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Cheap Portable Charters Buying Guide

In this market you can find recognizable names including mobile device manufacturers such as Samsung and battery brands such as Energizer and Duracell. But some of the best values come from lesser-known names that specialize in mobile accessories.

Companies such as Mophie and Anker sell products ranging from battery cases to outdoor solar chargers. We focused on portable external batteries that charge phones and other electronic devices via USB.

Portable Charger Reviews

Based on our research, the best portable chargers under $30 are the New Trent iTorch IMP52D (starting at $25) and the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh (starting at $26). The Lepow Moonstone 3000 (starting at $20) and the Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh (starting at $17) have more limited capacities but are highly portable. The Jackery Mini (starting at $20) is only a bit bigger than a lipstick tube, but user complaints about reliability kept it from making our list.

The chief difference between cheap portable chargers and more expensive models is battery capacity. Pricey battery packs can juice up even an iPad or a laptop in an emergency. The budget chargers we picked generally don't have the capacity or the necessary output to charge a tablet, although today's external batteries have double the capacity of our recommendations from a few years ago. They should have enough oomph to charge any top smartphone at least once, not to mention a feature phone, MP3 player, GoPro, PSP, GPS, Bluetooth, and more. A relatively small capacity also makes for a lighter, more portable battery pack.

The portable chargers we picked each come with a micro-USB cable. To charge them up, users plug one end of the cable into a micro-USB input and the other into a computer USB port or an AC adapter (not included). The cable can then be reversed to charge a micro-USB device on the go. Some chargers come with extra connectors for different types of devices, but those aren't necessary as long as you have the USB charging cable that came with your phone. If you have an iPhone, for example, simply use the Lightning or 30-pin cable provided by Apple.

The portable USB charger market used to be somewhat sparsely populated, and the available devices drew more attention from consumers than from expert reviewers. Now the market is crowded and full of competition, which has driven down costs and spurred companies to deliver extra features such as built-in flashlights and sleek design. Ultimately, though, there are bigger considerations.

What We Looked for in the Specs

At Least 3,000 mAh.

The most important feature of a portable battery charger is the amount of extra power it can hold, which is measured in milliampere hours. The larger the capacity, the more charges a power pack can provide before its own battery needs to be recharged. Generally, consumers just want assurance that if their phone dies when they are out for the day, they can get it charged up again. We looked for chargers with a minimum capacity of 3,000 mAh, as this should provide at least one charge for a leading smartphone such as an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy. Still, consumers should note the sizes of the batteries in their electronic devices and compare them with the capacity of the external battery. The Nokia Lumia 1520, for example, has a 3,400 mAh battery, so consumers who expect a full charge from a 3,000 mAh battery pack will be disappointed. Keep in mind, too, that no charger is 100 percent efficient; some power will be lost in the transfer.

The New Trent iTorch IMP52D boasts a 5,200 mAh capacity and our other top pick, the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh, has the highest capacity among the low-cost chargers we researched. It also has 2-amp output, which means users can top off the battery on a tablet at a respectable speed. However, 6,000 mAh is not quite enough to fully charge even a small tablet such as an iPad Mini with Retina display.

Smaller Size Than a Smartphone. A portable charger is convenient only if it's small and light enough to carry around easily. With that in mind, we looked for chargers smaller than the smartphones they're designed to power. Our recommendations also weigh less than 5 ounces. That way, you can toss one into a bag along with your other gadgets without adding much extra bulk. The lightest of our picks is the Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh, weighing in at 2.8 ounces.

The trade-off with a compact, lightweight external battery is that you sacrifice capacity. Determining the best size-to-capacity ratio is a personal decision, but some portable chargers stand out more than others. The lightweight Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh is about the size of a roll of quarters, yet it offers a full charge for most smartphones. The Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh, the most powerful battery pack on our list, still weighs in at just 4.8 ounces. The best-selling EasyAcc Brilliant Ultra-Slim Power Bank (starting at $24) boasts a 10,000 mAh capacity but weighs more than twice as much as any of our top picks.

Portable Charger Reviews

In order to determine what makes a portable charger successful, we looked at information and reviews from a wide range of expert sources. These included sites such as PC World and the Apple news and review site iDownloadBlog, which conducts hands-on testing. We also found reviewers with related expertise, such as a blogger at the travel site Map Happy. We checked in on sites such as Amazon to see what consumers on had to say after buying and living with the products. In general users and experts seem to want the same thing: a fast, reliable charger with a convenient design. Portable charger reviews indicate whether the performance of cheap models matches up with manufacturer claims about things like battery capacity and portability.

