There's nothing more frustrating than being caught without power. If your phone is dead in the middle of a long day, you can't call, or text, or check Facebook. If your tablet is dead in the middle of a long flight, you can't pass the time with movies or reading. That's where a USB battery pack comes in handy — and Xiaomi's latest is hugely powerful.
Xiaomi is a huge technology mover and shaker in China, but most Australians have probably never heard of them. The company's influence outside of that country's borders is practically nil, since it spends its time building smartphones, apps and accessories for a specifically Chinese market. As well as some nifty handsets, Xiaomi has a new portable battery pack that is worth investigating.
Xiaomi's MI Charger USB battery is notable both for its capacity — 10400 milliamp-hours, which is a lot — and its price — only 69 Yuan, or about $12. When you consider that a bargain basement 5000mAh cell off DealExtreme is at least twice that price, Xiaomi's offering starts to look extremely attractive. It uses batteries made by LG and Samsung, too, so there's a lot of R&D inside its smooth metal casing.
And here's the thing — it's so worth it.
Apple's plastic product packaging — think iPhone 5C and the iPod family — was clearly an inspiration for Xiaomi in designing this battery's transparent case. There's not much to actually package, of course — just the battery and its short USB-to-microUSB cable — but when we first unpacked it, we had serious flashbacks to Apple unboxings of years past.
It's blatantly obvious how much Apple design has influenced this product. The entire mass looks like it was designed by Jony Ive, wrapped in soft-touch anodised aluminium, with two endplates in stark white with a MacBook Pro-esque circular power button. Honestly, we're surprised Cupertino lawyers aren't knocking down Xiaomi's doors as we speak. But, legalities aside, this battery pack looks beautiful.
The bottom face of the Xiaomi battery pack is featureless; it's not worth showing. The top face is where all the action happens — there's the aforementioned power button, a full-sized USB socket, a micro-USB socket, and four tiny white LEDs in series. Press the button, and the LEDs light up to tell you how much battery capacity the pack has remaining.
In terms of actual operation, this battery pack could not be simpler. Plug a USB cable into the full-sized connector and hook it up to a smartphone or tablet or other device in need of a charge, and the MI Charger automatically kicks into action. Plug a cable into the micro-USB socket and connect that to a USB wall-wart (the kind you charge your phone or tablet with), and the cell starts to restore its lost capacity.
The 10400mAh capacity rating is, by our measurement, spot-on. From a fully topped-off charge, we discharged and recharged a Telstra 4G Advanced Wi-Fi hotspot four times before the Xiaomi battery reported it was empty. With a 2500mAh battery in the hotspot, that's 10000mAh of capacity put to good use; almost perfectly in line with Xiaomi's claims.
Having this much spare battery capacity in a single relatively compact cell comes in so handy sometimes. There's enough energy stored away in the Xiaomi to restore the health of your Samsung Galaxy S5 (2800mAh) three times with plenty of change; an iPhone 5S (1560mAh) can be charged almost seven times. Even the massive, power-hungry Samsung Galaxy NotePRO (9500mAh) can be fully recharged with a little juice to spare. Can you imagine never feeling a twinge of anxiety about whether your phone can make it through the day again?
If there's one big complaint we have with the 10400mAh MI Charger, though, it's the slightly imperfect charging implemented for the battery itself. Charging it from empty to full is simple enough, although it takes time — we clocked a little over five hours for the battery to completely charge and report 100 per cent capacity. But if you're in the middle of charging and disconnect the battery from its charging point, it can sometimes misrepresent the amount of charge you have available. We charged the battery to around 80 per cent and pulled it from the charger; the battery reported full power (four bright LEDs) and wouldn't charge any more after we reconnected it. Since you don't have to charge it often — it has 10400mAh of capacity, for God's sake — it's a bit disappointing that it's possible to only charge it partially by accident.
All of this is wrapped up in one more unfortunate happenstance. When you factor in shipping to Australia and a few Chinese middlemen taking a cut, it's almost impossible to find this battery pack online for less than $30. eBay prices are usually up around the $50 mark, although a bit of creative Googling and putting your faith in a site you've never heard of can get you a better deal. We bought one off eBay for $40.
Even with that pricing caveat, we still really like the Xiaomi MI Charger. It's an odd thing to like, but we get a genuine kick out of throwing the battery into our backpack of a morning and knowing that we'll never run out of phone, tablet or hotspot power at an inopportune time. [Xiaomi]