Review: Macally USB Car Charger for iPod & iPhone
Just before the release of iPhone, Apple announced a new "Works with iPhone" accessory certification program, which is supposed to help consumers tell the difference between electronic accessories that will work properly with iPhone, and those that might not. From car chargers to FM transmitters and other electronic add-ons, Apple and AT&T stores will only carry electronic iPhone accessories if they have that badge, and the only way for a company to get the badge is to conduct special testing that guarantees iPhone won't lock up or shut down when connected. But, like the "Made for iPod" program that preceded it, "Works with iPhone" remains somewhat of a mystery: the absence of the logo doesn't mean that unbadged accessories won't work, and it's possible that badged accessories won't seem different at all; they might even have other issues.
Over the past several days, we’ve been testing Apple’s latest gadget with four car chargers that are supposed to be iPhone-ready: Griffin’s PowerJolt ($20), XtremeMac’s InCharge Auto ($20), Macally’s USB Car Charger for iPod & iPhone ($15), and BoxWave’s VersaCharger PRO ($45/$26). All four chargers connect to your car’s cigarette lighter power adapter, and have you connect a USB-to-Dock Connector cable to charge your iPhone in the car. You can also connect an iPod to any of these chargers with the same cable. Once that cable’s connected, the only ways to get audio out of your iPhone or iPod are to use the headphone port, the iPhone’s built-in speakers, or iPhone’s Bluetooth feature; the Dock Connector port is blocked off.
Cosmetically, the chargers are each a little different from one another. Glossy black and chrome to match iPhone’s body, InCharge Auto is tube-shaped, and features a self-resetting fuse in case of power overloads, as well as inoffensive XtremeMac branding. Griffin’s PowerJolt is cosmetically the same as its prior PowerJolt car charger for iPods, with a more traditional black matte finish and bulging, Griffin-embossed body. A fuse pops out if there’s an issue. Macally’s USB Car Charger blends silver and glossy black plastic with a shape more like PowerJolt’s, and a screw-open panel hides a fuse that can be swapped out if your car’s power port experiences a surge. VersaCharger PRO is the oddball of the group, transparent blue with a big white cap. Yet Boxwave has included a unique feature: unlike the others, VersaCharger PRO also includes flip-out wall blades on the back that let you use it as a wall charger. Each unit has a single power light to let you know current’s running: Griffin’s is amber, while XtremeMac’s is blue, Macally’s is red, and Boxwave’s is yellow.
Griffin and XtremeMac’s packages both include the iPhone- or iPod-to-USB cable, and both companies have received the Works with iPhone certification for their products. Griffin also includes a mini USB-to-USB cable that enables you to charge an iPod or iPhone when certain mini-USB accessories are connected, such as the company’s old iTrip FM transmitter, and the charger can also be used for some other devices that use USB for charging. Neither Macally nor BoxWave includes any cables with their chargers, so you’ll have to use the one that comes with your iPod or iPhone, or buy a second cable for around $20. Since you’re likely to want to leave your iPhone or iPod’s packed-in cable near your computer for synchronization, having a second cable in the box is more convenient, and a better value for the dollar.
Why does the Works with iPhone certification matter? Apparently, iPhone’s hardware may demand more power under certain circumstances than an iPod, thanks to its several wireless components. But in our testing with iPods, and with iPhone’s only current in-car usage alternatives—iPhone as iPod, and iPhone with Bluetooth on for phone calling—the chargers all charged the connected iPhones and iPods whether Bluetooth was on or off, and whether the iPod was playing or not. Griffin’s PowerJolt ran warm or hot to the touch, however, when connected to iPhone on Bluetooth mode, whereas none of the others had that issue. We suspect PowerJolt is heating up because it’s pushing more power to the iPhone, but there are times when we’ve found it uncomfortably hot after only a little bit of use, and this shouldn’t happen with a properly-made charger.
InCharge Auto was the smallest and most universally connectable of the chargers, while VersaCharge PRO was the largest, and more difficult to fit into tight power adapter spots. However, its ability to serve as a wall charger makes it a nice potential travel companion, and even though it doesn’t achieve a huge space or convenience savings over just carrying along the USB Power Adapter Apple currently includes in the iPhone’s box, iPod users and possibly future iPhone users may find it handy.
At $20 each, XtremeMac’s InCharge Auto and Griffin’s PowerJolt are the best values for the dollar on paper, thanks to their included iPod/iPhone cables; PowerJolt’s second USB cable actually makes it the best deal of the bunch for car use. Macally’s $15 price almost offsets its lack of a cable or Works with iPhone certification. Boxwave’s odd pricing—$45 for the charger, discounted on permanent “web special” to $26, but then offset by the cost of an additional $18 cable—means that you’ll have to pay more for its option, and unlike the others, you won’t find it in any local store, only online with additional shipping costs. But it does work as a wall charger for iPods and iPhones, and since buying an extra one of those from Apple will set you back $29, its combination of features is pretty good for the price.
Because of the price and pack-in differences, our ratings here are a little complex. Like its past, similarly simple and identically priced Car Charger, XtremeMac’s simple but functional InCharge Auto rates a B and general recommendation; while it’s nothing special in functionality by comparison with top past iPod chargers, it looks nice, comes with an iPhone-ready cable, doesn’t cost too much, and is Works with iPhone-certified. Despite its superior value for the dollar and Works with iPhone certification, the heat generated by Griffin’s PowerJolt under certain conditions led it to receive our B- rating and limited recommendation; we liked its cables a lot, but we’d pick it only if you can mount it in a well-ventilated part of your car, and don’t plan to touch it. If you’re concerned that future iPhone applications may push iPhone’s power consumption over current levels, these two Works with iPhone accessories may be safer buys.
VersaCharger PRO also rates a B. We liked its multifunctionality for the price, but weren’t especially impressed by its cosmetics, size, or lack of included cabling. Of the bunch, the dual-purpose charger offers the best value if you’re willing to use your packed-in iPhone cable, but it’s the least visually appropriate for use with the iPhone or most car interiors. Macally’s USB Car Charger rates a B-, as it’s not as good of a value at $15 as its Works with iPhone-certified, cable-packed alternatives are at $20, or the double-charger VersaCharger PRO at $26, but if you’re looking for the least expensive car charger available from a name brand manufacturer, this is it.