Review: XtremeMac MicroPack Portable Multimedia Dock and Battery
Pros: The first all-in-one home and travel dock, battery pack, and headphone port splitter for iPods, with a clean design and reasonable price for its components. Adds 8 (or more) hours of video play time to fifth-generation iPods, and more than triples audio playtime, as well.
Cons: Battery performance issues were found in original unit we tested; second unit worked to company’s guidelines, but doesn’t do well either as a travel or home dock with fully discharged iPods. Fixed iPod angle is less than ideal for video viewing. Includes no frills - Dock Adapters, cables, charger, or otherwise - so you’ll need to use the ones Apple provides, or buy others yourself.
We weren’t sure what to think when we first received one of XtremeMac’s MicroPacks ($80) for testing: it was obvious that the company had rethought the traditional concept of an iPod battery, developing a multi-functional accessory with several potentially interesting features, but our initial sample had issues. Having now tested two MicroPacks, our feelings are mixed but more positive: if you get a fully working unit, you’ll find that XtremeMac has developed a novel little device for fifth-generation iPod users, and potentially some iPod nano owners as well, though the company hasn’t fully worked through some of the practical issues we consider important in batteries and docks.
At first blush, MicroPack appears to be nothing more than a clean but oversized iPod dock with some odd buttons, ports, and a switch: you’ll first see two sets of top front-mounted volume control buttons, which are connected to twin headphone ports on the rear. As it turns out, each of the headphone ports has its own digital amplifier, allowing two people to listen quietly to the 5G iPod when it’s docked on a standard, semi-video-friendly recline. Near the volume controls, you’ll find a Universal iPod Dock, and alongside the headphone ports, you’ll find an A/V out port and a Dock Connector pass-through port for iPod charging and synchronization, parts that make MicroPack nearly identical to one of Apple’s Universal Docks, minus only the S-Video output port. You can use any of Apple’s Universal Dock Adapters, such as the ones that come with iPods and nanos these days, or less preferably leave the dock unsealed: XtremeMac hasn’t bundled anything else, Adapter or otherwise, in the package. Just as with Apple’s Docks, you’ll need to provide your own Dock Connector-to-USB cable and an AV cable if you want to use them.
“If” mightn’t be the right word here. You’ll actually need the Dock Connector-to-USB cable - one’s packed in with every iPod - to use MicroPack’s key features. Plug the cable in and you can do one of two things: use MicroPack as a computer synchronization dock, or charge the Lithium battery it has inside. An on/off switch on the unit’s back lets you charge or discharge the battery, and a hidden light on MicroPack’s top back surface flashes red and blue to vaguely indicate charging status. It’s visually not quite as obvious as it should be - a set of multiple lights to indicate current charge levels would be superior - but you’ll have a sense of full charge (solid red) and still charging (flashing lights) states.
On a positive note, our second MicroPack unit exceeded XtremeMac’s stated video battery performance target. The company promises “up to 8 hours” of video play time - iPod model dependent - and for current enhanced 5G iPod owners, a fresh out of box MicroPack will deliver that much and more. With a fully charged, current-generation 30GB iPod - in our tests capable of playing back videos for slightly under 3 hours on its own - MicroPack ran for 13 hours and 10 minutes, a net gain of 10 hours and 20 minutes. As always, we had our iPod set on 50% brightness, and MicroPack’s amplifier set to around 50% volume. Prior-generation (2005-Summer 2006) 30GB iPods will run for a bit less time, and both 60GB and 80GB iPods will run for longer, pretty good news all around. Similarly, audio playback will be substantially enhanced: expect to add over three times the 5G iPod’s standard music run time; iPod nanos will do even better.
Unfortunately, our first unit didn’t do so well. Its internal Lithium battery seemed to be a bit unstable, not providing anywhere near the power of the second unit before shutting down, and seemingly taking forever to charge. Additionally, even when it was at full capacity, it was unable to resuscitate a fully discharged iPod. As it turns out, the first problem was an issue with the initial MicroPack, but the latter two were repeated in the second one, as well. Depending on the charger you’re using, you may need to leave MicroPack plugged in overnight to replentish its Lithium battery, and XtremeMac disclaims the ability of any MicroPack to bring a dead iPod battery back to life. Instead, it suggests that your iPod sit on a charger for around 30 minutes before you expect MicroPack to work with it, which isn’t necessarily convenient - after all, many people buy external batteries to be there when the iPod’s run down.
The unit has some other idiosyncracies, as well. It won’t synchronize your iPod with your computer unless it’s powered on, though it does pass through output from one of its three ports (the AV port) with the power switch off. When it’s powered on, and connected to a fully discharged iPod, it fails to properly handle charging of the iPod’s internal battery - it mounts the iPod, then drops the connection with a battery warning screen. And finally, it’s not a truly ideal iPod travel dock. Because people sit on a variety of angles during travel - a problem compounded when two people are watching the iPod together - we’d prefer to have the ability to adjust the iPod’s angle during video playback. MicroPack makes this impossible.
Overall, our impression of MicroPack is this: XtremeMac has developed an accessory that’s unquestionably unique - the only battery pack with an advanced headphone port splitter and a nearly complete Universal Dock built in - but it’s also one in need of some fairly substantial tweaking. While we liked the added run time that it provided for partially charged iPods, something we appreciate in virtually any battery accessory we test, we found its performance with fully discharged iPods both as a home and travel dock to be less than ideal, and its stationary viewing angle to be more than a little limiting. Given its now-reduced price - $80, versus the $100 it debuted at - and functionality, it’s arguably more than a fair on-paper value for the included components, but most users will find themselves wishing that those parts were put to at least slightly better use for one or more of their needs. A slightly smaller MicroPack 2 with iPod angle adjustments, better management of low-powered iPods, and reduced recharging time could be a real winner.