Review: Belkin Backup Battery Pack
Pros: The Belkin Backup Battery Pack allows you to go off the beaten path with all your tunes for as long as you want; good performance is extracted from four AA batteries.
Cons: With the backup unit attached, the slim iPod becomes much heavier and bulkier; the docking cable can come loose if jostled; the housing can scratch the metal backing of the iPod.
The Belkin Backup Battery Pack for third-generation Apple iPods, those with the dock connector, addresses a limitation intrinsic to all consumer electronics that employ an internal, proprietary rechargeable battery: When you travel beyond the world of electronic outlets long enough to exhaust the battery, you have no way to put in a fresh battery or renew power. With a battery life of around eight hours on a full charge, a 30 GB iPod isn’t likely to leave you high and dry too often in daily usage. But, when your usage is extensive and your access to electrical outlets limited, you’ll need an alternative source of energy.
The Belkin Backup Battery Pack for the iPod steps up to this challenge by harnessing the power of 4 AA batteries and channeling it via the thin, flat dock connector found on the third generation iPod. Belkin claims 15-20 hours of music play with fresh batteries—but note: that number assumes a fully charged internal iPod battery, too. Once our iPod’s internal battery was drained, we only got about half of Belkin’s claimed play time on a set of fresh AAs.
We put the Backup Battery Pack to the test by taking a 30 GB iPod where it wouldn’t see an electrical outlet for two weeks and where it would get played for five or more hours every day: The John Muir Trail through the High Sierra. We packed enough AA batteries to allow us a fresh set every day or two, listening to music while walking and at night before sleeping. Throughout the 170-mile trek, the iPod subsisted happily on its Belkin-supplied electricity, and we were still contentedly iPod’ing when we arrived in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, the terminus for our Kings Canyon-to-Yosemite route.
The Backup Battery Pack consists of a white plastic battery pod which clamps onto the metal back of the iPod with two large, secure plastic suction cups. There is no escaping and nothing much to like about what this does to the familiar, almost eerily slim profile of the iPod. Suddenly, your pocket holding the iPod bulges hugely and tugs heavily with the extra weight. With the battery pack installed, the iPod is twice as heavy and more than twice as thick. The cable connecting the battery pack to the iPod is very short, making it unrealistic to carry the pack separately from the iPod when in use; in fact, the short cable makes use of the suction cups almost mandatory.
For our first tests with the battery pack, we fully drained the iPod’s li-ion battery and slotted in fresh AA’s. Under those conditions, we consistently achieved play times of seven or more hours. However, we quickly came to the conclusion that this was not an optimal approach. We noticed that when the AA batteries were getting tired and when the iPod was at peak power usage, such as when it was spinning up its hard drive to load up its flash memory buffer with data, the iPod would exceed the power supply of the external batteries. At these times, the solid battery icon on the iPod’s display (indicating an external power supply) would be replaced by the familiar battery gauge for the internal li-ion battery. With a fully drained internal battery, music play would be interrupted and the iPod would issue a low-power warning.
By not fully draining the internal li-ion battery, more life could be extracted from the external AA batteries. At those infrequent moments of peak demand, the li-ion battery filled in. When the iPod’s hard drive spun down, the iPod would resume drawing power from the Backup Battery Pack. Based on our initial tests, we projected we could expect eight hours or more for an average set of AA batteries.
We also learned not to rely on the battery pack’s four green indicator lights which measures the charge remaining on the AA batteries. By the time we were down to fewer than three lights on this meter, we were no longer getting acceptable performance from the iPod. Rather, we kept rough track of how much play time we’d extracted from the current set of AAs to determine how much use remained.
On the John Muir Trail
We set off with our iPod from Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park, beginning a 170-mile, 13-day hike north to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park following the route of the John Muir Trail. During those two weeks, we ran the iPod for more than six hours each day without ever seeing an electrical outlet.
The Belkin Backup Battery Pack performed well throughout the two weeks, making possible the use of the iPod in a context for which its internal battery design is entirely ill-suited. By not fully draining the iPod’s internal battery—rather, we used it for just five hours of play on the first day of the trip, switching at that point to AA power—we achieved reliable, consistent music play throughout our adventure. Every day or two, depending on usage, we would install a fresh set of AAs, using as our barometer the battery state indicator on the iPod’s display. When the indicator began to show that the AA batteries could not cover moments of peak usage, we would assume we had only a few more hours of power on the current set of batteries.
The iPod with battery pack looks small next to a full-sized trekking pack, but its size and weight is a real consideration for backcountry usage.
For backpacking, the additional weight required to support the iPod is substantial; many weight-conscious backpackers would never consider adding two pounds or more to the overall pack-weight in order to bring an extra electronic gadget and batteries. We sympathized with this viewpoint as we hauled our heavy pack over the numerous 11,000 and 12,000 ft. passes negotiated by the Muir Trail’s steep route. And yet, as we sang and danced down the trail while listening to some of the 7,000 songs available on our 30 GB iPod, we got this comment from more than one hiker we passed: “What is that thing? You seem to be having a lot more fun than I am!”
And it’s true: We had great fun with our iPod accompaniment. Nearly two weeks and 150 miles into the trip, we dialed up John Muir’s The Yosemite on the iPod, an audio book purchased from Audible.com. As we labored up Donohue Pass and crested into Yosemite National Park, we listened to Muir’s description of his wild explorations of the mountain country through which we’d been passing. A little extra pack weight seemed a small price to pay for that privilege. And, for all its bulk, we were most grateful at that point for what the Backup Battery Pack made possible.
After our two weeks on the trail, the only complaints we had were that the Backup Battery Pack’s power cable did not lock into the iPod securely enough, popping out frequently when carried in a pocket while walking, and that the edges of the battery pack’s cradle had left scratches on the shiny metal sides of our iPod.
Ultimately, the Belkin Backup Battery Pack for iPod does what it sets out to do, and does it well, allowing your third-generation iPod to perform without recharging for as long as you might need. It consumes inexpensive, commonly available AA batteries. For applications where size and weight are not an issue, the product has very few drawbacks. But, even when size and weight are at a premium, such as on an extended backpacking trek, the battery pack makes iPod’ing possible and practical even for extended detours from the electrical grid. And that’s no small thing.