…and other adventures from the iPhone 5 energy frontier
When it comes to mobile battery life, I’ve been hurt before. For two years I owned an HTC Droid Incredible, which was a great phone but also had what I’m guessing (hoping, actually) was the worst battery life in the history of smartphones. After getting a supersized battery for it, I was often, but still not always, able to make it through the day without recharging. One of the reasons I was excited about finally getting an iPhone was anecdotal evidence of family and friends who owned iPhones and rarely if ever had to recharge their phones during the day. So I pre-ordered the iPhone 5 and made the transition from Droid rage to Apple of my ear.
Yet, apparently I’m such a power user that even the iPhone’s improved battery life is not enough to satisfy my mobile appetite. That, and having had the HTC’s battery constantly run dry, led to what I am calling Phone Trek 2012-13: The Search For More Pow’r.*
[UPDATE: see reference to this post on Mashable]
Lenmar Meridian: can’t quite put my finger on it
Our voyage begins with my new iPhone 5 in November 2012. I found multiple companies offering battery cases for it and placed my order with one on Amazon.com…then another…and another. All three had to cancel for what they stated in their cancellation emails were delays in Apple’s Made For iPhone (MFI) certification process. In April 2013 I received an email from Lenmar, which sells its Meridian cases for smartphones, that the Meridian for iPhone 5 was now available, and those of us who had ordered in the Fall had first dibs. That is, the Meridian, Henry Ford/Model T-style, was available as long as you wanted it in black. I had ordered it in white to match my phone, and Lenmar said red and white cases would be coming along soon. Finally, after some dialogue with those who run Lenmar’s Twitter page, in May 2013 an email hit my inbox that the red and white cases were available, and I snapped mine up.
The Meridian is a good case at a good price: the highest additional charging capacity of the battery cases I’ve found in the market, 2,300 milliampere-hour, or millamp hour (mAh),** $89.99 at press time. Yet after about a week I found it was, literally, a pain to use. The Meridian has cutouts. All of these battery cases have some thickness to them–that’s where the added battery life, well, lives–and with the Meridian and some others, you have to “reach through” the case to use the iPhone’s own power button, sound on/off switch, and volume controls. Casually turning the screen on and off or adjusting the volume became a two-hand operation, which I didn’t like. More to the (pain) point, after jamming my fingers a number of times turning the power button on and off, I decided it was simply time to stop getting jammed up.
The Meridian came with an accessory that appears to come as standard issue with most of these cases: a headphone extension connector. That is required equipment because all of these cases add extra length at the bottom of the iPhone, such that headphones with a right-angle connector, and even some with straight connectors, cannot reach the iPhone’s headphone jack when it is inside the battery case.
Mophie Juicepack: getting a WiFi-syncing feeling
After the Meridian, I ordered the battery case widely regarded as the leader of the pack, the Mophie Juicepack Plus, $119.95 at press time. Mophie, which like Lenmar makes cases for the iPhone and other smartphones, appears to have “heard the market”: Mophie originally offered only its Juicepack Helium case, which compared to the Meridian offers a lackluster 1,500 mAh of added battery life, but Mophie has added the Juicepack Air (1,700 mAh), and just came out with the Plus, still short of the Meridian but offering a respectable 2,100 mAh of juice. Mophie Juicepack cases are sturdy, and so well-regarded (or well-connected) that both Apple and Verizon resell them.*** The Juicepack has high-quality buttons built into the case for power, sound on/off, and volume. When the iPhone’s battery runs low, you flick a switch on the back of the case and the Juicepack in effect “reloads” the phone’s charge. To see how much juice the case has left, you press a flush-mounted button that flashes from one to four lights: four means the case is fully charged, three means it is 75 percent charged, and so on.
