External notebook batteries like American Power Conversion’s new UPB90 and mFuel’s Universal Power Bank offer all-in-one solutions that can help provide enough supplemental energy to last a full day away from an AC power source and work for both a notebook computer and various accessories and mobile devices.
Typical notebook batteries are good for 2 or 3 hours, depending on what the user is doing, maybe 4 or 5 hours with a high-capacity battery. That’s good enough for working while waiting for a flight, or weathering a moderate power outage. Adding an external notebook battery to the travel kit can get users through a long-haul flight or a day where they can’t get to a power outlet, or can keep external devices humming.
These products are good for notebook users, whether packing ultralight or desktop-replacement power, and for channel sellers or IT staff responsible for provisioning mobile users who want as few inventory items as possible.
It makes sense to provide external batteries that are compatible with the majority of popular notebook vendors and models, said Greg Fournier, product line manager of home and distributed systems at APC, because, “If you decide to change to a different model or brand, it will probably use different-size internal batteries. Having a universal battery lets resellers and IT departments simplify things.”
Because power products like APC’s UPB90 are primarily productivity enhancers, “SMB [small and midsize businesses] and enterprise customers are the major sales opportunity,” Fournier said. “When they are ordering mobile accessories, they may order dozens, hundreds or thousands. It usually depends on how many notebooks they’re purchasing, or have.” And, Fournier said, “Enterprises and small-to-medium businesses buy mostly through channels.”
The UPB90, available now with a manufacturer suggested retail price of $249, holds 90 watt-hours and sports two USB power and charging ports. Also available now, mFuel’s Universal Power Bank, including AC adapters and data cabling and adapters at an MSRP of $399.99, holds 102 watt-hours and includes a second, lower-power charging port.
Both the APC and the mFuel batteries promised to give me a full work day of power, including recharging my cell phone and Bluetooth phone headset as needed-and based on my tests, both batteries performed as expected.
To test the batteries, I used a Lenovo ThinkPad X61 ultralight with moderately aggressive power-extending and conserving settings and also used Wi-Fi to listen to Internet radio, with the speakers up most of the way. In my tests, a pre-production UPB90 lasted 3 hours 45 minutes, while the notebook’s own eight-cell Extended Capacity (75-watt-hour) battery ran 3.5 hours.
Users with bigger notebooks or who are doing more power-consuming tasks like DVD-burning may not get as much run time, of course-either from the notebook’s own battery or from an external one.
Both the APC and mFuel “autosense” the voltage level requirement of whatever device is connected, so it is no longer necessary to set this by hand (and are therefore users are less likely to fry their notebooks). Both also have a small LCD window that displays data such as current charging level and an estimate of how long the charge will power the current load.
APC’s UPB90 weighs about 2 pounds (plus another 4 ounces for the main cable and tips). The mFuel SPB-11 weighs 1 pound and 12 ounces sans cables and bag, and includes the adapters and data cabling/adapters that APC doesn’t bundle with its battery, worth perhaps an additional $50 to $75.
Both batteries perform adequately. However, APC’s UPB90 is significantly less expensive and less complicated, and its flat shape, as compared to mFuel’s brick, is more likely to carry better with notebooks of all sizes.
Easy to use, but pay attention to details
Using an external notebook battery is easy-but users should take the time to get everything ready, or they may regret it.
First, figure out what all the stuff is, and find the tip for the device or devices. Having the right power tips is essential; otherwise, it won’t be possible to connect the AC adapter to charge the external battery, or connect the external battery to the notebook or other devices.
APC and mFuel both include packs for the majority of popular current models, but users should check the “devices supported” list before buying. If, for example, a notebook model isn’t listed, see if the vendor has the tips available separately for free or for a small extra charge.
When a notebook vendor introduces a new power voltage or tip size, “We generally have had matching tips within three to six months, and as we work [more closely] with the notebook vendors, we should be able to shorten that,” APC’s Fournier said.
Also, users should make sure they have the right connectors for any mobile devices-for the APC UPB90, a USB charging cable; for the mFuel, a tip provided by mFuel.
Finally, charge up the external battery if it isn’t already charged, and plug the devices in.
APC Universal Power Battery90
APC’s new UPB90 finally overcomes one of the minor annoyances-and my concern-about the APC notebook battery line, and also adds several welcome features. (I’ve been using an APC UPB80 for a year or more, with my IBM ThinkPad T40 notebook computer.)
The big fix: Doing away with the need to manually select the output voltage for the notebook-which to me means putting a label on so I don’t forget what my notebook takes, and making sure the selector switch hasn’t changed its setting, since there’s no “lock.” (I recommend putting a label on the UPB80 with the setting for each notebook that will be used with it.)
Unlike its predecessors, the APC UPB90 autosenses and sets the correct output voltage. If users with different notebooks will be signing these batteries in and out, that’s important, as the wrong setting could damage the notebook.
The UPB90 has a pair of USB ports, letting users plug in USB charger cables just as they would to computer USB ports to recharge a BlackBerry, Bluetooth headset or media player.
The UPB90 indicates its power level with a row of four lights. The UPB80’s mini-display shows current battery capacity, recharge time, battery load and input/output voltages-everything a user might want to know about the device’s status.
APC also offers the UPB70 (MSRP $149), with less capacity, no LED display and only one USB charging port.
mFuel SPD-11 Universal and SPD-9 Notebook Power Banks
The mFuel Power Banks look classy-like high-tech aluminum bricks, rather than the slab shape of APC and other models. This may be easier for to pack and carry-or not, depending on what other gear a user has.
mFuel adds more features, whichmeans more complexity and confusion, by including world jacks in the accessories. And instead of having power tips in pairs, one for each end of the cable, mFuel uses a “Universal Power Adapter,” which has all the power-in jacks for AC adapters. (This approach makes some sense, rather than incorporating the adapter into the battery, but it also means one more thing to keep track of.)
mFuel uses “Power Pucks”-retractable cables that ends can be attached to, letting them double as power cables or as Ethernet and USB cables. The less-cable-while-packed design is nice, but mFuel complicates matters by having two different types of cable: red cables, which can carry power or data, and yellow ones, which are only good for data. Confusingly, the yellow cable connects close to the power-in side. And the cables are not labeled even with icons, increasing the chances of confusion. mFuel really should include a kit of labels.
Like APC’s UPB90, the mFuel has an LCD displaying its estimate of remaining time (based on what’s currently connected), and power level or time-to-charge or both.
I’ve been using the mFuel SPD-11 to power my IBM ThinkPad T40 and also to charge my cell phone. The first time I tried it, the SPD-11 went from claiming it had about 2.5 hours of power left to abruptly beeping and running out of juice. Since then, it’s been better behaved.
mFuel includes a zippered pouch, with useful inside pockets to keep Pucks, tips and other items from getting lost, but annoyingly, the main zipper broke early in the game. Not a big deal-a Ziploc bag will do-but it’s annoying.
A bigger concern: The mFuel tip for my ThinkPad T40 periodically stops fitting properly in my notebook, losing its connection. The notebook keeps working, but it means paying attention to the charging status.
Conclusions: Any battery in a storm
The APC UPB90 and mFuel models have LED displays, and can autosense and set their output voltage. Both can power and recharge mobile devices as well. Other than price, the biggest difference is shape: If possible, users should try fitting each battery in a computer travel bag to see which is least inconvenient, and also try using them with a notebook on an airplane-tray space.
Users with really big notebooks should consider getting two batteries. (And pack a charger with AC/car/airplane plugs, to refill when possible.)
Daniel P. Dern ([email protected]) is an independent technology writer.