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Review: Cheap-o Backup Battery

Earlier today I read an article detailing the issues that arise whenever a company attempts to implement a cutting-edge camera into one of their smartphones. The point that stuck with me was: the desired features of every main component must be balanced against the desires of the others. In the case of imaging units, managing to keep the size of the complete camera unit down without taking a hit to end-result picture quality is something that keeps engineers up late at night. Ultimately, everything has to fit into the proposed industrial design, and that’s a big part of the reason for why compromises are made.

One area that, at least from my perspective, takes a hit far too often is battery life. In the interest of building fast, large-screened and thin devices, attempting to cram in cellular radios for technologies that aren’t even rolled out yet often takes precedence over throwing in a longer-lasting battery. Or, at the very least, that’s my opinion. To cut to the chase: while the feature-phones of a few years ago boasted multi-day endurance away from the charger, today’s smartphones are lucky to reach the evening without having had to refuel.

To solve this issue, a variety of solutions exist. There are extended-battery cases (little more than a case with a built-in battery connected to the phone’s power jack), external battery chargers (battery cells with little pigtails that can be plugged into a phone in a pinch), 3rd-party high-capacity batteries (replace the stock battery with a larger one), wireless chargers (which don’t really do much besides offering the ability to charge one’s phone carefree while it sits idly) and, of course, battery saving modes. The latter-most solution is obviously the least acceptable, as it usually deactivates push sync, thereby rending the act of carrying a smartphone utterly useless.

When I noticed that I was suffering from a case of battery anxiety, I began to shop for a solution that would fit me best. The night that my loaner Lumia 920 ran out of juice while I was trying to navigate home at night on foot was the last straw. I hate being lost. I needed to solve my problem. I selected an external battery charger on eBay and waited for it to arrive.

The Device
Simplicity seems to be what the designer of this charger was going for. It’s essentially just an anodized aluminum tube, inside of which reside a 2,600mAh Li-Ion battery, a bit of circuitry for voltage and current adjustments, and then a full-size USB port for connecting a USB cord to. (The Micro-USB jack is for charging the device.)

 The whole thing can be taken apart easily, though the only reason I can come up with for why you might wish to do so is to replace the built-in battery should it happen to eventually hold no charge. Internally, everything’s as one would expect and nothing appears to have been shoddily constructed. (But wait, because it is.)

The advantage of an external battery charger is, obviously, it’s ability to be used universally. It doesn’t matter what I need to power; if it can charge off of USB, then this thing can give it (some) juice (at least).

Using It
First, gotta charge it up. Using the included Micro-USB cable, I loaded up the charger using a 5V 1,200mA AC adapter (from one of my old Nokias). A little red LED hidden under the white plastic top illuminates to signify charging and changes to green when complete. While I didn’t bother to keep a close eye, it takes a couple of hours to get that 2,600mAh cell from empty to full.

Then, when my phone reached the end of its own power reserves, I simply plugged the full-size end of that same Micro-USB cord into the external battery charger and the other end into my phone. A chirp (from the phone, not the charger) signified charging, and I was free to go about whatever it was that I was doing.

Crisis Averted… Not
While the charger did, in fact, supply 5V 800mA electrical goodness to my phone, not everything was perfect. After about two hours, the charger began to emit an extremely high-pitched whine. It’s not a frequency everyone can hear… not initially, anyway. Given a bit more time, the pitch comes down into audible range for just about everyone. Soon after, the charger simply stops supplying power to the phone. Unplugging and plugging back in the cable to either the phone or the charger will result in another ten or so minutes of charging time, but then things cut out again.

More troublingly, continue to try and tease power out of the charger and eventually it automatically resets its charging state… by flicking on-and-off power to the phone at a rate of about two or three times per second. This is, obviously, not good for the expensive circuitry that makes up a smartphone, and at this point I quickly chucked the external battery charger into the back of my drawer and forgot about it.

Final Thoughts?
Would I buy this again? Well… for a lower price, sure. As a true, last-ditch emergency power solution, this works great. But I doubt that its continued use would be a good idea. The form factor and universal compatibility aren’t things to be overlooked, but I’m simply not ready to risk frying my phone until I’m in a situation where the alternative to not potentially frying my phone appears much bleaker.