May 262016
 
This $10 battery, slightly larger than a credit card, can give your phone or other portable electronic device an emergency topup of power when you need it the most.

This $10 battery, slightly larger than a credit card, can give your phone or other portable electronic device an emergency topup of power when you need it the most.

The leapfrog match between the ever-increasing power requirements of our smartphones and the ever-increasing power capacities of their batteries – overlaid with a desire to make phones and therefore their batteries ever smaller – means that sometimes, new model phones have even fewer hours of life than older phones.  For example, the new model 6S iPhones have comparable or less battery life than the previous generation model 6 iPhones.

And while fanciful articles continue to regularly appear about new battery technologies promising extraordinary breakthroughs in storage capacities, they remain like pots of gold at the end of rainbows – always expected ‘soon’ but never arriving.

Meantime, our reliance/dependence on our smartphones continues to increase.  An interesting article this week reports that 90% of us panic when threatened by running out of charge on our cell phone, to the point that one in three people will stop whatever they’re doing and drive home to recharge their phone in such cases.

In reality, most of us have chargers in our cars and in our offices, but clearly, for many of us, there are situations where we don’t have a charger or don’t have the time to use it for ‘long enough’ to top up our phone.

And, talking about topping up, 86% of users recharge their phone battery at least daily, 80% charge it up whenever they leave the house, whether they need to or not, and 28% keep their phone being charged all the time they are near a charger.

This is actually a bad thing.  Your battery will degrade more slowly, and maintain greater capacity and allow more recharges, if you never charge much more than 90% of maximum, and also if you never discharge below about 10%.  Even better is to keep the battery between 20% and 80%, and not to recharge too quickly.  (There is an exception to this, from time to time it is good to completely refresh the battery by fully discharging, fully charging, then fully discharging and fully recharging again, to ‘remind’ the battery and the power management circuitry in your phone of what the battery’s limits actually are.)

The idea of portable battery packs to supplement a phone’s built-in battery is nothing new.  And, of course, until Apple upended our expectations, many of us could solve our battery anxiety problems simply by carrying a second spare phone battery and swapping them over as needed during the day.  But Apple ‘knew best’ in the infuriating way that Steve Jobs used to impose his world-views on us – and made it impossible for us to swap batteries (or to inexpensively buy replacement batteries), creating the problem we all struggle with now.

What is new however is the development not just of big bulky heavy rechargeable emergency battery units, but now the development of tiny little ones that can be conveniently carried in a handbag, pocket, or even stuffed in with the credit cards in your wallet.  Making use of the latest battery technologies has allowed new devices to store an ’emergency topup’ amount of charge in a convenient form factor.  Sure, they don’t carry enough charge to totally recharge your phone half a dozen times, but if you’re reaching a power crisis towards the end of your day and just need another 25% – 50% of extra charge to keep you going until you next get to a charger, they could be exactly what you want.

We’ve tended to always buy the biggest external battery we can find, on the basis of ‘if some extra power is good, surely more is better’.  But the downside of that is that we only ever have these devices with us when we know we’re going to be running low on power (eg a series of lengthy international flights); but they are not with us for the unexpected occasions when we end up using our phone more than expected, and/or starting the day off with less charge than normal, and all of a sudden, we’re approaching a power crisis and with no convenient options to resolve it.

So while we still have the high capacity units for ‘known problems’, we now always have a low capacity unit with us, for unexpected events – a bit like how most cars these days have an ’emergency’ spare tire rather than a ‘full’ spare.  We just need a ‘get home’ capacity, whether it be with the car or with our phone.

We tried two such units.

The LifeCard is more compact than the Gmyle, but more expensive and doesn't have a charging adapter for both iOS devices and

The LifeCard is more compact than the Gmyle, but more expensive and doesn’t have a charging adapter for both iOS devices and micro-USB devices.

