The Writers Workbench
by Robert J. Elisberg

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

June, 2008

The pleasure of using portable electronic devices wherever you wander lends itself to one of the downsides - the drain of battery power. Now that many players also run video, the drain is even higher. For most of the time, it's not an issue, as you can easily recharge at home or with a car charger. But when out and about, commuting on a train or on long airplane flights, most-especially when using video, power can disappear fast.

APC MOBILE POWER PACK UPB10

A simple, but versatile battery back-up comes from the battery expert, APC. The Mobile Power Pack is about the size of a deck of cards. In addition to charging your device, it's rated to play music on an iPod for up to 55 hours, or run video for up to 10. (Your mileage may vary.) Actually, it's not iPod-specific, and any mobile device that can connect via a USB or mini-B jack plug can use the Mobile Power pack, including cell phones - though you'll need to purchase proper adapter cables, if you don't already have them.

Touch a button to show how much charge is left. The light display runs the length of the device, and this LED strip shrinks shorter as the battery weakens, giving a fairly accurate view. Oddly, it's a little less clear when charging the battery pack, because the light flashes while extending itself until fully-charged, at which point it goes dark and you're ready.

The Mobile Power Pack requires a cable for attaching to your player (unlike the Sonnet Volta that you just snap on). This makes it a little more unwieldy for using when walking, but it's small enough to just stick in a pocket, so it's not an issue unless you don't care for dangling cables. More importantly, though, you can use the APC battery while listening to an iPod touch or iPhone (which have their earphone jacks at the bottom).

You can charge the lithium-polymer battery in two ways: with the USB cable connected to you computer, or with a separate charger that comes with the package. Incidentally, rather than have its prongs built-in, you snap them on. Though the documentation doesn't expressly say so, this would indicate that you can interchange the prongs with other sizes should you travel overseas. The downside is that, unlike some chargers today, you're not able to compactly fold the prongs. (With an extra cable, you can also use the battery pack in “pass-through” mode - allowing you to run your device through the charger and directly off of AC current.)

The APC Mobile Power Pack is an extremely well-built device that's small and easy to carry around for back-up power. Its strength is perhaps its versatility for charging a multitude of handheld devices - though you'll likely need to purchase extra cords for some. It retails at the time of writing for $70, but can be widely found for around $45.


TEKKEON TEKCHARGE MP1550

From Tekkeon, the TekCharge MP1550 offers an interesting twist on the familiar. It's very similar to the APC in some ways, but the two differ in one way significantly. It both serves as an external power source and charges, and it can work with most any mobile handheld device - iPods, MP3 players, cell phones and such. (Digital cameras, too, as long as it can take a 5-volt charge.) But it runs on four AA-batteries.

Though some may prefer not having to buy batteries and keep changing them, the advantage for others is that if you're on the road where charging is impossible, or overseas without an adapter - and even your external power source has run out - a battery-powered charger will save you.

Carrying spare batteries or finding them anywhere in the world is not a problem. (For that matter, for those who want the best of both worlds, the TekCharge will also be able to charge rechargeable batteries.)

There's another nice touch with the TekCharge - it comes with six adapter pins for numerous devices, including cell phone, along with a handy carrying pouch for them. Also included is a retractable 2-foot cord. It's not terribly long, so your choice of which pockets to put it in are limited if you use it when out walking, but the retractor is light, so it shouldn't be much of a nuisance. The positive is that this makes its overall portability enjoyably compact. A USB port and mini-B USB port allow for your needed connections.

The battery pack makes lofty claims. It's rated to playback music on the iPod classic for a earpopping 125 hours, and video for 20 hours. It states it can run mobile phones for an additional 12 hours of talk time, should your phone run out. Or 700 photos. As always, it's important to recognize that these are in a perfect world, your experience will be different.

There are three clear red lights that indicate how much battery capacity is left, so there should be little guesswork required. A charging lamp on the bottom will update the status, should you charge your rechargeable batteries.

The Tekcharge is wonderfully compact - smaller than the APC even, a bit smaller than a deck of cards - and fairly light. It feels a touch plasticky, but overall quite sturdy. The device retails at $40, but at the time of writing can be found for very low $20.

