For quite some time the phrase "money is power" has held sway over human society, probably since the first inkling of trade came about thousands of years ago. While the maxim still reigns true, the reverse is slowly starting to catch up. Now power is money (or currency, if you prefer). Power which fuels portable devices can be more valuable than money to those who need to remain connected during trip or transit. For example, as warm weather finally approaches, thoughts now turn to camping and hiking trips off the beaten path away from traditional power sources.
There are those who advocate getting off devices entirely (also known as "breaking the addiction") while on vacation in order to fully recharge the mind, never mind the smartphone. I've seriously considered this for an upcoming trip to Ireland with my wife as a way to detach from technology (yes, even us grizzled IT guys need a break). However, this strategy is not always practical given the ways in which we've come to depend on our devices - most of which are used both for business and consumer purposes.
A trip abroad means a need for communication, directions, and information, some of which can come from age-old sources such as guidebooks and maps, but the bulk of which depends on a gadget. I need to be reachable in the event of a home emergency. The GPS and camera functions on my smartphone go hand-in-hand with a trip to a new country. Many of my trip notes such as hotel accommodations and sightseeing plans are kept electronically. So, vacation often means the same level of dependency on my device(s) as during the work week - if not more. Similarly, those devices are dependent upon power and the ability to get it on the go. I'm not too worried about power while I'm abroad since a simple "UK Type" 3 prong adapter can be affixed to the micro-USB AC charger I use for my devices, but a backpacking tour through the White Mountains of New Hampshire is a different story.
When it comes to the concept of "refueling devices while in flight" I've divided these into two categories: strategies and products.
Note: when I refer to devices for the purpose of this article I'm talking about smartphones and tablets; iPhones, iPads, Androids, Kindles, Nooks and so forth. Apple products have their own type of connector, but the bulk of the rest those which are powered via a micro-USB connector such as Androids, Kindles, Nooks and so forth (a connector fairly standard among non-Apple devices).
There are ways to preserve battery life - I covered ten such ways for Android in March and here are 26 ways for the iPhone as well as some tips for the iPad Air/Mini - but sometimes you can only do so much to cut down on device use. When you're in the back country for three days and need your smartphone to keep running, whatever juice you have is only as good as what you've walked out the door with.
If your device can support it (sorry, Apple fans), extra batteries or extended batteries (beefed up versions of regular batteries) are good to have in your carry-on bag. My Blackberry Bold still serves me reasonably well for functions like phone, email and access to my Dropbox notes, and so I always keep a couple of fully-charged batteries with me, each of which will last a day. The beauty of my workplace is that we always have a box of spare Blackberry batteries left over from the devices which were handed in when BYOD went live!
If you're going someplace where there's even a chance you might find a friendly power outlet - even for a few minutes - pack power cables just in case. Bring one charger for each device and an extension cord if you do find that one proverbial outlet. USB-AC adapters (the kind where you plug in a USB cable then plug the adapter into the wall) work well for devices which can support them, so pack short USB cables if you're concerned about clutter- but don't have your devices dangling while powering up, lest you damage them.
If these strategies aren't sufficient that doesn't mean you're exclusively dependent on just your device battery's charge; there are also a slew of portable recharge options. More than you could shake a forest full of sticks at, it seems. A search on E-bay for "portable device charger" yielded 26 listings and a similar search on Amazon returned 194 results. Searches for the term "portable cell phone charger" produced over 56 and 854 hits, respectively.
Some of these products are glorified batteries in their own right which feed other devices power (in some cases just a "sip of water" to get them to last another day or few hours). Some are based on renewable sources such as solar energy. Others can even charge your device through a manual crank which could lead to indefinite recharge capability (or at least as long as the product or your arm holds out).
Obviously there may be just as many kinds of chargers as there are devices to charge, so I'll review the five most interesting products I discovered along with the costs as listed on Amazon.
Details: Provides the ability to charge anything with a Micro USB connector using 3 AA batteries, which basically means you're transferring the energy from those batteries to your device. It's a bit clunky but it works and the price is right. Hypothetically if you stocked up on a few extra AA batteries this would be more than enough to get you through a trip down the Colorado River (make sure to bring waterproof bags!) If you're traveling near civilization buying more AAs is always an option too. You could use rechargeable batteries though obviously prepping those in bulk might be complicated.
Details: Offering the ability to charge anything that has a regular USB cable - meaning Androids, iPhones and the like - the Anker is one of the most popular products on Amazon with well over 1900 reviews (1500+ of which are 5-star). It provides 2 USB ports and the product description claims it "charges the iPhone almost 7 times, large-capacity phones like the Galaxy S4 4 times or almost a full charge to an iPad 3 / 4." Unlike the Energizer Instant Charger which runs on batteries, the Anker draws power from an AC current so it has the advantage of being rechargeable - but the disadvantage of needing AC power input.
Details: No batteries needed for this one; it works by hand crank only and includes a built-in LED flashlight. While cranking the handle for one minute provides up to a half hour of light, I admit I was skeptical as to how many cranks it would take to charge a micro-USB based device (perhaps the updated version of the 1970 question "How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?"). As it turns out, that number is somewhat ambiguous; it appears the crank function is really just to get your phone on life support so you can make a few quick phone calls to direct a helicopter where to land and pick you up.
Some of the reviewers on Amazon stated they had problems charging their phones with this; one individual suggested "make sure your phone can be charged from a 5 volt power supply, because that is the regulated voltage from the charger while you crank it."
Note: SOS Charger is releasing an updated version with an internal battery which can be charged via USB cable.
Details: Here's where things start to get interesting because you can use multiple power inputs on the Soladec; it can be charged via AC power, a USB connection or solar energy. Like the Anker it will charge anything with a USB plug which means iOS and Android among others. The description says "At full charge the battery will provide most smartphones with at least 2.5 complete charges (actual performance will vary by device). At full charge, it takes about 2 hours 40 minutes to charge a smartphone (actual charging time will vary by device). Charge time to full capacity: approx. 11 hrs via Sun, 7 hrs via USB (actual solar charge time may vary greatly depending on atmospheric conditions, amount of sunlight, etc.)" As with the SOS Charger, it comes with an LED light.
And now for the Big Kahuna...
Details: This little wonder does it all: provides an emergency radio, a flashlight, and of course a power source for your device.
I was skeptical at first about all the extra bells and whistles like a radio, but it seems to promise the best combination of all worlds whether in routine or emergency situations.
The beauty in the FRX3 is that it can be charged via standard AC power, solar energy or hand crank, giving you multiple options. You can also operate the radio component via AA batteries. According to a review on the-gadgeeteer.com, 90 seconds of cranking will provide 5-7 minutes of radio/20 minutes of flashlight operation, it takes 2 hours to charge the FRX3 via AC power and 10 hours via solar power. A fully-charged FRX3 can refuel an iPhone 5 battery a little less than halfway, as a point of comparison. A separate review on tuaw.com claims it takes an hour of cranking to charge the FRX3 battery all the way, so if you're patient enough you can keep running your device indefinitely (as long as you like a little exercise).
Rest assured these ordeals are only temporary; new advances in smartphone batteries are coming, though it's a slow process. Better automatic wireless management techniques might double your battery life. Graphite and graphene solutions have been devised which can recharge batteries in a fraction of the time it currently takes. And best of all, different chip technology could give your smartphone weeks worth of power in a single charge. I'm sure someday we'll all look back and marvel at how quaint it was to scurry around the airport terminal during a layover in Philly trying to find an unused power outlet.
Whether you're traveling in the remote wilds or simply exploring urban jungles, safe travels and good luck on your quest for power!
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.