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Which Portable Battery Pack Should I Buy?

You don’t have to go far to see some editorial about how we live in an “interconnected world” full of “gadgets and devices” and everybody is just looking for the nearest Wifi hotspot and / or wall outlet to get some much needed juice. We have come to the inevitable realization of this world - we need more power. Since phone companies insist on putting smaller and smaller batteries in these devices and we insist on never having a moment without being connected to Facebook Messenger, an entire sub-industry has sprung up to help us make it through those long flights, survive being away from any outlets, and sometimes even just make it through the day. I’m talking of course about the hot new gift for that special someone you don’t really know very well but the guy at Best Buy said would like it - portable battery-powered chargers. The question is, though, which one should I buy?

I’ve put off thinking about these things because for the most part I haven’t really felt the need. I’ve usually had phones that last a very long time (thanks, Motorola), and I don’t usually do much traveling. However, now that I’m a proud owner of a Nintendo Switch (which is super great), I feel that I should be prepared for the inevitable situation where I will be stuck on an airplane playing Skyrim (as I was promised by the Switch’s introduction) and the “low battery” warning comes on. Maybe the time has finally come to get a battery backup.

Let’s just establish what device chargers are doing (hopefully without it coming off as mansplaining). Electricity sent from one place to another is measured by amperage (the amount of electricity flowing into the device) and voltage (the electrical current’s “pressure”). Most standard USB chargers operate at 5 volts and about 1 amp. Sometimes they have more amps, going up to 2 or 2.5, but that precise voltage is pretty set in stone (that’s the number that can cause damage). As long as you’re getting at least 1 amp any regular old USB charging will work just fine, including my bluetooth headphones (0.4A), my smartwatch (1A), or even an Amazon Echo Dot (1.8A). It can be pretty hard to find out how many V’s and A’s a device prefers, simply because as long as it’s close enough (and since every USB charger deals in 5 volts) stuff will probably work out okay. Therefore, the output of a charger’s ports - though often a major selling point - don’t really matter that much for most devices. Sure, some might charge my phone a little faster than others, but pretty much anything should at least be satisfactory.

Keep in mind that any charger (or USB port on a computer) worth its salt will be able to handle coordinating with the device plugged into it to deliver the voltage and amperage that won’t destroy that device. Trying to charge my power-sipping headphones with the firehose of electricity that my phone can handle will end catastrophically. However, the charger has some magical circuitry inside it to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can rest assured that probably any charger will work reasonably well with any device as long as it isn’t some chintzy dollar store piece of junk.

More powerful (or power hungry) hardware will involve higher amperage and voltage, but generally “more power” means more voltage. The power adapter for my phone - the Motorola Droid Turbo 2 - outputs 2.15 amps at 12 volts. That coordinates with special circuitry in my phone to increase the “pressure” of the electrical flow and thereby fill up the battery much more quickly. This tech goes under a few different names depending on who is trying to sell it to you, and there’s a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo to it, but it generally boils down to the Qualcomm “Quick Charge” standard, for those keeping score at home. Phones are continuing to support QC tech, but a new technology has changed the game a little bit.

A USB port on a computer usually only outputs at 0.5A (or 0.9A for USB 3), so plugging something into a computer to charge it will never work super well. To make a long story short (well, shorter), USB was never actually intended to be a power delivery standard. That is one of the reasons the industry is moving to the shiny new USB Type C standard, which includes capacity for much higher power throughput. If you ask some people (for example, the people who design Macbooks), in a few years everything will just use USB-C. Time will tell.

For some devices, the future is now. The Nintendo Switch, for example, reports that its desired input is 15 V at 2.6 A. It wants a lot more power than a plain and simple smartphone or tablet. In the past, Nintendo has had to put special proprietary charging ports on its devices, but the Switch just has a standard USB-C port. My portable computer, an aging Surface Pro 3, uses 12V at 2.5A through a proprietary (and in my opinion awesome) magnetic charging connector. There are some rumors that Microsoft is going to release an adapter to connect a USB-C cable to that magnetic port, which would be super awesome (meaning I could probably use a USB-C wall plug to charge it). These devices utilize a particular part of the USB-C standard called “PowerDelivery” or “USB-C PD.” This allows a USB-C port to deliver as much as 20V and 5A, while still allowing full data throughput. A device with USB-C PD would be able to handle charging basically anything out there with a USB-C port, from a phone (most Android phones have USB-C nowadays) to a laptop.