Personal preferences will determine whether one like an AC-charged external battery, or a AA-powered one. But the Tekkeon TekCharge MP1550 offers an impressive versatility, included adapters, long battery life and a seriously-low price.


SONNET VOLTA

The Volta is a rechargeable battery pack made exclusively for the iPod Classic and all iPod with video models (though it will also work with the full iPod line, with slight limitations. More on that later). It has numerous strengths, retails for a low $50 but can be found for less ($40 on Amazon, at the time of writing), and one, minor quibble.

The Volta is solid, simple to use and holds up to a rated, massive 80 additional hours of music, or 16 hours of video. You'll likely get less, but it's still an abundance for anyone. Just snap your iPod in, press a button, and it automatically starts charging. Easy. It also comes with a belt clip and connecting cord.

The battery pack can itself be charged using any standard iPod connector cable. Once ready, it will deliver up to three full charges of your iPod. An on-off switch at the back of the unit controls the devices, and LED lights on the front give the charge status. Just slide the your iPod into the dock, and everything is ready. You can use it to charge your iPod independently and then undock the device, or keep the two connected with the belt clip as you use your iPod. It weighs a touch under four pounds, so you wouldn't want to carry it around all the time, but it's hardly problematic when you do. Because everything fits so tightly together, the Volta doesn't add all that much size to your iPod - though when connected it clearly is thicker, heavier and without the sleek lines people tend to love.

The belt clip is an important component of the device. Unless you leave the battery pack and iPod in one spot alone, they would be wobbly together for carrying around. Using the plastic belt clip will resolve this. And to a degree, they do. But therein lies the quibble.

As noted above, any iPod will charge in the Volta - but only the iPod Class or models with video can be held in the clip. The Nano or touch, for instance, are too narrow, and the sides won't hold them firm and aren't adjustable. That doesn't stop you from using the Volta as a charger for any iPod, it just keeps you from using the belt clip with every iPod when being charged by the Volta. To be very clear, none of this is remotely a failing, since that's not its intent - the device is specifically labeled as for “an iPod with video” - but it does keep the Volta from being the perfect charger for the full iPod line.

As for the plastic clip with the models it does fit, the way it works is you just snap your iPod and battery pack in, and it holds everything impeccably tight. A rotating clip on the back lets you attach everything to your belt. This leaves your iPod unprotected -most notably the screen, but if you have your iPod in a protective case, it will likely fit in the inflexible plastic clip, although it will require some tugging. Iif you maneuver it very carefully from the top, pull a bit (being careful not to break the fairly-sturdy plastic) and slide, you'll be able to get it snuggly in.

If you have an iPod Classic or video model that can fit the belt clip, the Volta is wonderful. The battery pack and clip are all solidly made, impressively so. And the battery pack delivers tremendous power. It's less valuable as a charger for other iPod models, though still has value on the road (on an airplane or as spare power to carry in a briefcase, for instance) for emergency charging. Note that when charging an iPod touch or iPhone with the Volta you can't use headphones, since their jacks are on the bottom and would be blocked by the Volta's base.

The Sonnet Volta, incidentally, appears to be a twin of the NuPower Video+. There are slight differences, though mainly with the accessories: the NuPower comes with a rubber protective sleeve which would allow you to slide any iPod in with the charger; however, there's no connecting cord included - you need to use the cord that came with your iPod. I also had an occasional charging issue with the NuPower, but thus far none with the Volta (although, to be fair, I have read an online similar comment).  The issue is related to the LED charging-light not properly shining. It's a bit uncertain if there had been a flaw in the charging, or if the light simply wasn't going on though the device continued to work. Again, to be clear, I personally haven't experienced that problem with the Volta.


CHARGEPOD from CALLPOD

A completely different option is the Chargepod. At its heart, this is nothing more than a gray disk. It looks like a fat cookie, or the world's tiniest flaying saucer. What the device does unique is let you charge up to six mobile items at once (iPods, PDAs, mobile phones and such), while requiring only one charger. If you're traveling, for instance, you no longer would have to carry around half numerous power bricks. At home, there's no untangling of cords or searching for empty sockets.

