Friday, December 12, 2014

Review: XTAR VC2 USB Lithium-Ion Battery Charger

The USB form factor is fantastic for mobile and portable power. High capacity battery packs have changed the way I travel with my devices, so I'm always interested to see genuinely-useful devices I can power with those power banks other than just the typical phones and tablets. USB devices I would put in the useful category include LED lanterns, walkie-talkies, and now lithium-ion chargers. This VC2 Charger one was provided by the manufacturer, XTAR. They make good flashlights, but lately they are almost better known for their chargers. They share the field with other established flashlight makers like Nitecore.

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Product View


Product Description


This is a USB powered lithium-ion charger featuring two separate charging channels and sliding, spring-loading connectors to charge a wide variety of different batteries. The list of cells it can charge is a pretty good list. It has some other interesting features like sensing and reactivating low voltage or 0V cells, due to over-discharge or tripping the protection circuit included on some cells. It has a back-lit LCD display where the indicators look like automotive instrumentation.


XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Product View 2

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Product View 3

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Product View 4


Official Specs (From their official document)







What's Included?


The box comes with the charger, a micro USB cable and a felt, draw-string pouch. XTAR wanted me to point out that an AC wall charger is NOT included. And my wife wanted me to point out that she thought an AC-to-USB adapter should be included. It doesn't really matter to me. I have a whole bunch of those. How many does the average person need?

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Box 1
XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Box 2

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Box 3


Initial Impressions


The charger is sleek and high tech looking. Admiring its construction, it dawned on me to try the spring loaded contacts and get the disappointment over with, like with my Nitecore, Opus and UltraFire chargers, which I hate the sliding contacts on. But they slide smoothly, even when pressed from a weird angle.

Grabbing the AW 16340 cell out of the flashlight on my nightstand, popping it into the charger and plugging the charger into one of my power packs was painless, and the charger fired right up and started charging my cell.

I also noticed the little rubber feet on the bottom of the unit. They are not the typical mis-aligned, half-glued ones on most of my other chargers.

Build Quality


My review sample looks to be well built, probably the best build quality of all my chargers. I will leave it to more technical reviewers to judge the nuances of the internal charging circuitry. Just as important to me is the high impact construction that doesn't look like it will break into 100 pieces if I drop it.

Fit and Finish



Overall, good. There's a tiny but deep scratch on the shiny plastic display. Which normally wouldn't be a big deal, but it's ironically positioned almost perfectly over the charge current display, making it look like it is giving two different readings at the same time with the way the back light hits the scratch. That's not a big deal for me, but someone else might find it annoying.

Other than that, the rest of it is pretty much perfect, and way better than my other chargers. I love my Nitecore I4, and it's my preferred charger most of the time, but the feel of putting a battery in is awful compared to this charger.

I think the camera does a decent job below of showing the above-average fit and finish.

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Finish 1

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Finish 2

User Operation


This charger is pretty much idiot-proof. You put 1 or 2 cells in it, and plug it into some USB power source, which means literally anything such as a USB AC wall outlet, auto 12V USB adapter, power pack and even solar chargers like my 13 watt Levin, which has a USB output.

When the unit powers on, it does a little self-test and initialization, briefly flashing all the LCD elements. Then it starts measuring the voltage of your cells(s) and tracking the capacity as they charge.

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Startup

Charge Current


The 500 mA charge current (per channel) is sufficient given that it's USB powered and how compact it is. And that means the maximum current this charger will draw from its USB host will be one amp.

XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - Capacity Reading

Current Reading


Unlike the voltage indicators, the charger chooses a current between 150 mA and 500 mA. In practice I've never seen it read other than 500. I can't think of a case where I wouldn't want it to be 500, so that's fine by me. I'd be curious to know the actual conditions where the charger would choose a low value like 150 mA.

Voltage Reading


The VC2 has an automotive dashboard style interface, making it easy to read the current voltage of each channel at a glance. It's a back-lit LCD and it's fairly crisp looking. The indicators show you the voltage reading in real time, stopping at 4.2V.

Capacity Reading


The VC2 will start measuring your capacity from the moment it powers on or you put a cell in it. Which means that to get a true reading of a cell's capacity, you'll want to put a discharged cell in it to start with. Some chargers like my Opus have a charge-discharge-charge feature to put a cell through its paces and give you an accurate reading of a cell's capacity, the way the VC2 does it is still fine.


Battery Types


This charger takes lots of different types of batteries, and for my test I personally tested it with 10440, 14500, 16340 (and IMR) and 18650 cells. Keep in mind that a high capacity 18650 or 26650 could take all day to charge at half an amp.


0V Activation 


XTAR wanted me to point out their 0V activation function, which lets you revive a 0V or low voltage cell, as well as reactivate a protected cell with the protection circuit tripped. Here is a link to their explanation of the feature.

A few of my cells were treated unkindly in order to test this feature. Unprotected cells should never ever be taken under maybe 2 volts. It's definitely not good to take them down to 0, and some people will even stop using them if that happens. Me, I just go by the numbers. If a cell acts like a good cell, then it gets treated like a good cell.

