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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Power Woes: It Shouldn't Be This Difficult

Posted by Jason Dunn in "Digital Home Talk" @ 10:00 AM


All our gizmos and gadgets need power, and for the most part I only get grumpy about power issues when it's time to go away on a business or personal trip. This time, it was our two-week vacation in Japan, and I was extra grumpy about power. Why you might ask? I called Air Canada two weeks before our trip and was informed that the plane we were flying on had no power plugs for laptops in economy class - it seems like every long-haul plane in the world has power except for Air Canada's.

Normally that wouldn't have bothered me because I've been rather fortunate when it comes to laptop power: for nearly two years I used a Fujitsu P7010 laptop, one that I could remove the DVD drive on and insert a second battery to get a solid 10 hours of power. To get even more juice on the go, I tried out a Valence N-Charge that gave me a huge battery boost - can you imagine 20 hours of laptop battery life? I was living the dream. I also had a Proporta laptop battery that gave me less in terms of extended power, but was much more portable. I was completely covered...until I got a new laptop: the Dell XPS M1330.

The M1330 is an impressive laptop, balancing portability with punch - I got mine last September, decked out with the best Dell had to offer: 2.2 Ghz Core 2 Duo processor, 200 GB 7200 hard drive, 4 GB RAM, and the NVIDIA GPU. It's fast, it chugs through RAW photo files like the bad mother that it is, and I'm generally quite pleased with it - until it runs out of power. Sure, I got it with the biggest battery possible (a 9 cell), and I've gotten used to the "hump", but after about four hours, the laptop is dead. Here's where I get frustrated: the Proporta battery, which I was so enthusiastic about when I had a laptop that worked with it, doesn't work with the Dell. At first I thought it was the lack of an adaptor (the M1330 uses this bizarre six-sided plug), but I eventually found one of the plugs that fit - yet even switching the Proporta battery between both voltage modes, it wouldn't power the XPS M1330. Damn.

I emailed the folks at Proporta and they worked with me to investigate whether or not they could get their product to work with the XPS M1330 - even going to far as having me order an AC power adaptor for the M1330 and sending it to them in the UK for research. In the end, after several months of back and forth emails, I was told that it was highly unlikely they could get their product to work with the XPS M1330. During that same time period, I emailed the people at Valence, asking them if they had any plans to make an XPS M1330 adaptor for their N-Charge unit. They replied back that they had no plans to support the M1330.

Isn't it ridiculous that I have two external batteries, around $500 in total value, and neither one of them can be used with my new laptop? That's just mind-boggling to me. Sure, I know and understand the reasons why these companies can't keep up with every new laptop on the market, but their products are certainly much less useful than they should be because of this. The laptop manufacturers themselves bear most of the blame here though - if all Dell laptops had the same power connector, it would be much easier for these third-party batteries to support every laptop out there (within certain voltage requirements, of course). The lack of standardization, even amongst the same company, is at the root of this problem.

Not Quite Giving Up Yet...
Having struck out on getting either of my external batteries to work with the XPS M1330, I thought I'd try searching for a new product, perhaps one that didn't require a custom power connector. Does such a thing exist? You bet - the Duracell Powerpack 100. The Duraracell Powerpack 100 solves this connector problem by offering an AC power plug, meaning you simply plug your laptop's AC power brick into the Powerpack. That offers tremendous flexibility, but it also means you have to carry your AC power brick with you on a plane or wherever you want to use this. Not ideal, but at this point it was my only option.



About a week before I was to leave for Japan, I started my search for this product (I was still holding our hope that Proporta would come through) - and discovered that no one in Canada sold it. I looked on eBay and found a few, but they were selling for more than retail. In my searches for this adaptor, I also discovered that this isn't even a Duracell product - they're simply re-branding the Xantrex Power Source Mobile 100, which I could order from TigerDirect.ca for $97 CAD (pictured above). Before placing my order, however, I noticed in a few online customer reviews of this product (and the Duracell-branded variation) that it had some very specific limits on the amount of power it could reliably kick out. The product page said "up to 80 watts", but in reading the user comments on Amazon.com (community knowledge rocks!) it seems that was only for short bursts - it actually tops out at 60 watts for continuous power draw.


Figure 1: Busting out the Kill A Watt.

So how much power did my XPS M1330 and Samsung Q1 Ultra (the other device I was going to bring to Japan) draw? The AC adaptors don't tell you, which sucks, so I had to bust out my Kill A Watt to figure out how much power was actually being drawn. The Kill A Watt is one of those gadgets that you might not use very often, but when you need it, you really need it because you can't guess about this stuff. Power should be measured at full draw - meaning, you need to put the electronic device under maximum stress to see how much power it will pull. The Samsung Q1 Ultra, under full load, drew 15 watts. The XPS M1330 under full load pulled around 35 watts - at idle it was closer to 20 watts. It looked like I was within the limits of the Xantrex Power Source Mobile 100 so I went ahead and ordered it. Guess when it arrived? Two days after I left. There was an unknown delay in shipping it to me so the day before I left I discovered it wasn't going to make it to me in time.

Since I didn't have any sort of a mobile battery solution that would work, I left the Samsung Q1 Ultra behind and instead brought my trusty Fujitsu P7010 so we could use it to watch 10 hours worth of movies on our roughly 17 hour journey to Japan (two flights and factoring in wait time at the airports). We also brought the Proporta battery since it worked with the P7010, and I brought my Dell XPS M1330 for photo processing - all in carry-on baggage of course. Guess what we discovered when we got on the plane leaving Vancouver for Osaka? Power in the seats - both AC and USB power ports. That's right, all the time I spent searching for a solution, and the money I spent ordering a new product, was completely unnecessary - not to mention the six pounds of laptop and battery that we were going to haul halfway around the world...all because Air Canada gave me false information.

Someone has to make this all easier. Which company is going to take the lead and unify all their laptops on a single power connector? Dell? HP? Toshiba? Fujitsu? Step up!

Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys mobile devices, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, and his sometimes obedient dog. He wishes laptops ran on nuclear power so we didn't have to worry about recharging batteries - we'd just have to worry about a reactor breach.


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