There’s no doubt it’s nice to unplug and have a break from the “connected world” from time to time. In recent years however, I’ve found those “device free” breaks are happening fewer and farther in between for me.
Those little electronic pains-in-the-asses we carry around everywhere have become the source for all our pictures, movies, books, music, games, messaging, cameras… for work and play. So what happens when there aren’t any outlets nearby? How do you charge on the go? Where can you juice up when you’re in the great outdoors, traveling or in areas where there’s simply no electricity?
Many people would argue that you should just turn the things off and enjoy it. Save the battery, have some patience and deal with being disconnected until you get to the next outlet. I totally get that, and sometimes that’s the way to go… but sometimes that isn’t an option. Thanks to advances in solar and battery technology, carrying some spare power has become easier than ever (and has saved my butt more times than I care to admit).
About a year ago I was sitting on a beach reading the news on my iPad. It was a bright, hot day in southern Delaware and my wife and I were huddled underneath an umbrella trying to keep our pale Irish asses from the scorching heat of the summer sun. It was so bright (even under the umbrella) I had to max out the brightness of my iPad to 100% in order to read text clearly. The iPad has a hefty battery but it couldn’t keep up for long. After an hour or two I was left with an expensive, useless hunk of aluminum. Oh well, time for a swim anyway. First world problems indeed.
That night I executed the same tired routine everyone is familiar with; plug in those goddamn white cables and wait for the iDevices to charge. The next day it was more of the same. Rinse, repeat. Discharge, charge. “Man, there’s gotta be a better way,” I thought to myself.
Turns out there was. A couple of clicks later I was checking out some high capacity external batteries with built in USB ports, commonly referred to as “powerbanks”. After reading a few favorable reviews I decided to jump down the rabbit hole and purchase the Mophie Powerstation XL.
Why the Mophie? Well, before I get into the world of external batteries it’s important to understand some basics about battery capacity. I’ve read a ton about amps, current and voltage and it can get pretty confusing. I’m still no expert. What I can tell you is that almost all external powerbanks (and most lithium-ion batteries) are commonly measured in “mAh” (milliamp hours). What the hell does that mean?
A battery rated for 1,000mAh will discharge at a rate of 1 amp for one hour.
Simple enough, right? I wish. Powerbanks (the good ones, anyway) are only about 80% efficient; the rest of the energy is lost to heat or resistance. So to charge my iPhone 5s’ battery (1570mAh) from 0-100% at the rate of 1 amp, I needed *at least* a 1900mAh powerbank… let’s say 2000mAh just to be safe. And that’s just for one full extra charge on the iPhone. One.
What about the iPad Air? To charge my iPad (packing a 8,827 mAh battery) I was also going to need a powerbank rated to at least 10,000mAh that would also output 2.1 amps, since the iPad requires a much higher current to charge (technically, you can use a 1 amp charger on the iPad, but it won’t charge while in use and it’ll take an absolute eternity).
So, back to the Powerstation XL. Why that one? Aside from the good reviews, the capacity: 12000mAh. At the time there weren’t many powerbanks available packing that kind of punch in such a small unit. Since I rarely exhaust both my iPhone *and* iPad down to 0% at the same time, I figured the Powerstation XL would give me enough juice for at least one full charge on both of them as long as I didn’t drain them any lower than 20-25%.
Second, the form factor: Clean and simple. Two USB outputs @ 2A each, one USB micro input, a power switch, and an LED power indicator. Nothing more, nothing less. It was the perfect size, finished with a rubberized coating and nice solid aluminum (or stainless?) sides.
Reviews were stellar at Amazon.com and the price was (and still is) a bit much, but wasn’t horrendous for a quality battery with dual 2 amp outputs. Instead of buying directly from Amazon, I opted to pick mine up that day from the Apple store – the only place within 100 miles of here that had one in stock.
After a few weeks I was hooked. I started to carry it everywhere and even found myself using it for things I hadn’t intended. The killer feature was the interface: USB. Everything runs (or charges) from USB these days. Tablets, cameras, phones, bluetooth speakers, handheld gps, GoPros. It’s just about perfect for powering GoPros while filming timelapses (be forewarned though, super cold polar vortex weather will put a hurtin’ on its longevity like any other battery, as I found out while trying to capture a timelapse on a below zero night last winter).