Below you can see that the VC2 is correctly sensing the 0V IMR battery that had to take one for the team. Also notice the scratch on the display makes the current reading look funny.

XTAR VC2 USB Lithium-Ion Battery Charger: 0V Activation


Dead Cells / Wrong Cells


If you put a cell that the charger thinks can't be revived, or you put in a cell with a chemistry the charger doesn't support, it will read "null" for that channel.

Full Charge Indicator


The charger will periodically flash the entire display when one or both channels are finished charging, meaning they have reached the 4.2V cutoff voltage.

Usability


This is a very nice and convenient charger to use for smaller capacity batteries like the 10440, 16340 and 14500 cells used in small, high-powered LED flashlights. For example, I keep an eFest 550 mAh IMR cell in my Sunwayman V11R flashlight on my nightstand. At 500 mA, it's only about an hour to charge it. Now picture a 5,000 mAh 26650 cell: the basic math says it'll take 10 hours.

Sliding different batteries into the unit is not a painful process like my other chargers. The springs move smoothly.

Conclusions


I think the the VC2 is a fine mobile charger, and a fine addition to my mobile technology arsenal. At only half an amp charge rate, it's not going to replace my larger, plug-in chargers like the Opus for everyday use, but now that I have this charger, I couldn't picture not taking it on a long road trip.

Gallery


XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - In Box 1XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - In Box 2


XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - In Box 3XTAR VC2 Lithium-Ion USB Charger - In Box 4

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank

USB power banks are a great tool to have in this modern era where almost everyone on earth carries at least one device. And since most of those devices carried by most of those people are charged from a 5V USB port, that means having a couple of these USB power packs handy means always having power for your devices. I'm somewhat of an enthusiast of both the off-the-shelf and DIY versions of USB power packs, so I was happy to accept this Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank, which Hisgadget sent me for review. I was impressed by the lantern and even though I've been slow on the reviews with my injury, I've been using this power bank for about a month steady now.

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Product Link
Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Product Link


Product Description


This is a standard "lipstick" style USB power bank which can charge all manner of devices which use a USB port to charge, which is quite a lot of devices as I pointed out above. What sets this model apart is the built in flashlight and the aluminum housing. The manufacturer claims a 3000 mAh capacity on this model, which is enough to give most modern smart phones and small tablets a full charge.

Official Specs (From Amazon)


  • Stylish, cylindrical, aluminum design slips easily into any pocket or bag
  • Premium microchips ensure high quality
  • Smart LED display keeps you informed of remaining power
  • Built-in flashlight for low-light use
  • Package contents: Intocircuit Power Mini 3000mAh External Battery, Micro USB cable, travel pouch

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: With Other USB Power Banks
Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Unboxed

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Top View

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Charging OxyLed Q6 Lantern

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Charging Li-Ion Batteries With XTAR VC2 Charger
Using the power bank to charge a lithium-ion battery with my new XTAR VC2 charger!


Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Front Of UnitIntocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Rear Of Unit


Initial Impressions


Somewhere I missed that it was made of aluminum, so I was pleasantly surprised. I like aluminum enclosures, but they tend to scratch other equipment. I had a Ruinovo power pack destroy an expensive touch screen GPS and several pair of reading glasses before I put it into its own nylon carrying case. This one comes with a felt pouch, which I suggest using. 

The second thing that caught my eye was the flashlight. It's got a little 2mm LED of unknown origin (Nichia?) which I'm roughly guessing is 3-5 lumens, which is plenty for emergency use. It took me a few minutes to figure out that it was a double click to turn it on and off. 

Playing with the flashlight, I noticed the switch feels a little funny, like it's just a little bit too inset into the unit. There doesn't seem to anything wrong with it functionally--I just don't really like the feel.

Build Quality


The build quality on my unit is above average. The switch looks kind of cheap and doesn't have a great feel to it, but other than that, this unit really stands out among the low quality power packs I have, some that I paid about the same as this unit goes for. 

There's really not much I can find to criticize. The logo looks nice and crisp and so do the blue LEDs. The aluminum case does have sharp edges like my Ruinovo power pack, though it's not really a flaw with the build quality or finish. Still, I wish there were some way to make the corners on the unit a little smoother. 

USB Power Pack


This is a USB power pack in every sense of the word. You charge it via a USB micro port, and use it to charge other devices with a standard 5V USB port. The aluminum construction is a nice touch, though I would keep it in its pouch or some case when you take it on the road with you. 

Functionally this power pack behaves exactly as you would expect: plug into the micro USB port and you're charging the power pack. Plug into the full size USB port and you are charging your devices. Once you plug in a device to charge, press the button and you're good to go.

Charge Indicator Lights


This model has 3 blue LED charge indicator lights which function the same way for being charged, or charging other devices. It gives an animated display in 1/3 increments. It's functional, and really cool looking, but I wish it stay dark most of the time. I usually turn it down so the blue lights are facing down, so I don't have to see it, but it's not a huge deal either way.

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Charge Indicator Lights

Flashlight


This power pack has a built-in flashlight LED, which turns on and off via quick, double-click presses on the switch. The flashlight is superb. The blue charge LEDs briefly illuminate, but turn off after about 10 seconds. I wish they wouldn't turn on at all, but still, with only the flashlight LED illuminated, this would potentially be great for emergency kits, especially coupled with a solar charger. 

