The Gizmo Report: APC's Mobile Power Pack UPB10

Glaskowsky reports on the performance of APC's Mobile Power Pack UPB10, an external battery pack for cellphones, music players, and other USB devices... and learns something about USB cables.

Peter Glaskowsky
Peter N. Glaskowsky is a computer architect in Silicon Valley and a technology analyst for the Envisioneering Group. He has designed chip- and board-level products in the defense and computer industries, managed design teams, and served as editor in chief of the industry newsletter "Microprocessor Report." He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. Disclosure.
Peter Glaskowsky
4 min read

When I posted my review of Belkin's TuneTalk Stereo, a representative of APC commented on the story to suggest that I might want to use APC's Mobile Power Pack to extend the iPod's battery life when recording.

I started to reply to describe the gizmo I designed to power my iPod from a spare PowerBook battery-- a little clip that connects the battery terminals to an iPod dock cable. This is what I used to use to power up my old 4th-generation iPod while recording long conference sessions with the Belkin Voice Recorder for iPod.

But even as I was typing, I realized a few things.

The TuneTalk connects to the iPod Classic through the docking connector rather than through the headphone jack as the Voice Recorder gizmo did. I'd have to bring in the power through the TuneTalk's Mini USB connector, which would necessitate replacing the iPod docking connector with a Mini USB connector.

And while the iPod can charge from the direct output of a battery using the FireWire power input connections, the USB power connection can't handle the battery voltage. It needs a regulated +5 VDC supply. So I'd have to add a voltage regulator circuit.

Finally, the clip was designed to work with my old PowerBook Titanium batteries; I'd have to redesign it to work with the batteries from the MacBook Pro.

In other words, to use the existing gizmo, I was going to have to replace almost all of its components.

So I decided right then and there to give this APC thing a try.

I've had good luck with other APC products. All my UPSs are from APC, for example, and I've always been happy with them. I just bought two more a couple of weeks ago-- a Back UPS ES 550VA model and a Back UPS XS 900-- and I didn't even think of reviewing them here because there isn't much to say about a UPS these days. They just work. (Though the XS 900 has a fan that runs all the time, even when it's off-- what's up with that?)

Anyway, I found the UPB10 on sale at Amazon, placed the order, and got the unit on Friday.

I've been testing it since, and basically, it's good enough.

The UPB10 is a very simple little gizmo. It has a USB A jack (the wider, flat one) to supply power, and a Mini USB jack for its own charging cord. It charges from USB, so there's no need to carry an AC adapter around (although APC does provide one).

With the UPB10 hooked up to a fully charged iPod, the iPod battery doesn't even start running down until the UPB10 is drained, which takes almost exactly six hours of recording with the backlight off. Then the iPod runs another three hours on its own battery.

Nine hours of recording will get me through a full day, so-- good enough. My old PowerBook battery has six times as much capacity, but it also weighs four times as much-- 14.8 ounces vs. 3.4 ounces for the UPB10. So this is a reasonable deal.

I'm still thinking about getting something like the Battery Geeks' PPS-130 battery pack, which can provide six or seven hours of power for my MacBook Pro, in addition to powering USB devices, but that's an expensive ($300) and heavy (1.87 pound) device. The UPB10 solves my immediate needs, so as I said, it's good enough.

I also made sure that the UPB10 can charge my Treo through the USB charge/sync cable I travel with, but it would have been rather surprising if it couldn't. Anyway, the Treo usually lasts two days between charging, so I can almost always recharge it from my MacBook Pro's USB ports.

However, there is one surprising thing I learned in from all this testing.

I have a short, thin USB to Mini USB cable that came with a cheap external flash-card reader. I figured I'd use this one rather than the long, heavy one APC supplied, at least when I'm traveling. I used to use the short cable to charge my Sony Reader (before it died) and my Cingular 8525 phone (before I replaced it with an Option GT Max 3.6 Express wireless modem card).

But this short cable won't charge the UPB10. I have no idea what the issue is. I tried three different USB to Mini USB cables I had sitting around, plus the one that came from APC. The only one of the four that won't charge the UPB10 is the short one. The short one still works with every other Mini USB-powered gizmo I have; I tested that. But not the UPB10.

This is very strange, but no big deal.

To be fair to APC, the UPB's instruction sheet does say that "APC recommends the use of APC USB Charging Cables to ensure compatibility." But c'mon, how many different ways are there to connect a USB A plug to a Mini USB plug? Now I know there are at least two-- a way that works and a way that doesn't.