The Powerstation XL has seen its fair share of use for almost a year and I can honestly say it’s still one of the best powerbanks I’ve used, mainly because of its size and potency. It’s solid, reliable and excels at one thing: charging. My only criticisms are the price and the led status indicator. I wish it had a tad more granularity, but I can see they were going for the minimalist thing. The 4 LED’s get the job done – I’m just more of a percent kind of guy.
As time went on, I started shopping specifically for items that used USB for power & charging. I managed to find a shortwave radio, battery chargers, flashlights and of course, other powerbanks. Sound like disaster supplies? Yep. I like to be prepared. We get the occasional bad storm or hurricane here in the Mid-Atlantic and I knew that it wouldn’t hurt to have some battery powered items around when you need them most.
After finding that shortwave radio that runs on a single 18650 battery (and charges via USB) I started wondering if there were any multi-18650 battery chargers that could charge via USB since I have a few flashlights that use them. I had no idea that the world of flashlights and 18650 batteries was such a minefield.
It turns out there are a few “18650 boxes” out there (mostly from China) that essentially do the same thing as the Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus (which I can also recommend) – that is, they turn removable batteries into a powerbank. After thinking about it for a bit, I really liked the idea of having a powerbank that you could replace the batteries in. After some deliberation, I picked the Smakn 5V 18659 Box (which I’m 99% positive is a rebranded 7 Electric/Quidian Box).
For a $25 box from China it’s pretty impressive. It has the same kind of rubberized coating as the Mophie and feels pretty solid with the batteries in it. I had a hell of a time getting the back panel off because of the rubbery coating, but then I realized you have to push down a bit to the left of the indicators on the back to slide the panel off. The display is the nicest thing about it. I really like the old school digital display, with capacity measured in percent. Bonus points for the way it auto-cycles through the voltage and amps being drawn.
The first upside, obviously is that the batteries are replaceable. From what I’ve read, the duty cycle of the average 18650 cell is 500 cycles. After that, they’ll stop holding a charge and you can just get new batteries instead of a whole new powerbank.
The second upside is that you can have several sets of batteries to cycle through. While one set is charging, you can be using the others.
The third (and most important) is that you get to choose the batteries you put in it. This is where I started to learn about the dreaded “* fire” 18650 batteries from China. Did a lot of forum reading. Sifted through a lot of reviews. The general consensus was that any batteries found at Amazon or Ebay containing the word “fire” in their name were probably counterfeit/recycled shit.
I read several stories about guys cutting open batteries and finding them packed with sand, sawdust, some kind of white powder and tiny capacitors that were shoddily soldered in. Rumor has it there’s a ring of counterfeiters in China who dismantle used laptop batteries (which are usually built with 18650’s) slap some fresh labels on them and sell them as “new”. This picture and this picture pretty much guaranteed I’d probably never buy another cheapo 18650 again.
The Smakn/Quidian unit is great so far though, with the right batteries. I bought 5 batteries (yes, five – not four as mentioned in the specs at amazon) all Panasonic 3400mAh NCR18650B’s from Orbtronic because they came highly recommended. I’ve only been able to put them through 2-3 charge cycles so far, but they appear to be the real deal. Great batteries. With that amount of juice (17000mAh), the Smakn box provides more power than the Mophie Powerstation XL (12000mAh) and has been my go-to powerbank for a week or so.
The biggest upside to every powerbank I’ve mentioned here is that they can all be recharged using the sun.
Which brings me to the next component of the kit…
Remember how I said everything runs and charges via USB these days? It turns out there are quite a few fold-up solar panels out there that provide USB output. Using the endless power of the sun to directly power devices or charge powerbanks was incredibly attractive to me… especially in the beach scenario I described earlier or after a major storm.
Back to electrical basics… wattage (W). For whatever reason, solar panels are measured in watts. Bigger is naturally better, just like with the powerbanks. More watts = more juice + faster charging of bigger things. For my purposes I was really only interested in one thing – a solar panel that could charge my iPad Air directly or charge a powerbank at 2 amps.
After much deliberation and research (ironically right after hurricane sandy), I decided to go big or go home. Ponied up for a Goal Zero Yeti 400, a Sherpa 50 and a Nomad 27 folding solar panel. Unfortunately, some of those tems aren’t really ideal for traveling lightly. I’ll discuss them later in part II, the “heavy” kit. For my “lightweight” kit I recently picked up the Anker 14W Folding Solar Panel, which is much smaller and about half as powerful as the Nomad 27 panel.