I have read articles saying that the Switch will still work fine with much less than that 15/2.6 level that it craves. Supposedly some of the portable chargers with more standard 5v 2A output will be able to at least keep the Switch alive while you use it. I could save a lot of money by getting one of those less capable devices. However, I feel like it’s not the best idea to get something that only barely works today. As more devices use USB-C, it will only be less useful. Also, I like the idea of being able to power a laptop with it, too. If I’m going to invest in a battery backup, I want one that will work with as many devices as possible, for as long as possible. It's a common problem with gadgets - do I save money now for something that won't be as future-proof, or do I make an investment now in something that will hopefully be useful for longer? I hate having to figure out what to do with old devices I don't use anymore, so I'm going to try to get something that I can hang onto.

The other major selling point of portable chargers is their battery capacity. Capacity is measured in milliamp hours (mAh), and ranges from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. What capacity you might need is kind of just dependent on what you really want. A good starting point would be to see what capacity your devices have. The two most important devices that I would want to charge are my phone and my Switch, which take 3760 and 4310 mAh, respectively. Therefore, anything over 10,000 would fully charge both of those and still have some juice left over.

So, to recap, the features I definitely want include:

  • USB-C PowerDelivery
  • USB-A (The standard USB port that has been around for 20 years)
  • USB-C Input
  • Charge level indicator (so I can see how charged the backup is)
  • At least 10,000 mAh capacity
  • Amazon Prime (because come on)

The features I would also like include:

  • Less than $50 price
  • Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0+
  • Multiple USB-C ports
  • MicroUSB input support (for additional charging option)
  • Support for up to 15V and 2.6A over USB-C, for the Switch

Now that we have some idea what features to look for, let’s dive on into the wild world of portable battery packs.

According to Amazon’s “Brand” filter, there are literally hundreds of companies that make these things. Seriously, there are 139 names listed under “M” alone. Here are some of the “Top Brands” that stood out to me, either because I’ve heard of them before, or because I think their name is funny:

  • Anker
  • AUKEY (“Hey, I’m starting a portable battery pack company!” “Aukey daukey!”)
  • Co2Crea (because you don’t need to translate a name that isn’t written in language)
  • DULLA (There’s nobody duller than Dulla!)
  • ExpertPower (certainly puts into question how qualified the other options are)
  • Hermitshell (Did nobody proofread that?)
  • iFORWAY (How do you come up with a name like this?)
  • iNiCE (I like to think when they settled on making the second ‘i’ lowercase as well, they really knew they were onto something)
  • Jackery (some people are Jack, some are Jacker - those dudes have the most Jackery-ness)
  • JENTXON (how, exactly, is this pronounced?)
  • Kunstworker ( . . . wait . . . what?)
  • Mophie
  • Mopower (nice)
  • Nekteck (if these aren’t worn around your neck, they’ve really wasted an opportunity)
  • Pac2Go (well, yeah, I guess that’s what it is)
  • Pocket Juice (kind of on the nose)
  • RAVPower
  • Samsung (insert your own explosion joke here)
  • Stalion (they use that sweet name to make portable battery packs?)
  • TROND (you can’t not spell this in all caps)
  • Tronsmart (it’s like Walmart, but for Tron)
  • U-good (most companies want to make themselves look better, this one starts right out with a compliment to their customers)
  • Uni-Yeap (I don’t know what a Yeap is, but I suppose you only really need one of them)
  • ZEROLEMON (yeah, sure, I believe that)

Okay, we can assume that the hundreds of names not included in the “Top Brands” make products we probably aren’t interested in, either because they’re some licensed brand (for example, Michael Kors has a portable battery pack on Amazon it turns out), some weird niche thing, or some piece of garbage that I definitely don’t want.

Even just focusing on these top companies gives us a whopping 360 product options. Let’s dive in, I guess.

 

USB C Portable Charger RAVPower 20100 Power Bank QC 3.0 Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 20100mAh Input & Output Type C Battery Pack for Macbook, Galaxy S8, iPhone and More

$49.99

Even though this seems to be on the higher end of the legitimacy spectrum, this page sets off some of my warning bells. When a company throws all of a product’s features into the product name on Amazon, it usually isn’t a great sign. Also, the RAVPower brand doesn’t really exist outside these devices. Even these devices seem to be somewhat standard components all thrown together as cheaply as possible.

However, this charger sure seems to tick a lot of boxes. We have USB-C (there’s no mention of PD here, but it does mention the Switch by name at least), Qualcomm Quick Charge, an ample capacity for my needs, and it’s all less than fifty bucks. What’s more, it can charge from MicroUSB as well as USB-C, and it supports Quick Charge on the input as well as the output, which is pretty cool. We have four ports here - a single USB-C, a MicroUSB, and two USB-A ports (one labeled “Quick Charge” and another called “iSmart”). It supports 5V / 2.4A on the USB ports and can go up to 12V for QC.

