Finding Power for Apple’s Portable Devices

October 26, 2009 Updated: October 26, 2009

From the very first Macintosh, Apple has designed their products as closed systems—appliances that are never to be opened except for servicing by a professional. Apple has stayed true to this design practice with their most recent products, the iPod and iPhone.

While these handheld devices are arguably the best in their class in terms of industrial design with nearly seamless cases, smooth edges and rigid structuring, there is a tradeoff for this elegance—the inaccessibility of the battery. Batteries in Apple products are not meant to be replaced by the consumer and their design makes it extremely difficult to open the case without damaging the device. So what do you do when you run out of power and you’re unable to recharge?

Since Apple itself does not provide a solution to this problem, such innovations have fallen on a proliferation of companies eager to offer consumers a fix.

The obvious solutions are the portable chargers that you plug into your car or airplane seat. The concept is straightforward enough but the implementation varies. Is the charge cable integrated with the charger, or do you plug an iPod/iPhone cable into a USB port on the charger?

In the former case, it’s nice to avoid purchasing yet another cable, but in the latter case, it’s convenient to use the charger for devices other than the iPod or iPhone. In either case, you will want a charger that can put out at least 500 milliamps. An idle device may not need that much current to be fully charged. However, if you’re playing music and using Safari through a 3G connection, your iPhone may not power up very quickly with a weaker charger. Make sure to beware of cheaper products, especially if the current output is not specified.

Now what do you do if you’re nowhere near a convenient electric outlet such as when you’re at an airport terminal? This is where portable power chargers provide a solution. All of these products are basically batteries that provide power to recharge your iPod/iPhone. How they implement their solutions vary widely, but there are a few general categories.

First are the inexpensive, AA powered, emergency chargers. These designs are very basic and are usually attached to the iPod/iPhone through a short cable. They’ll work in a pinch, but are a bit awkward. Imagine using your phone with 2 AA batteries dangling from it and you’ll understand why these products were designed mainly for emergency situations.

The second group of products are based on the same concept but are built for daily use. These are fat, high-capacity battery packs which are also tethered to your device. They may have extra frills such as built-in flashlights, status lights, on/off switches or connectors for use with other devices. These chargers are ideal if the only thing you need them for is the ability to charge your device over and over. But if you are interested in actively using your device, you probably don’t want something dangling from it.

This is where the third category of products step in to solve the problem. These products actually attach directly to your iPod/IPhone through the docking port. The designs vary widely in this category too, but they basically consist of units that attach to the dock connector and extend out of the device, adding to its length. In some designs, there are batteries that attach to the connector but envelop the entire device like a case, increasing its overall thickness.

Examples of these products are the solar-powered, Apple-certified Novothink Solar Surge, the Mophie Juice and the Hong Kong-made Portable Power Station (not Apple-certified). These designs are probably the best alternative to swapping out internal batteries. They are useful not only if you are away from home, but also invaluable if you’re at home but don’t want to be tethered to a charger.

Ultimately, your choice will depend upon how you use it and how much you’re willing to spend. There are many products to choose from and they are made by a variety of companies.

A notable choice is usbfever.com, a Hong Kong retailer that carries an extensive catalog of unique and innovative products at affordable prices. My experience with their products is actually similar to that of IKEA products—hit or miss. Some products are solid, well-designed and offer a good value, while others seem like they were a student project foisted on the public for beta testing. You will most likely find more consistent quality with U.S. products but you do get what you pay for.