Why the Anker? Same reasons as the Powerstation XL: output and form factor. The Anker 14W Panel has dual USB outputs that provide a nice 5V / 2A supply of power (through one port at a time), which is enough to power my iPad Air directly, or two iPhones at a time, or charge a mid-sized powerbank fairly quickly. When folded, it’s not much bigger or thicker than the iPad Air itself. A great size to fit in a backpack.
Price didn’t hurt either. At $69, this was almost a no-brainer. GoalZero’s equivalent panel, the Nomad 13 retails for $159 and only provides a single 1A USB output. For lightweight travel, I’d much rather have the Anker.
I’m still blown away at how cool it is to be able to plug my iPad into the Anker, toss it out in the sun and use my iPad virtually all day (as long as there’s decent sun). Clouds will affect your charge rate and on overcast days it won’t throw out enough juice (2A) to keep the iPad charging while in use. But on days like that I’ve had great success wiring things in this order: iPad -> Powerstation XL -> Anker 14W Panel.
A byproduct of all this USB charging stuff (and something I hadn’t initially considered) were the cables I’d need to connect everything. Affordable, quality lightning cables are especially hard to find and can be somewhat of a crapshoot. I can vouch for the GearBeast and BoxWave cables I purchased below. They’ve held up well to mild twisting/pulling and I haven’t received any iOS warnings or errors whatsoever in over two months of use. A brief word of caution: If you’re going to buy lightning cables, make sure to only get ones that are “MFi Certified” and *avoid* super super short ones like this. I used to have one of those cables but it stopped working after a couple weeks. My guess is that the flat wire connector was too stiff and twisted loose, now it only works intermittently.
You may also notice I buy things in pairs. Why? A) It’s nice to be able to charge two things at once or share with the wife. B) I’ve met Murphy enough times to know it’s always wise to have a backup. There’s an old saying that goes “Two is one. One is none.” – words to live by.
- 1 GearBeast 6′ Lightning Cable x2
- 2 Ziotek USB Mini 7″ Shorty Cable x2
- 3 StarTech USB Micro 5″ Shorty Cable x2
- 4 BoxWave 5″ Lightning Cable x2
- 5 Mini Carabiners x2 – $0.98 at Home Depot
- 6 Smakn 18650 Powerbank
- 7 15′ USB Extension Cable x2
- 8 USB Power Meter
It’s cheaper to get a pair of 6ft USB extension cables (a whopping $3.89/ea.) or 15ft USB extension cables ($5.01/ea.) and then add a set of Shorty USB mini, Shorty USB micro and Shorty Lightning cables to use as “tips”, rather than three long-ass cables of each kind. That way you can use the shorty cables to plug your devices into your powerbanks when you’re not connected directy to the solar panel. Short cables are the way to go. It’s a lot easier to carry around a couple 4-5″ cables that don’t tangle or need to be wound up every time.
So why the long USB cables? Because when you’ve got a solar panel in the sun, that shit gets hot. You definitely don’t want to keep your powerbank or iPhone right next to your solar panel (or under it) when it’s in use. A long USB cable lets you (and/or your devices) sit in the shade while the panel bakes in the sun.
Keep in mind that you’ll lose a bit of power due to the resistance in a long cable (1% per foot), but the peace of mind and convenience is worth it in my opinion. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to take the resistance hit, just use a shorter cable (3′ or 6′) and try to keep your devices in some shade.
I carry the carabiners to clip the solar panel grommets onto various things, and the inline USB power meter is just a nice thing to have around to test what’s drawing how much from where.
For some people this kind of setup will seem downright silly. For others, pure gold… especially if you’re into disaster prep or simply find yourself traveling/outside a lot. If I were to do it all over again, I’d probably just get the Smakn 18650 powerbank, 18650 batteries, and the Anker 14W with a few USB cables. Ballpark total around $150. I can tell you that knowing I’ll have enough juice to run a radio and a flashlight for days on end during an emergency is totally worth that amount. Unlimited, free charging for anything powered via USB is also pretty unbelievable, especially for those times when you’re camping, on the beach or out in the boonies.
I’ll be writing part II about my Goal Zero battery packs & solar panel shortly. Thanks for reading!
Disclaimer: I am in no way associated with the companies that manufacture the products mentioned in this article. Every item was purchased on my own dime, and I’ve received zero compensation for my opinions, good or bad. If you feel like this information has helped you, do me a favor and use the links in this article to purchase your items from Amazon. I’ll receive a small commission and it’ll encourage me to keep taking the time to write posts like this.