The smaller of the two, with less capacity, is semi-paradoxically also by far the more expensive of the two.  This is the LifeCard Emergency Power Battery, with a claimed 1500 mAh of power, and in a form factor the same size as a credit card (ie 2.1″ x 3.4″), and about as thick as 3 – 5 credit cards (0.18″), selling for $49.95 on Amazon (or a little more in some color choices).

The slightly larger in every dimension (2.4″ x 3.8″ x 0.27″) Gmyle external battery claims to store 2500 mAh of power and costs a more reasonable $9.90 on Amazon.

The LifeCard unit forces you to choose between one with an Apple Lightning connector on it, or one with a micro-USB connector.  If you (or your family in total) have a mix of portable devices, some requiring an Apple connector and some a USB connector, you’ll have to buy two of these in order to have all situations covered, at which point the cost becomes appreciable and the convenience drops away.  The Gmyle unit has a micro USB connector plus a converter to Apple too (see picture aove), with the tiny but very functional converter easy to keep at hand because it is cleverly stowed away inside the battery unit casing, saving you the need to buy two units to cover all scenarios.

Both units are charged via a regular standard 5V power source and micro-USB connector, and both units supply a very short charging cable, in the unlikely event that you don’t already have a drawer full of USB cables already.

Testing the two units with my iPhone 6+ showed that the LifeCard added about 35% to the phone’s charge, and the Gmyle added 50% – possibly a bit more because I was actively using the phone while recharging with the Gmyle unit too.

Both units could ‘stop the discharging’ when connected to an iPad Air, although they struggled to actually feed some extra charge into it.  The LifeCard powered the iPad Air for an hour of it being used continuously (playing YouTube video) and also managed to increase the charge from 51% to 53%.  That’s not exactly a transformational boost to the iPad’s battery life, but it did give us another solid hour of high battery drain usage ‘for free’ and there are definitely times when an extra hour or two of iPad life can make all the difference.

The Gmyle unit also was able to feed power into the iPad faster than it was being consumed (which is quite some accomplishment for both of them – regular power supplies are often unable to do this).

You’ll note above that I go out of my way to refer to ‘claimed’ power capacities.  My cynical feeling is this is an area where battery manufacturers engage in regrettable flights of fancy, because their claims are difficult to test and the measurements can be layered by excuses and imprecise complicating factors.  They should all be asterisked, pointing to an added explanation in fine print ‘maximum theoretical capacity, actual usable capacity will be less’.  There’s nothing new about this – for example, a hard drive of eg 2 TB theoretical capacity might end up as only offering 1.75TB of usable space after formatting.  Or, in a different scenario, how about being quoted $15/day for a rental car, but after all the extras have been added, finding you’re actually paying $32/day.  Which is not to say that two (or three) wrongs make a right, of course!

To take a simple top-down look at how much extra power these units can give to a phone, the iPhone 6+ has a 2,915 mAh battery.  So the 1500 mAh claimed capacity of the LifeCard should represent a 51% increase in battery charge, whereas it tested to only a 35% increase.  The 2500 mAh claimed capacity of the Gmyle unit should boost the charge by 86% but it added only slightly more than 50%.  These are significant shortfalls in both cases, but in line with the shortfalls experienced with almost every other unit ever tested.

I ‘tested to destruction’ the Gmyle unit because I was curious to see if there was a stated battery capacity on the Li-ion battery inside of it.  So after resolutely destroying the unit (everything was glue-sealed together, but at a mere $10 for a replacement unit, a small price to pay for some interesting research) I manages to get at the bare battery and it did indeed have a stamped label on it claiming 2500 mAh.  So Gmyle isn’t hyping the battery itself, merely joining in with the rest of the industry in terms of how the raw capacity is unrelated to the net usable power.

So which unit should you have?  In terms of compact convenience, the LifeCard is clearly the winner.  But in terms of greater capacity, more flexible use, and very much greater affordability, the Gmyle unit is clearly much better.

Unless you are the one person blessed by never having experienced battery life anxiety, it might be prudent to pop one of these into your purse/pocket/bag/wallet, for those ‘just in case’ scenarios that sometimes arise.

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