The “iSmart” buzzword is a definite example of the snake oil you get in these devices. The page claims that it allows this device to “automatically detect the optimal current for your device.” Since the charger that comes with literally every single device you own already does this, it isn’t a feature worth bragging about (though I guess it’s good to know that this won’t destroy something plugged into it). They also promise a “Premium LG / Panasonic battery cell.” Okay, so you sourced lithium batteries from a company that makes lithium batteries. Good job.

As for downsides, there is only one USB-C port, which means I would need a USB-A to USB-C cable to charge two USB-C devices at once, which is not ideal. Also, the USB-C port caps out at 5V / 3A, which means it does not have any PowerDelivery capacity, and that really limits this thing’s future value. That’s more important to me than Quick Charge.

Which leads us to...

 

PD USB C Hubs Portable Charger RAVPower 20100 Power Bank 20100mAh 30W (Max.) Type C Port iSmart Data Transfer, USB C/Type C Output, External Battery Pack for MacBook, Laptops, Smartphones

$69.99

Here we get into the real problem with shopping for these things. How is this device any different from the last one? It seems to be the same capacity and form factor, it has the same port selection, and it just has a few different seemingly made-up buzzwords sprinkled throughout the description.

One good clue is the “30W” in the product title. You have to scroll way down to the chart comparing this to the obnoxiously vast library of other nearly identical RAVPower devices before you get the official declaration of PD support. So this charger loses QC to get USB-C PD instead. That means the USB-C port will be much faster on this device (up to 20V/1.5A) while the USB-A port (and MicroUSB input) will be slower (only 5V/2.4A). I think ultimately this would be better moving forward, since USB-C is the future.

What does 30W have to do with this? It turns out Wattage is equal to Volts * Amps, so 20V * 1.5A = 30W. This is why you will see the Amps go down as the Volts go up on these devices. It’s all complicated mumbo-jumbo, but different companies will use all this terminology in different ways to make things seem more impressive. 30 Watts sounds like a nice big number, but it comes at the expense of Amperage.

We also get the “incredible” “iSmart 3.0” with this device, which is I assume roughly 33% more smart.

I kind of want to avoid RAVPower purely for the obnoxious number of products that they make. According to the brand filter on Amazon, there are 40 different RAVPower battery banks available for purchase. I thought electric toothbrushes were hard to choose. Why in the world do we need 40 different options for portable battery pack? You want a smaller, cheaper version and a larger, more feature-packed option? Fine. You want a newer model with more advanced features? Fine. You do not need to do that 40 times.

Does RAVPower have anything that would be perfect? What’s the most expensive, top of the line, RAVPower portable charger?

 

AC Portable Charger, RAVPower 27000mAh 100W(Max.) Built in 110V AC Outlet Universal Power Bank Travel Charger (Type-C Port , Dual USB iSmart Ports , 19V/1.6A DC Input) For Macbook, Laptops, Smartphone

$169.99

Here they throw a standard 110v three-prong AC Outlet into the mix. That means anything with a wall plug that uses less than 100W (or 70W, which it says in the description down the page) can plug into this thing.

However, it only has one USB-C, no mention of Qualcomm Quick Charge or USB-C PD, and a pretty absurd price tag. Also, the fact that it needs active cooling is kind of crazy (and means I would be afraid to keep it in a bag or pocket). Also also it charges from its own special, old-school wall plug, and not from the ubiquitous micro-USB, which really cuts into the convenience of the whole thing.

At the end of the day, with all of those options, RAVPower still hasn’t found the right design. A company’s goal should be to make a product that people want to buy, but these people can’t even figure out what they want to build.

Speaking of too many options…

 

mophie Powerstation 8X Dual USB External Battery for Smartphones and Tablets (15,000 mAh) - Space Grey

69.99

Here we have one of the major players in the portable charger space. They have decided this means they have reached the point where they can charge more money simply for the privilege of having a product with their name on it. They also have even more products than RAVPower, with 51 listings on Amazon in the Portable Power Pack category.

They have even fewer of those that are any good, from what I can tell.

Take this option (only figuratively, I wouldn’t recommend spending money on it). No USB-C at all, no mention of any quick charge features or even what capacity its ports are. A paltry 15,000 mAh for a hundred bucks? No, thanks.

 

mophie powerstation Plus Mini External Battery with Built in Cables for Smartphones and Tablets (4,000mAh) - Space Grey

$54.48

mophie (they never capitalize their name, probably because they acknowledge their uselessness) also has a whole line of devices with these built-in cords. These look kind of annoying if you have a phone with microUSB, downright stupid if you have an iPhone, and completely useless if you have literally anything else. Hard pass. Hard pass on mophie.

