Review: Mophie Juice Pack Helium for iPhone 5
Within two or three months, iPhone 5 battery cases will be available at price points ranging from $70-$100, commonly with 1800mAh to 4000mAh capacities. But today, these accessories are few and far between: Lenmar's Meridian was the first in our hands but was then held back from stores, followed by Mophie's Juice Pack Helium ($80), which shipped in small quantities before further units were delayed until March.
Juice Pack Helium is very different from the many alternatives that debuted at CES: Mophie is positioning Helium as a thinner and more refined sequel to earlier Juice Packs, rather than as the most powerful or affordable battery case around. On paper, it seems anemic for its asking price: there’s only a 1500mAh battery inside, which only promises to refuel an iPhone 5 to 80% of its initial capacity. This capacity falls below every other iPhone 5 battery case announced so far, and our real-world testing suggests that Helium doesn’t quite match the 80% claim. Regardless of whether our test iPhone 5 was fully discharged or at 18% capacity, Helium delivered only a 65%-67% recharge, in each case with the iPhone 5 doing little more than sitting unused during the one-hour time required for recharging. (It should be noted that idle battery drain under iOS 6.1 appears to be higher than with iOS 6.0, and future variations in iOS releases may lead to different results.)
But if you can get past the low capacity for the price, Juice Pack Helium has a collection of design features that are unquestionably appealing. Thanks as much to the millimeters Apple shaved off of the iPhone 5 as anything else, Juice Pack Helium is thinner than prior Juice Packs—approximately 14mm total—and certainly smaller than most of the rivals we’ve seen so far. The shape is fundamentally the same as earlier Juice Packs, adding a gently curved bulge to the iPhone 5’s flat back, but it’s obvious that Mophie worked hard to add as little to the device’s other edges as possible.
A hard plastic ridge roughly 4mm in thickness surrounds the iPhone 5’s top, left, and right sides. Like the rest of this case, this plastic feels entirely solid, though it regrettably lacks protection for the iPhone’s top and side controls. They, like the screen and rear camera, are exposed under tapered plastic lips that look and feel good.
By comparison, Juice Pack Helium’s bottom adds around 13mm of height to the iPhone 5. This includes pass-through speaker and microphone grilles that make phone calls only a hint less clear than with a bare iPhone 5—so little that most people won’t notice the differences. Taken together, the raw millimeter-level measurements don’t convey a lot on their own, but it’s fair to say that an iPhone 5 in a Juice Pack Helium looks and feels like a taller, modestly thicker iPhone 3G or 3GS, easy to hold and pleasant to feel due to a nice soft touch rubber coating. Users can choose between black iPhone-matching gunmetal and white iPhone-matching silver versions of Helium, with the prospect of additional options in the future.
Another interesting design choice is how the housing opens to hold the iPhone 5. Like most battery cases, Juice Pack Helium splits into top and bottom pieces, but here the top is around four-fifths of the case’s length, with the Lightning connector, power switch, and four nice white battery level indicator lights all on the detachable last fifth. This slider-style concept enables Juice Pack Helium to enjoy some compatibility with Lightning docking accessories, though the accessory’s battery can’t be charged without the bottom piece in place. Once that’s installed, you’ll also need to connect an included micro-USB cable for charging—wired syncing with the iPhone 5 inside Helium is not supported, so you’ll need to enable Wi-Fi syncing if you haven’t already. Should you need to access the iPhone 5’s bottom headphone port while Helium is in use, a headphone extension cable is in the package, as well.
Overall, Juice Pack Helium for iPhone 5 is pretty much the definition of a “good” battery case; it’s thoughtfully engineered and generally appealing, but not excellent in any major way for its price. With higher-capacity standalone batteries already selling for considerably less, and many battery case alternatives coming soon, Helium will appeal primarily to two groups of people: loyal Mophie fans who have liked the company’s past battery cases, and users who so value thinness that they’re willing to pay a value premium for a slim product with lower capacity than rivals. If you fall into either of these camps, we certainly wouldn’t discourage you from considering Juice Pack Helium—just be aware that the same dollars could keep your iPhone 5 running longer.