Efficiency.

According to their stated capacities, all the external batteries we picked are capable of fully charging a typical smartphone more than once on a single charge. In reality consumers must account for power that's lost in the transfer. A reviewer from iDownloadBlog reports that the New Trent iTorch IMP52D (starting at $25), which is supposedly capable of charging an iPhone 5 up to three times, showed about a third remaining after one full charge. The reviewer suggests that powering off the phone may improve performance and is satisfied with even one full charge from a unit so small and inexpensive. Reviews of the Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh (starting at $17) more or less corroborate the company's estimate of 20 percent power loss due to circuit resistance and voltage conversion. The upshot is that this small device may fall a smidgen short of a full charge for a smartphone with a big battery, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 (2,800 mAh).

Speed.

The best portable chargers provide extra juice fast. User experiences vary and many power bank reviews are vague -- e.g., one simply calls the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh (starting at $26) "insanely" fast -- but we gleaned that a good portable charger should fully charge a smartphone within a couple of hours. In an Amazon review of the Lepow Moonstone 3000 (starting at $20), a consumer points out that this external battery has two ports, one with output of 0.5 amps and one that delivers 1.2 amps for faster charging of power-hungry devices. The latter revived a nearly dead Samsung Galaxy S3 in just over an hour.

Some users see sluggish charging speeds because they're trying to use an inexpensive charger with output of 1 or 1.2 amps to charge a device such as a tablet, which generally draws around 2 amps. Only one of our top picks, the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh, has a charging port with output of up to 2 amps. Its proprietary technology enables faster charging by automatically recognizing what kind of device is connected and adjusting the output accordingly. One reviewer found that it took about three hours to charge an iPad Mini almost completely. The rest of the cheap chargers we researched are designed for phones and max out at 1 or 1.2 amps. That current will eventually charge a tablet but far too slowly to be useful.

Manufacturer specs tend to focus on how long it takes to recharge the battery pack itself. This correlates with the size of the battery and generally jibes with what we read in portable charger reviews. The New Trent iTorch IMP52D and Anker 2nd Gen Astro take about five or six hours to recharge, while the smaller batteries on the Lepow Moonstone 3000 and Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh come in at three to four hours.

Convenient Design.

Before you buy a charger, consider its physical size and shape and what you would be happy carrying. There are so many small yet powerful options available these days, there's no need to go around feeling like you're carrying a brick. Reviewers praise the Anker Astro Mini in particular for its compact size. Some reviews of the Lepow Moonstone 3000 on Amazon mention that the squarish shape is a little awkward to carry around in a pocket, but it's the slimmest charger on our list, at just over a quarter-inch thick. It also has room for two ports, so it can charge two devices at a time.

The Jackery Mini (starting at $20) has a compact, lipstick-tube shape but gave a few reviewers trouble because it seems to switch on easily if something bumps the power button. You don't want to reach for a backup battery only to find it's been draining all day. Most of the best portable chargers have indicator lights or, in the case of the Anker 2nd Gen Astro, an LED power meter to signal the amount of charge remaining. The Astro charger's display stays off to save battery power but comes on when you shake the device.

Durability.

Consumers don't want to worry about connectors that don't fit or generally flimsy products. They want a portable charger that won't break or quit holding a charge after a couple of uses. Reports of various glitches surface in reviews of the Jackery Mini on sites such as Amazon. Reviewers haven't found the device entirely reliable, and at times its battery level indicator is wrong. In some cases the external battery stopped working after its first complete discharge.

Consumers who are rough on their devices appreciate the rubberized coating on the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6000mAh, which keeps the charger protected when it's tossed in a bag. However, reviews note that the design isn't ideal for slipping smoothly into a pocket. The Anker Astro Mini and Lepow Moonstone 3000 come with carrying cases to help prevent them from getting dinged up. Some manufacturers suggest best practices for extending battery life. Astro recommends that users charge and recharge its external batteries at least once every few months and try to keep them charged between 5 percent and 95 percent at all times.



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In this review:
  1. Best Cheap Portable Chargers
  2. Discount Portable Chargers Features Comparison Table
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