One thing I did not know about the Mophie case for the iPhone 5 is that it does not support syncing with iTunes when you connect it to a USB port on your computer. Lenmar’s Meridian does, and the Juicepack is such a sleek, slickly-produced case that I expected nothing less from it. With all of these cases, you must use their supplied USB connector cords to charge them, not the cord that came with the iPhone 5 itself. A ‘male’ connector inside the case plugs into the iPhone 5’s ‘female’ Lightning connector slot, but the power slot on the case is different from the one on the phone. You connect the other end of the cord into a USB slot on your computer to sync or charge it, or connect the cord to the original iPhone power plug (“iPhone square”) to charge it through a wall outlet.
After connecting the Juicepack to a USB port on my computer multiple times and seeing it not sync with iTunes, I wrote to Mophie, which verified in writing that the Juicepack does not support USB sync. Yet Mophie is far from the only one: Mophie was one of several companies to tell me that, in fact, for their cases to pass muster with Apple and become MFI-certified, they must NOT offer USB pass-through syncing with iTunes. So you have two ways to sync with iTunes:
- WiFi sync – when iPhone and computer are connected to the same WiFi network, you theoretically can sync iPhone with iTunes via WiFi. To set this up the first time, you connect the iPhone to the computer via the Lightning cable and choose Sync via WiFi.
- Lightning sync – the Juicepack is a two-piece design, so you pull off the bottom (smaller) piece of the case to access the phone’s Lightning port, and connect using the Lightning cable.
Somewhere in Mophie’s marketing materials it says you may never need to remove your iPhone from the case, and that is good, because the Juicepack fits the iPhone like a high-tech, high-quality glove, and it can be a bit testy removing phone from case. That “like a glove” factor, or more to the point, the lack thereof, can be important. More on that in a moment.
Belkin: a colorful alternative
My search led next to Belkin, whose Belkin Grip offers 2,000 mAh in what appears to be an ergonomically-friendly, core-case-plus-outer-ring design ($99.99 at press time). That is 300 mAh less than the Meridian but only 100 mAh short of the Juicepack, and having used a variety of Belkin networking devices and other accessories over the years, I was ready to get a Grip. What I could not grasp is why the only available color schemes for the Grip were neon-green-and-purple (‘Purple Lightning/Fountain Blue’) or electric-blue-and-gray (‘Civic Blue/Stone’). Thankfully, two color schemes that are more palatable to me, and likely for many business users, ‘Whiteout/Blacktop’ and ‘Blacktop/Gravel,’ are now available. After a bit of detective work I found actual human beings at Belkin to speak with, and they echoed what Mophie had told me:
- Belkin’s case is also MFI-certified.
- In order to obtain MFI certification, Apple mandated that Belkin’s case must not allow pass-through syncing with iTunes.
The nice people I spoke with at Belkin were more than a little intrigued to learn that there was an MFI-certified case out there, the Lenmar Meridian, that does USB-sync.
i-Blason blazed a trail toward a solution, then flamed out
My research of the market led to one last case I would consider: the PowerPack Slim Fit from i-Blason, a 2,200-mAh case listed for $59.95 on the company’s own site at press time, but which I bought for $49.95 on Amazon.com (seller: Amazon). The Slim Fit’s form factor is a lot like the Juicepack, and like the Grip, it comes in a rainbow of colors. I chose basic black, which lends a soft, rubberized counterpoint to the high-gloss white iPhone.
At first, the Slim Fit did everything I wanted an iPhone battery case to do. As a test before taking it on a business trip, I turned on the Slim Fit-equipped iPhone at 6:00am, switched on the case (meaning that the case was charging the phone continuously), used it heavily all day, and left it on overnight without charging. At 8:00am the next day, the last of the four charge indicator lights finally winked out–with 100 percent of the iPhone’s own battery still remaining. It appeared “the search for more pow’r” was over, time to roll the closing credits…until:
- The Slim Fit started coming apart in my pocket. As opposed to the Mophie Juicepack, which fits the iPhone 5 like a glove, or maybe more accurately, like high-tech armor, I found that the Slim Fit fits the iPhone like…well, like a cheap suit. Removing phone from case was a breeze, which was cool for “going commando” on my daily 6-to-9-mile powerwalks. No, not that kind of commando; I mean popping iPhone only, sans battery case, in the weatherproof armband I like to wear out there. Yet the dark side of that convenience was that, in certain pants and under certain conditions, when it was a bit tougher getting the phone “out of pocket,” the top section of the Slim Fit case started popping off. If anyone’s going to pop off, it’s me, not my battery case.
