I strongly recommend that when you travel you always have a spare (external) battery, aka power bank to recharge your smartphone. (I’ve carried one daily since my first external battery, by Scosche in 2012.) But don’t just purchase and pack the first or least costly battery you find. Or the most powerful. There’s more to choosing an external battery that’s worth carrying.
Power indicator lights
Although battery capacity is important, I advise you to first look for a charger that has power indicator lights — an LED read-out or a light system that reports how fully charged the battery is when you pick it up to take it with you each day.
The best battery in the world is useless if it doesn’t tell you that it’s fully charged and you take it with you only to find you don’t have enough power to recharge your phone and get through the day. Likewise, as you use it you’ll want to know how much power is left to get you home safely.
Your phone does a lot for you during the day when you travel.
- Your phone helps you get around with maps.
- Your phone is there for making phone calls when you need to check things out or tell someone you’ll be late or call your hotel because you’re lost or call for a taxi.
- Your phone can tell you when the next bus is as well as when to disembark.
- In the dark, your phone is a flashlight that will help you navigate new roads avoiding stepping into holes or tripping on uneven pavement. (A broken ankle puts a damper on any travels.).
- Your phone, if you’ve done it right and use an app like 1Password, has all of your passwords, bank information, and such for when you need it.
- Your phone may contain your bus pass, other ID cards, or your train tickets.
The last thing you want to do is be towards the end of your day and not have enough power to show your train ticket or to get home to your hotel or hostel.
I love the Cygnett batteries for their numeric charge reporting. You’ll clearly see when your battery is at 100% or just 40%, etc.
Other battery companies use a system of 5 lights so you can see how well charged your battery is from 0-5 lights. Some Cygnett batteries that set-up and work well too.
With higher battery charging capacity, your battery becomes thicker and heavier. My preference is a 5000mAh or 6000mAh battery. Each over the years has tended to be the same size as my iPhone 3GS, 4S, 5S, 6S, and 13. I find this is a manageable size to carry around all day long.
With two 5000mAh as opposed to one large battery, there’s one charging at the hotel and one with you for the day. That way you’re never caught without the extra charge. Or you have one to take out at night.
You might think you want a super size like 20000mAh so you always have plenty of recharges. But remember that’s extra weight and you’re carrying it with you pretty much every second of the day when you’re out.
I’m noticing that companies are leaning toward higher capacity batteries. Hopefully the weight and bulk is coming down so they are more comfortable to carry. Happily, looking at Cygnett models online, that seems to be the case. Their 10,000 mAh is not much heavier.
- A regular-sized iPhone 13 is 174 grams
- Cygnett’s 10,000 mAh USB Power Bank (pictured) is 240 grams (Their 5000mAh is less than that iPhone though.)
Check the size and weight of each battery/power pack, comparing that with the dimensions and weight of your phone. Remember, always consider what you need to carry daily and what weight you’re willing to carry.
Now that we’ve looked at the most the two most common important issues, we can look at the other features.
MagSafe/Qi charging vs USB ports
Once you have an iPhone phone that is MagSafe (iPhone 12 and up), you quickly become spoiled by the ability to easily attach a battery magnetically to your phone rather than use a cable to charge. But on the other hand, the MagSafe doubles the size of your phone as you carry it. MagSafe power banks are all (or typically) thicker than the iPhone because they are designed not to cover the camera lenses.
And bear in mind that it doesn’t help the charging of non-MagSafe or Qi phones or devices.
Before MagSafe, I carried a spare battery in an external compartment in my purse and kept my phone in there with the cable. One day as we were walking, a hostess-friend grabbed my phone from its external pocket in order to take a great candid of me. Unfortunately, she didn’t realize it was attached via cable to a battery in the pocket. As a result, my phone crashed to the ground. Fortunately, there was no functional damage to the phone although my screen was slightly cracked and it wasn’t great for my charging port. I consider this testimony to have strong and well-built an iPhone is. But I certainly wouldn’t want this to happen again.
The downside of carrying only batteries that have MagSafe is that you don’t have a handy battery to help a stranger. When I traveled through Central America I was happy to have a battery that could help others when they were out of battery power.
USB external power banks also come in handy to charge earpieces, tablets, and even digital cameras.
Bear in mind that if you’re going to have a MagSafe charger that attaches to your phone, be sure to get a MagSafe case so you have the strength of the battery attaching. A regular case will charge, but not stick to it well so it’s not as reliable.
Now about Qi (pronounced chee) chargers… Qi is wireless charging. Your phone charges by simply being placed on the charging pad. It’s nicer than having to attach a cable. However, it’s quite possible for your phone to slide off the exact charging area and fail to charge. It’s also not handy when you want to charge but also watch a video or make a call without being on speaker. (There are some cases that provide a MacSafe-like magnet and some Qi chargers that have a magnetic pull so you may not be out of luck if you don’t have an Apple-branded MagSafe phone.
iPhones that support Qi charging start in 2017 with the iPhone 8. (support.apple.com/en-us/HT208078)
Qi provides convenience, but for a portable battery, try for a strong connection.
Unfortunately, at this moment, I don’t have any specific brand to recommend for MagSafe from first-hand use.
In general, a brand that I like is Cygnett. I love the numeric read-out USB models that I’ve had for years. They also have the 5-light models. It’s great that on their website they clearly show all sides of their batteries so you can see the charge-reporting system. I hope to see their newest batteries soon at CES. I last saw Cygnett at IFA in Berlin in early 2019.
I learned a lesson about charge status because I have one brand that is a great MagSafe charger but doesn’t help me because it lacks a way to know how much charge is in it when I leave the house/hotel/hostel. I’m not naming this brand here. In this case, should you happen upon it online, you’d see that checking every view of the battery, there are no level indicator lights. It has one light that appears green or red, but this isn’t enough information to rely on it for power.
Apple’s MagSafe Battery Pack doesn’t have indicator lights but instead, your iPhone reports it’s power level when you attach it.
Brands that have magnetic batteries with a 5-light charge indicator. (I have not seen them in person though.)
- Hyper’s Hyperjuice (MagSafe + USB-C)
You may notice that this article only deals with portable batteries (charging banks), not chargers that get plugged into that wall. That’s a different topic.