As we’ve said in past reviews of Apple accessories, it’s obviously challenging for developers to find the right combination of features, design, and pricing to make a new product more than just a footnote or curiosity, and timing is also a factor — we’ve heard only sad stories from companies that have released brand-new iPod and iPhone accessories just before Apple came out with a new model, even when they had great ideas or execution. So Neosonic’s LifePower Battery for iPad ($200, distributed in the U.S. by MEElctronics) has two strikes against it from moment one: it’s expensive and debuting right before Apple introduces a physically incompatible second-generation version of the tablet. But otherwise, we really like what the company has come up with here: LifePower is a surprisingly worthwhile design that will certainly inspire the next series of iPad batteries.
Contrast the glossy plastic and padded leather LifePower with Kensington’s previously-released PowerBack, a $130 add-on with a 4400mAh battery and a relatively simple rear stand built into a rubberized plastic shell. Neosonic took a completely different, high-end route that looks and feels much nicer, while doing considerably more for the attached iPad. There’s a leather handstrap on the back that expands to let you comfortably hand-hold the device, a set of enhanced stereo speakers that vent through separate silver grilles on LifePower’s back, and a rotating stand that lets you use the iPad in adjustable portrait or landscape orientations. Add to this an 8000mAh battery and the only Apple logo cut-out we’ve almost liked on an iPad case, and it’s obvious that Neosonic has blown PowerBack away in virtually every department: LifePower is a Swiss Army Knife of an accessory, and it does most things pretty well.
There are Swiss Army elements in the device’s execution, too. Unlike PowerBack, which used a passive rubber lip for iPad insertion and removal, LifePower has a set of two spring-loaded buttons that work with two metal pipes to pop the unit’s top open and release the iPad. Another set of two buttons instantly retract the rear stand’s expanding leg for easy folding down and transportation, rather than forcing you to do all the work yourself. Plus, there’s a back panel with separate power switches for the battery and speakers, volume up and down buttons, a battery life indicator with four blue lights, and a mini-USB port for recharging. Neosonic also tosses a neoprene carrying case and power cable into the package. Many companies would have cut so many of these corners in the name of price savings that LifePower just feels downright ambitious by the standards of most iPad accessories these days. Omissions aside, it’s the sort of battery pack-slash-stand-slash handstrap mounting device that we’d want for ourselves—everything’s in one place and just works.
On the other hand, the years we’ve spent testing Apple accessories have taught us that there’s a fine line between great features and great value—one that the industry’s best developers struggle with all the time. Yes, Kensington clearly took a lot of shortcuts with PowerBack relative to what LifePower offers, but the results speak for themselves: it comes close enough and sells for much less. PowerBack adds five hours of extra battery life to an iPad; LifePower basically doubles the iPad’s run time by adding nine. Kensington used a cheaper, simpler stand, but it does nearly as much as Neosonic’s. And PowerBack leaves out the speakers and the handstrap, yet it also saves at least $70 worth of added cost for the consumer. The original price we heard for LifePower was $250, and its regular price overseas is closer to $260. It was only when we balked that U.S. distributor MEElectronics said that it would price LifePower at $200, which was undercut only briefly by a Malaysian coupon deal that temporarily dropped LifePower to roughly $130 in that country. If PowerBack and LifePower were identically priced at that level, there’s no question as to which we’d pick, but instead you’re paying more with Neosonic’s option to get more, and most iPad owners are going to pass on investing $200 of their cash to upgrade a device that seems to be facing imminent replacement.
There are also some other caveats that preclude LifePower from being ideal in our book. We weren’t totally thrilled by Kensington’s minimalist approach to iPad side, top, or face coverage, which fell short of a real case. Neosonic provides even less coverage, leaving every side substantially exposed except for corner grips and a pronounced bulge around the iPad’s Dock Connector port. Once an accessory has tripled the iPad’s thickness and locked it into place, adding protection shouldn’t really be a problem. Neosonic sort of gets around this with the included neoprene carrying case, but if LifePower had been properly designed around the edges, a kludgy toss-in wouldn’t have been necessary.
LifePower’s speaker performance isn’t all that great, either. Putting aside the fact that the left and right speakers have been mounted sub-optimally on the back and perform their audio backwards when the iPad’s facing forwards—left channel audio from the right side and vice-versa—they’re only a half-hearted improvement on the speakers already built into the iPad. Activate the speakers and use them at peak volume to get perhaps twice the amplitude of what the iPad can do by itself, but without any additional clarity or other improvement in frequency response. If the iPad sounds like a weak laptop without LifePower’s assistance, it just sounds like a louder weak laptop with the extra speakers turned on.
While you can certainly decide for yourself whether you’re within the fairly narrow market niche that the expensive LifePower has been designed to appeal to, we’ll say this much: Neosonic has done a lot more right here than we’d have expected from a company we’d never heard of before, and if you’re looking for the ultimate first-generation iPad battery pack and stand combination, this is where you’ll find it. Based on our experience, we’d sooner save the $200 asking price to put towards a slimmer and more powerful next-generation iPad, but if you’re looking for a way to upgrade the first-generation model’s run time, speaker power, and mountability, this is a deluxe option. Because it sells for $70 more than Kensington’s PowerBack, it’s roughly a draw with that earlier, lower-capacity option in value for the dollar; our hope is that Neosonic carries the best features of this product forward into a streamlined, more affordable sequel for the new iPad.
Company and Price
Model: LifePower for iPad
Compatible: iPad (2010)