swap each battery to top it off. If $300 is still too just too much for you to handle but you like the idea, Valence also sells a junior model that holds about half the charge capacity as the VNC-130 model I tested, for $100 less.
Valence claims that the N-Charge can work up to ten hours at a stretch, depending on the power requirements of your laptop computer. My experience was closer to seven or eight, and I’ve been told by other PowerBook users experienced with this generation of PowerBook G4 that it’s one of the more juice-hungry of the bunch. So your mileage may vary dramatically — I’ve heard great things about the N-Charge from a friend who has a 12 inch PowerBook G4, for example.
The N-Charge suffers from some inherent shortcomings thanks to its size and bulk, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it provides gobs and gobs of portable juice when you need it. To that end, the N-Charge succeeds admirably. For the road warrior who doesn’t want to be bothered with carting an AC adapter everywhere he goes, the N-Charge is a great solution.