Upp fuel cell charger review: Futuristic fuel cell charger still no match for old-fashioned batteries

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The Good The Upp charger's fuel-cell technology is interesting and innovative, and could be useful in certain circumstances. Its clever app, which knows when to stop charging, should point the way for all phones.

The Bad The charger is far too heavy to be portable, far too expensive to be practical, and doesn't get as many charges as you'd hope for the size and cost.

The Bottom Line We'd love to recommend this innovative technology, but at this early stage the Upp fuel cell charger is just too cumbersome and too expensive.

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5.3 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 8
  • Performance 3

Review Sections

Clean energy could change the world, which is why lots of people are excited about fuel cell technology. The Upp fuel cell charger is one of the first consumer fuel cell products, converting hydrogen into electricity without any harmful by-products to charge your phone when you're far from home.

The Upp is a USB charger into which you plug a cartridge containing hydrogen, forming a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell. It works by creating a chemical reaction that produces electricity. The only by-products are heat and water vapour.

Unlike battery packs, Upp won't degrade over time, so the hydrogen cartridge can be refilled by the manufacturer and you can continue using the charger indefinitely. The 5W, 5V charger charges as fast as the mains and is well-suited for phones, although less so for power-hungry tablets such as the iPad .

Upp claims its hydrogen fuel cells are much better for the environment than current chargers. It's worth noting that like any gadget, Upp contains plastic and metal and so has a cost to its production and disposal. But fuel cells have for a while been touted as the next big power source, especially for cars, potentially replacing or at least reducing reliance on fossil fuels. That sounds great, which is why it's a shame that the Upp has several problems.

The charger is available now from Upp's website for £149 in the UK. It's not yet available in the US, but the company has said it will cost $200 from the retailer Brookstone, and presumably the same from its own site.

How it works

The Upp charger couldn't be simpler to use: just take the cap off the end of the charger and connect the hydrogen fuel cell. They attach magnetically so the fuel cell snaps satisfyingly into place.

The hydrogen cartridge (left) and the charger (right) snap together to start generating power. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

At the end of the charger is a familiar USB socket. Plug your phone or any USB-charging device into the cable as normal, turn the charger on and away you go.

Simple it may be -- portable it is not. The Upp is touted as a power source when you don't have access to the mains, whether you're in a campsite in Cornwall or deep in the wilds of the developing world. But you need a few hydrogen cartridges with you if you're spending any time off the grid, and they ain't light.

The charger weighs 235g (8.3 ounces) and each spare cartridge 385g (13.6 ounces), for a combined weight of 620g (1.4 pounds). The whole unit is about the size and weight of a medium-sized torch, one of the big ones powered by a batch of C batteries.

With the charger and cartridge snapped together, the Upp charger is a hefty unit. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As it charges, the fuel cell vents water vapour every few minutes. Unfortunately, that makes a clearly audible "click-click" noise. It's not loud enough to scare anyone, but if you've got your phone charging next to you, the noise gets annoying fast. If you were camping, for example, it might keep you awake at night.

Replacing cartridges

Not only are the cartridges far from light, they ain't cheap either: you get one with the charger but after that a spare costs £35, and swapping empty for full costs £10 a pop. That converts to $59 and $17 respectively, but expect it to be a little cheaper in the US.

Swapping for a full cartridge limits where you can use the charger. The included app and Upp's website show you where you can get more hydrogen cartridges on a map, with dozens of locations in the UK and US. Currently they're all listed as "coming soon", however, and tend to be clustered in highly populated areas. In the US, many of the locations will be at branches of Brookstone.

If you're planning to take the Upp on a plane, you'll need to check with your airline. The UK's Civil Aviation Authority says that you can take fuel cell devices on board a plane in your hand luggage, but you can only take two spare cartridges. Fuel cells are technically classified as "dangerous goods", so you would be best checking before you get to the airport.