The Chargepod is about three inches across. The way it works is that you attach the charger and plug that into an AC socket. Then, you insert an adapter into a slot for each device - a light shows that the slot is now active - and then attach that adapter to your handheld. Depending on how many adapters you're using, the result is that the Chargepod can end up looking like spokes coming out of the hub of a wheel.

It worked extremely well when I tested it with four devices - an iPod, Palm handheld, APC power battery and Creative Zen MP3 player. They charged in the same time it would have taken others and was smooth as could be.

The biggest caveat is the price. You can purchase the Chargepod Bundle Pack with half a dozen adapters prepackaged for Apple/iPod, Palm devices, several mobile phones, Sony PSP devices and a mini-USB plug. It comes with a car charger and carrying bag, and retails for $100. Or the Chargepod is available separately for $50, which you can customize with whatever adapters you want. Unless your needs are exactly the same as in the Bundle, this could end up saving you money.

(And of course, these are just retail prices. Through Amazon.com, at the time of writing, a standalone Chargepod was $38, and adapters less than $6. One supplier was selling the full Bundle Pack for only $48.)

In future versions, it would be nice if the company makes a power brick with fold-up prong, because right now the whole bundle is quite bulky. And depending on what adapters you get, you might have to also bring along your iPod cables (though these obviously don't add much bulk).

The Chargepod is not for everyone - not only because of the expense, but also some people are fine charging one device at a time. But for those with an abundance of mobile devices or who a lot of traveling, it does its job and can be extremely beneficial.

 

GRIFFIN POWERDUO UNIVERSAL

It's rare when a basic product can be noticeably improved, but Griffin built a better mousetrap - after having previously built a better mousetrap. Their wonderfully compact PowerBlock charger was always a personal favorite, in that it took a simple power adapter and removed the one annoying wrinkle that all such devices have when needed for traveling - the prongs - and folded them away. For the PowerDuo, they went one better: where on all such chargers there is a single USB slot to connect a cable to your device, this has two. So, you can now charge two mobile devices at the same time. And fold up the prongs when on the road.

You can purchase the PowerDuo Universal separately (for $25), or get it bundled with the PowerJolt Universal car charger for $10 extra (it normally retails for $15). While very useful for charging away from the home, there's a risk with many car chargers in that a power surge from your auto can ruin your device. But the better chargers (of which the PowerJolt is one) have fuses that will protect you. If there's a surge, it will only blow out the inexpensive fuse, which can easily be replaced.

 

TWW NOTES

  • When installing new programs, many tend to want to insert themselves to load automatically when Windows starts. Over time, as a result, these can build up which can slow down your computer when it boots - or if the programs are configured to run “in memory,” that can use up your system resources. Much of the time, you might want both of these things to occur - but not always. If given a choice, you might prefer to simply run the programs manually when needed. The problem is that most people don't know how to find out programs are running on Auto Load (it's listed in the System Configuration Utility), and even when finding out which, it's hard to know what the program does from the limited description. A free utility, however, resolves this - Autoruns. It will tell you everything on your computer that's running automatically (far more comprehensively even that System Configuration), and what precisely it is. It can be downloaded at http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/sysinternals/bb963902.aspx.
  • If you don't want to be bothered with downloading, a similar utility is available to run online, called Windows Startup List. It's not nearly as rich as Autoruns, but provides much information. And it, too, is free. It's located at http://www.techspot.com/startup/.
     

Note: The Writers Guild of America, West neither implicitly nor explicitly endorses opinions or attitudes expressed in this article.

Copyright 2008, Robert J. Elisberg. All rights reserved.

Robert J. Elisberg has written about computers for such publications as C/NET, PC Games, CD-ROM Today, Yahoo! Internet Life, E! Online and Hollywood Screenwriter. He also writes writes a regular column for the Huffington Post. A screenwriter, he served for five years as a member of the WGA, West Web site editorial board and Editorial Advisory Committee.