My guess is that you'd probably get at least 100 hours out of the flashlight, if not double that. The tint is very blueish, like most of the LEDs in this class.


Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Animated Flashlight


3,000 mAh Capacity?


While I haven't done an official measurement, it seems like a reasonable claim given all the good reviews and my personal experience with them. About 9 out of 10 power banks aren't anywhere near their claimed capacities, leaving the poor consumer to find out the good ones, usually by just trial and error.

Since lots of name brand cells test over their rated capacity, it seems reasonable to guess that this probably has a good 2,400 mAh, which will probably test really close to the stated capacity. But who knows, it could have a 3,000 mAh Panasonic in it. This unit definitely stands out from the cheap ones in capacity.

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Charging Android Phone At Almost 1 Amp

Usability


I've been using this unit for about a month, and so far I really like it. The blue LEDs are a bit too bright for my liking, but it's no problem to put it face down on the table when I'm using it. I wish it had some triple-click sleep mode for the blue lights or something.

The great thing about these "lipsick" style power packs is that they easily fit in your pocket. They are useful around the house, but they are indispensable on the road. I like to carry a few power packs with me on trips, and I've been a week away from home without having to plug into an outlet. 

Conclusions


This is a fine power pack. Other than a couple annoyances like the switch and the sharp-ish corners on the aluminum housing, I'm impressed. It's well built and well designed, and doesn't try to slip you a cheap battery. I've tested 3,000 mAh power packs at 600 mAh, and I think consumers are starting to wake up to the fact that almost every power pack on the market is overstated to some degree. It's nice to see a vendor put decent cells into their products, and I think all the positive reviews reflect that. 

 Gallery

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Front Of Pouch

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Back Of Pouch


Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: On Scale

Intocircuit 3000 mAh USB Power Bank: Caliper Measurement




Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 Holiday Shopping Guide

It's that time of the year again. We eat too much and over-indulge. We also hustle around putting up decorations, pulling our hair out and figuring out what gifts to buy for family and friends. As a nerdy outdoor enthusiast, I look for three things in the gifts I give: It has to be a good value, it has to be practical, and it has to be unique. These are the criteria I've tried to follow for the products below.

Citizen Eco Drive


This series is one of the best values you'll find on a watch, and one I've been wearing for many years. There are watches out there with ridiculous quality (and price tags to match) far exceeding this watch, but I don't think there are many other comparable values to the Citizen Eco-Drive series.




Enzo Folding Knife


An Enzo folder like this one is currently on my wish list, but I doubt anyone loves me enough. With its superb D2 steel and true Scandinavian grind, the recipient of this gift will even make most knife enthusiasts jealous without breaking the bank.




Revant Optics Lenses


The Revant Optics company makes replacement lenses for high quality sunglasses like Ray-Ban and Oakley. The problem with high end sunglasses is that the frames themselves last a lifetime, but the lenses only last someone abusive like me a year or two, tops.

Revant has sent me several pair of polarized lenses for testing, and so far I'm impressed. Putting new lenses in a couple pair of my older Oakleys has been just like getting brand new shades, and the recipient of these lenses will feel the same way. I currently have the emerald green polarized lenses in my GasCan frames and all my family and friends have said "ooooh where did you get those?"

They are also running some promotions like a Cyber Monday event.




Nitecore SRT3 Flashlight


I own the SRT3 and it's just been fantastic. Nitecore has newer models, but none that have the control ring to select infinite brightness modes. It also has the red and blue LEDs like the newer models, and even comes free with an AA extender, so you can use  CR123A or AA batteries in it.

I have reviewed this model, and the quality of mine is one of the best I have seen in a flashlight.




OxyLED Q6 LED Lantern


Hisgadget is one another one of the blog's sponsors I'm happy to recommend. They have sent me some above-average products to review, and so far this lantern has been the gem. It's got a large capacity battery with efficient circuitry and high output. It was good enough to put in my emergency kit, until I took it out to use for my indoor photography. This lantern also gets high praise in the Amazon reviews, and the $20 price tag puts it into stocking stuffer territory.

Hisgadget are having some holiday promotions as well, so be sure and check them out.





Carhartt Men's Sandstone Jacket


You don't have to work on a farm to wear a Carhartt jacket or appreciate the ruggedness of its products. Their hoodies are a little heavy for my liking, but I'm a fan of their heavier jackets like the Sandstone.



Wolverine Hoody


I spent the first few years in the Northwest fighting the hoody. Everyone here wears them and it seemed to me (as a Californian) to have to carry a hood around when it might not even rain. But then again, we only averaged 8 days of rain a year in Anaheim. The saying here is "if you don't like the weather, then wait 10 minutes" and it was inevitable that I would become not just a hoody wearer, but I would go on a quest to find the perfect hoody. I tried them from Old Navy, Carhartt, Dickies, Haynes and many others, and they all disappointed me somehow. And then I caught one of these on sale at the very end of the season last year, and the infatuation still hasn't worn off.