Pros: Inexpensive and can recharge an iPod when music’s not playing.
Cons: Had problems charging iPod’s battery while music was playing, may damage your iPod if used as advertised.
We live in a world of “authorized accessories” and “unauthorized accessories,” terms which like “authorized biographies” and “unauthorized biographies” give consumers a vague idea of what to expect, but ultimately do not define the value of the products themselves. Authorized products are supposed to be better than unauthorized ones, but that’s not always true. The authorized 1989 biography of Pete Rose, for example, presented Rose’s official but entirely dishonest claim that he hadn’t wagered money on baseball, and many authorized accessories do nothing better than unauthorized versions, yet cost more. Authorization turns out to be only as good as the person or company doing the authorizing.
Two facts should therefore come as no surprise to iLounge readers: first, while some iPod accessories are authorized by Apple, others are not, and second, because there’s nothing to say that authorized accessories are always better than unauthorized ones, iLounge is willing to equally extend the presumption of quality to both types of products. But we also believe that more often than not, there will be added value inherent in third-party products that were developed and tested under Apple’s watchful eye.
Though there have been a number of good unauthorized iPod accessories to date, two new products from Gadget Accessories illustrate the potential dangers of unauthorized products: on the surface, both look almost identical to products already on the market, but Gadget Accessories’ versions are considerably cheaper — at least 40% less expensive than authorized alternatives. The only problem is that neither of these products worked properly when we received them.
Far from relishing the experience of writing about problematic iPod accessories, iLounge actually hates having to say anything bad. Poorly reviewed products typically have taken us two or three times the time and effort to re-test, and in some cases have damaged our test iPods or wasted our spare consumables in the process. We write about these products out of a sense of obligation to our readers, in hopes that they won’t have to re-live our bad experiences themselves, or at least will understand the risks involved before making a purchase.
Gadget Accessories’ new iPod External Battery Pack is the sort of product we hate to write about, because like certain other iPod accessories we’ve reviewed, it would have been great if it worked properly. For a $29.99 retail price, the External Battery Pack connects your third-generation iPod or iPod mini to a set of four AA batteries, promising “extra power while on the road”, and that it “also charges the iPod’s internal battery while connected to this device.” Simple enough, right?
Wrong. We conducted several tests of the External Battery Pack and came away both concerned and disappointed by it. Our concern can be summed up in the words “sizzling noise” and “erratic on-screen battery meter,” and our disappointment in the words “two hours of playback time when used as advertised,” and “perhaps eight hours under limited circumstances.”
The device looks nice enough: around ten inches of cord connects the iPod to the white plastic Pack, which measures 4.75” x 1.5” x .75” and includes a single on-off switch and a single green power LED. Flip the switch on and power runs from the AA batteries (not included) to the iPod, whether it’s playing music or turned off for recharging purposes. The LED glows brightly when the AAs are at peak power, and dims when they run down.
But performance counts for more than looks. We tried our standard testing mechanism two times with the External Battery Pack: connect the discharged iPod to the Pack, let it power the iPod up, go immediately into randomized play on fifty percent volume with standard headphones attached, and do not turn any equalizers on. On the first try, the External Battery Pack wouldn’t power up the iPod until we gave the iPod a starter boost of wall power, at which point it began to work. On the second try, it powered up the iPod without initial incident. (A third attempt replicated the first attempt’s results, and we came to the conclusion that the iPod needs to have at least a tiny bit of internal battery juice left in order for the External Battery Pack to get started.)
Once the iPod was turned on and playing, the same thing happened twenty minutes into each fresh set of Energizer batteries: a quiet hissing noise from inside the Pack’s battery compartment suddenly became a loud sizzling noise, and the iPod’s battery charge meter went from apparently normal charging to erratically fast movement. We suspected from the sound (and the heat of the Pack) that the AA batteries were on the verge of exploding, and therefore turned off the accessory for just a minute to give the batteries a chance to settle down. Our tests then resumed.
Based on the device’s advertising alone, battery charging during music playback should not have been a problem, but it was. While we didn’t let our tests continue until something exploded — or potentially stopped fizzling, which seemed unlikely — we came away feeling that the External Battery Pack might even be dangerous (at least from a battery acid standpoint) if left uninterrupted when it begins to make a sizzling sound.
Many Apple-authorized peripherals for the iPod boast smart charging mechanisms that claim to measure the appropriate amount of power to deliver to the iPod’s battery (full power, trickle, or none). And an apparently unauthorized but otherwise strong performing product from BTI called the iPod Battery simply sidesteps battery recharging capability in favor of just safely powering the iPod’s other internals for extended playback. If Gadget Accessories had done this, we suspect that there mightn’t have been a problem.
Gadget Accessories also makes no claim about how long the iPod will play when connected. When we restarted our tests post-sizzle, the reason became apparent: the iPod continued to play for only two hours before the juice in the AAs ran out, and wouldn’t continue to offer power. This wasn’t a stellar performance by comparison with the other portable battery products we have tested (as noted below), even for the price.
Another test gave the External Battery Pack a chance to simply recharge the iPod off of AA power when music wasn’t playing, a less demanding test of its performance given that it is supposed to do both at the same time. In this test, the Pack took four hours and 15 minutes to transfer the four AAs into a full (eight-hour) iPod battery charge before becoming unable to deliver further power. We suppose that this would be an okay application of the product for users who have both batteries, four hours of recharging time to spare, and no AC outlet to access, but frankly we wouldn’t recommend it to people solely for this purpose.
iLounge readers will recall our favorable reviews of two more expensive battery solutions, namely the very similar Belkin Backup Battery Pack ($50-70, depending on store) and BTI’s The iPod Battery ($81-99, store dependent), both of which offer portable iPod power for users who can’t access AC outlets. Our tests of BTI’s battery yielded a better than advertised 73 hours of playback time on a rechargeable built-in battery, and Belkin’s Apple-authorized battery device yielded around eight hours of playback on four AAs. Of the two, we preferred BTI’s product for the price, though we had no problems with Belkin’s offering and found it a worthwhile option for people whose only source of iPod power sustenance would be replacement AA batteries.
Gadget Accessories’ External Battery Pack may be a cheap option, but like the USB 2.0 Sync Cable, it unfortunately demonstrates the value of more expensive products. We do not relish handing out “sad” ratings to products, but we cannot in good conscience offer better than that to items that materially fail to perform as advertised.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school – ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.
USB Sync Cable
External Battery Pack
Company and Price
Company: Gadget Accessories
Model: iPod External Battery Pack
Compatible: iPod 3G, iPod mini