What about one of those wacky brands I’ve never heard of?

 

KUNSTWORKER 20000mAh Power Bank,Portable Charger with Built in LED Flash Lights and LED Display,External Battery Pack with Three Output Ports for iPhone6 6s 7 Plus, Galaxy and More

$31.99

KUNSTWORKER 20000mAh Power Bank,Portable Charger with Built in LED Flash Lights and LED Display,External Battery Pack with Three Output Ports for iPhone6 6s 7 Plus, Galaxy and More

KUNSTWORKER - what a typo minefield - seems pretty similar to RAVPower, with a handful of standard parts thrown into a little black box. You have to at least hand it to them for only having one product. It just isn’t a great product, is the thing.

This is definitely on the budget end of the spectrum, so let’s not waste any more time because come on I’m not going to go around having to tell people I have to go plug in the KUNSTWORKER.

 

Portable Charger, TROND Bolt 12500mAh Power Bank External Battery Pack (Triple USB Outputs, 2.0A Input), for iPhone 6 6S Plus SE 5S 5, Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ S5 S4 S3 Note 5 4, Gopro, Kindle & More

22.99

What a deal! The capacity isn’t as large as the RAVPower device, but it sure is cheap!

Actually, “cheap” is probably the most accurate word for it. A price like that is definitely too good to be true. Also it has no USB-C and it caps out at 3.4A. I’d love to be able to buy something called TROND, but this isn’t it.

 

Amazon makes it hard to just filter by products that include USB-C / PD functionality, so I have to slog through everything to find them manually. Since I want to be able to use this with the Switch or any modern Android phone, it really needs to at least have one USB-C port on it.

 

Anker PowerCore+ 26800 PD with 27W PD Portable Charger Bundle for Nintendo Switch & USB Type-C Laptops (e.g. 2016 MacBook) Power Delivery Support

$109.99

Anker is a pretty big name in portable chargers, and they seem to have a similar library of options to RAVPower. There aren’t a lot of buzzword bells and whistles here, just two USB-A ports, a USB-C (used for both input and output), and a little button up top to check the status. It takes full advantage of PD, even name-dropping the Switch right there in the product name. The capacity is kind of absurd, really (it would fully recharge the Switch 6 times and have some juice left over). It doesn’t say exactly what the numbers are on the USB-C port (it promises 30W, so we’re probably dealing with 15V/1.5A). The two USB-A ports offer 5V/3A, which is perfectly fine.

It’s definitely an option, but it’s also definitely a pricey one. I would happily pay less money to have a smaller capacity version. Some companies have too many options, apparently Anker has too few. I just can’t be pleased.

 

Just like RAVPower, Anker makes far too many of these things. They have an option of the 26800 without USB-C and only Quick Charge:

Anker PowerCore+ 26800, Premium Portable Charger, High Capacity 26800mAh External Battery with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 (in- and output), Includes PowerPort+ 1 Wall Charger

$82.99

 

They have a version of the 26800 with no USB-C, dual micro-USB inputs, three regular USB ports, and no other special buzzwords:

Anker PowerCore 26800 Portable Charger, 26800mAh External Battery with Dual Input Port and Double-Speed Recharging, 3 USB Ports for iPhone, iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Android and other Smart Devices

$59.99

 

They also have a smaller capacity option (20100, like the RAVPower) with Quick Charge and USB-C, but no PowerDelivery:

Anker PowerCore+ 20100 USB-C Ultra-High-Capacity Premium External Battery/Portable Charger/Power Bank with PowerPort+ 1 Wall Charger for Apple MacBook, iPhone, iPad, Samsung & more

$82.99

 

I could keep digging around, but it seems like I have essentially ruled it down to the only two devices which support PowerDelivery. If that’s the killer feature that I simply must have (and for lack of a better idea, I have to limit the selection somehow). Anker’s device has a lot more capacity for a lot more money. The RAVPower option is a bit cheaper, probably in price as well as quality. It’s worth noting that the RAVPower charger doesn’t come with a USB-C wall adapter, so I would have to use one of the old micro-USB chargers I have laying around to charge it (the fact that it has the micro USB option is a good feature). Considering in a matter of years I’m swimming in extra micro USB chargers, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of USB-C adapters I can use in no time.

I think that finally settles it, then. I have four conclusions to draw from my time researching portable chargers. There are far, far too many options, you can’t have good USB-C support and Quick Charge at the same time, mophie sucks, and the RAVPower 20100 mAh with PD is probably the best combination of features, future-proofing, and price.

Phew, that ended up being much more time consuming than I expected it to be.

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