- One day the Slim Fit seemed ready to literally set the world on fire, starting with me. The case got so hot that the first thing that came to mind was how the time-worn phrase “liar liar” may be in need of an update to “Slim Fit user, Slim Fit user, pants on fire.” A few hours later, the case stopped working altogether.
Clear winner: Mophie, but keep an eye on Lenmar and OtterBox
When I first logged into WordPress to write this, it was going to be about how the Lenmar Meridian was the solution to my iPhone 5 battery life needs. Then it was going to be about how i-Blason beat Mophie at its own game (or at least form factor). Truth is, the Mophie is still the class of the industry, which is why, after having returned the first Mophie Juicepack Plus, I now carry…a Mophie Juicepack Plus. My experience has given me a broader perspective on how the market for smartphone battery cases is stratifying:
- First are companies who take what I’m guessing is the cheaper “cutouts” approach: you have a battery case, but must reach through it to use the iPhone’s own power and volume controls. Examples include Lenmar, PhoneSuit, Maxboost, iBattz, and iKit.
- Then come those who take what I’m guessing is the more expensive approach: adding a rubber or plastic ring around the case and building buttons for power and all sound controls into the case; the buttons themselves are either rubberized or metal. Examples include Mophie, Belkin, and i-Blason.
- Some companies add the ring and build in a power button, but do a cutout for either sound on/off, or volume, or both. Examples include MyCharge and iContact.
- Others such as Incipio and Naztech used to offer battery cases but no longer do, possibly due to manufacturing or cost factors. Then there is OtterBox, whose users border on true-believer fanaticism over its ruggedly weather- and damage-resistant cases, but which at press time still does not offer an iPhone 5 battery case.
If Lenmar offered built-in power and volume buttons on the Meridian, it could be the best case on the market because it offers the most juice (2,300 mAh) of any of these. Plus several competitors could take a lesson in customer service from Lenmar, whose people are extremely nice and helpful. That said, if OtterBox came out with a battery case that offered numbers in the 2,000 mAh range, I believe that would mount the strongest challenge to Mophie’s supremacy. I’ve never met an OtterBox user who did not rave over his or her (non-battery) smartphone case, and that would translate into instant revenue if the company were to amp up its market presence with a battery case. Of course, the next question would be whether OtterBox could manufacture a battery case that would embody the seemingly-miraculous moisture and ‘hard knocks’ protective qualities of its existing line of non-battery-equipped cases.
While I appreciate the opportunity to obtain answers from the manufacturers of iPhone 5 battery cases, the larger questions fall to Apple itself. So I asked Apple why it forbids makers of iPhone 5 battery cases from offering USB pass-through sync with iTunes. Apple said it does not allow it because they are third-party devices, but the company had no answer as to why one of the MFI-certified cases on the market does USB-sync.
Questions, I have (other, more big-picture) questions:
- Why doesn’t, or can’t, Apple make an iPhone 5 battery that lasts long enough for even heavier users to make it through the day without scrambling for an electrical outlet? If it did, iPhone 5 battery cases would be a non-issue (and a non-market).
- Why should syncing your iPhone with your computer depend on WiFi? WiFi sync is notoriously unreliable, and if you’re in a spot with no WiFi, to sync you have to pull the phone out of the case.
- Apple has built its phenomenal business largely on the basis of making technology work, and making it work more easily. Why would Apple make things less convenient for customers and more arduous for its suppliers/business partners?
- If better iPhone 5 battery life is not in the cards, why doesn’t Apple make its own battery case? That would obviate the issue of “third-party devices,” and Apple could give its own battery case the USB Pass-Through Sync With iTunes superpower.
I posed these Qs to Apple today, and when I get answers I will update this piece.