Review: Lenmar Meridian iPhone 5 Battery Case
iPhone battery cases are unquestionably important. Apple's apparent satisfaction with devices that deliver less than a full day of active use have left many users -- particularly travelers -- in need of compact but powerful supplementary battery accessories, though iPhone 5-specific options have been few and far between. Roughly a dozen different iPhone 5 battery cases were shown at January's 2013 CES, and Lenmar had the first of them in our hands for testing three months ago. Yet due to unexpected Apple certification delays, Meridian ($90) is only now becoming available to consumers, while several rivals such as Mophie's Juice Packs have been in stores for some time. Can Meridian compete with these better-known alternatives? The answer is "yes," albeit a modestly qualified one.
The best way to sum up Meridian is as a more powerful and reasonably priced but less physically polished alternative to Mophie’s $100 Juice Pack Air. At a distance, you might have trouble telling the two black, soft touch rubber-coated hard plastic shells apart, and there’s no question that they have plenty in common. However, Mophie’s design is modestly smaller, benefits from more curved edges, and has built-in button protectors that feel as good as pressing Apple’s originals. Like Mophie’s $80 Juice Pack Helium, Meridian has no button protection—the iPhone 5’s buttons are actually recessed just a little too much for ideal finger comfort within pill-shaped top and side holes—and its lines lean angular rather than soft. All of these cases have headphone and micro-USB ports on the bottom, but Mophie’s are just a little nicer-looking, and while the Juice Packs come with headphone port extenders, Meridian does not, including only a USB recharging cable. Color options are similar: metallic red and glossy white versions of Meridian are supposed to be coming soon.
One modest difference between Lenmar’s and Mophie’s designs is how the iPhones are inserted and removed. Mophie’s packs come apart near the bottom, allowing you to keep most of the case on the iPhone 5 when placing it in a dock. Meridian opens closer to the top, so if you want to dock the iPhone with anything other than the included micro-USB cable, you’ll need to remove the entire case. While this might seem like a big advantage for the Juice Packs, there are very few iPhone 5 docks at this point—and not many announced ones, in part because wireless streaming has become increasingly viable as an alternative. Consequently, this difference won’t matter to most users.
Meridian’s biggest advantage relative to rivals is its performance to price ratio. Despite adding only a couple of millimeters of extra thickness, Lenmar has squeezed a 2300mAh battery into the $90 Meridian, which is considerably more capacity than the $100 Juice Pack Air’s 1700mAh cell. Because of this one critical component difference, Meridian accomplishes something other iPhone 5 battery cases cannot: it actually delivers a 100% recharge for a completely empty iPhone, versus 79% for Juice Pack Air and 66% for Juice Pack Helium. During multiple tests of Meridian, we found that the recharge was literally exactly 100% if the user doesn’t fiddle with the phone at all, versus 99% with modest screen-checking. Once that full recharge is finished, Meridian has nothing left—that’s it. We suspect that some developers will be able to achieve full iPhone 5 recharges with slightly less battery capacity, but for the time being, Meridian does more than any rival battery case for this device.
Our only gripe with Meridian’s charging functionality is the somewhat opaque indicator light system Lenmar implemented on the case’s back. Mophie’s four white lights obviously indicate various 25% marks and come coupled with both a power switch and a button to check remaining power. Meridian uses a single light that shifts from red when near empty to blue mid-cycle to green that flashes before going solid green. Once you learn what the colors and flashes mean, you can make sense of them, but between their unintuitive design and Lenmar’s decision to combine the battery indicator button with the power button—you hold the button down for three seconds for power—we’d have appreciated a more straightforward approach.
Other dimensions of Meridian’s performance were as expected. Phone calls sounded the same with or without the case on the iPhone 5, and wireless signal strength—a potential issue we had flagged in the original unit we were sent back in January—appears to have been resolved in the final, post-testing unit. We didn’t notice any bar-level reduction in either cellular or Wi-Fi strength with Meridian on. The recessed bottom headphone port will be an issue with most iPhone 5 battery cases, and may prevent particularly large plugs from connecting through Meridian without an adapter; most of today’s thinner plugs will work without issues.
Fairly rating Meridian requires a somewhat tricky balancing act: on one hand, Meridian blows away Mophie’s more expensive Juice Pack Air in battery capacity, and as Lenmar is temporarily offering an even lower price through its own web site, there’s little question as to which we’d pick with our own dollars—Meridian wins. On the other hand, Meridian’s ergonomics and power indication system could both benefit from further refinement. While these user experience issues are enough to keep Meridian from meriting our high recommendation, this battery case is certainly a better overall buy for its asking price than either of the Juice Packs. You’ll be pleased by its value for the dollar if you’re willing to make some small trade-offs in the comfort department to achieve superior recharging capabilities.