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Third Rail System (for iPhone 4) review: Third Rail System (for iPhone 4)

Third Rail System (for iPhone 4)

Dong Ngo SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews
CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.
Dong Ngo
6 min read

It can be a painful experience to let go of your favorite juice pack or protective case each time you change or upgrade your phone. And this is exactly what Third Rail, a start-up focusing on mobile power, intends to ease. Its very first product, the Slim Case for iPhone 4, is a lot more than just a simple juice pack and will likely become your first favorite that you won't ever have to completely part with.


Third Rail System (for iPhone 4)

The Good

The stylish and compact <b>Third Rail Slim Case for iPhone 4 with Slide-on Smart Battery</b> is the most flexible and innovative juice pack option to date. The pack's detachable batteries can also power other mobile devices and can be stacked together to increase the capacity.

The Bad

The Third Rail case's included battery provides only enough power to charge an iPhone 4 up to about 65 percent. Also, it continues to discharge even when the phone's battery is already full. The package is rather bulky when used as a juice pack and the case needs to be removed completely when you want to use the phone with a docking station.

The Bottom Line

The Third Rail Slim Case for iPhone 4 with Slide-on Smart Battery is arguably the best mobile juice pack on the market. It's especially useful if you also have other mobile devices.

While this Third Rail case fits only the iPhone 4, the included battery can work with almost any mobile device that charges using a standard USB cable--and it will also work with future, similar protective cases for other devices when made available by the company.

At the estimated cost of $90 for the whole package (a case and one battery), or $40 for just the case itself, or $60 for just the battery, Third Rail's new concept for a portable power pack makes an excellent investment for mobile users.

Design and features
As the lengthy name suggests, the Third Rail Slim Case for iPhone 4 with Slide-on Smart Battery has two components, the protective case and a detachable battery.

The case fits only the iPhone 4 and is one of the slimmest of the form-fitting variety. It's longer than other protective cases, however, as at the bottom it has to house a built-in 30-pin connector. The case has two parts, the main body and the top, which can be taken out easily. The two parts fit into the phone and each other firmly, but still leave enough room for another layer of protective film on the phone's bottom. This is a good thing as you will need to remove the case completely when you want to put the phone on a docking station, which might cause scratches on the back of the phone. Though we like the case's overall design, we wish we could access the phone's 30-pin port without having to take the case off. At the bottom of the case, there's a standard Micro-USB port to be used with an included USB cable for charging and syncing the phone with a computer. Next to the USB port, there's an on/off switch that sets the phone to draw power from the battery when need be.

The battery, which is thin and light, about the size of a small matchbox, is the most special part of the device. It's detachable and can be easily and firmly clipped on the back of the case, where there's a female port for a three-pin power connector. Once the battery is attached to the case, you've got yourself a juice pack, like many others, such as the Mophie Juice Pack. However, the Slim Case allows you to stack other batteries on top of the first one to increase the juice pack's capacity. Third Rail says that up to six batteries can be used together. In our trials with two batteries, they worked as intended.

Each battery has two ports on the bottom, a Micro-USB port for charging, labeled "in," and Third Rail's proprietary port, labeled "out," to be used with an included Third Rail USB adapter cable. On the other end this cable has a female USB port, like those found on the back of a computer. With this cable, the battery can be used as a backup power source for any mobile device that charges via USB cable, such as an iPod or smartphone. For ergonomic reasons and to avoid accidently unclipping the battery from the phone, we wish these ports were located on top of the battery instead.

Between the two ports there's a button that activates a power gauge with five little green LED lights that flash when the battery is being charged. The battery has a female power port on top and a three-pin male power connector on the bottom to connect to the case or another battery.

When batteries are stacked together, you only need use one of the USB ports, either on the case or on any of the batteries, to charge the whole system. You can even still sync at the same time if the port of the case is used. The batteries can be also charged just by themselves, without using the case. With Third Rail USB adapter cables, you can charge other mobile devices at the same time, too, via just one power source, such as a computer's USB port, an iPhone's USB power adapter, or a car charger. For those who travel with multiple devices, this flexible way of charging is really a great bonus.

While the case itself is very slim and compact, the whole package becomes rather bulky when a battery is clipped on, though you can still use the phone like normal. This gets worse when you add more than one battery. However, as the battery or batteries can be removed from the case easily, you can take it or them off when making call, to be replaced when you're done. Note, however, that you want to turn the charging off when the phone's battery is full. In our trials, the battery continued to discharge even when the internal battery of the device being powered had already been fully charged.

The best thing about this design is the fact that the battery, which is the most expensive part, can be reused as you change to another phone. In this case, just use the battery as a backup power source as described above, or wait till Third Rail releases a similar supporting case for the new device and clip the battery on. This also means that when the battery deteriorates, as batteries do over time, you won't need to replace the case, just the battery itself.

The Third Rail Slim Case for iPhone 4 with Slide-on Smart Battery performed as expected in our trials. Each battery added from 4 to 6 hours to the iPhone 4's usage in our trials, depending on how the phone was used. This is about two-thirds of the phone's built-in battery life, just as claimed by Third Rail.

The battery did better with other devices, however; it was able to provide a full charge and still have some juice left. In our trials, we found one battery could refill an iPod Touch's internal battery in about 3 hours. The battery itself took about 1 hour to be fully charged.

The case looks good and feels sturdy and offers a better grip on the phone. It actually makes it easy to use the phone's Home button with one hand, without risking dropping it. We noticed that the system seemed to respond slowly, however. For example, it would take a few seconds for the phone to start drawing power from the battery after the switch was moved to the "on" position. It was the same for charging. This is probably because the "smart" battery requires time to measure and determine what to do. While this is not a big deal, it would make those who are used to regular juice packs feel like the device is finicky at first.

Overall, after a few days of trying, we found that the juice pack, especially the battery, delivered what Third Rail claims for the device. This will be an even better deal when the company releases more cases for other devices.

With a stylish and flexible design, the Third Rail Slim Case for iPhone 4 with Slide-on Smart Battery, though not perfect, is by far the best juice pack for mobile devices on the market. You may have to change the protective case but you for sure can keep the battery with you as you move on to other devices.