Comparing Three AC Adapters
A laptop road warrior’s best friend – or most bitter enemy – is his AC adapter. It’s the second most vital thing you must carry; no adapter, and you start crying a few hours into the trip when your laptop goes down for the last time. Heaven help you if you left yours at home, because you’ll need to find another one somewhere. (If you’re lucky, you’ll check into the hotel, unpack, and notice it missing before the nearest computer store closes.) Your AC adapter should be small and light enough to fit easily in your laptop bag, so you don’t forget it or have to dig around in your suitcase to pull it out. It should be simple and self-contained, so you can pull it out and hook it up in less-than-convenient places, without dragging out half-a-dozen other things that got tangled up in the cord. And it must be durable, because an AC adapter is likely to be pounded more than almost anything else you carry with you.
Apple has received much praise for its current AC adapter design, and justly so. It is compact, with flip-out posts that give you a convenient place to wrap the cord when travelling. The adapter/wall outlet interface is ingenious: a plug with flip-out prongs lets you plug it directly into the wall, or remove the plug and use a standard-design cord when outlet space is tight or you want extra length. The power tip has a lighted ring that shows the charging status, a nice touch. However, it’s known for occasionally having problems with the cord fraying, breaking, or pulling out at either end; if the cord goes, the adapter becomes an $80 paperweight. Is this reason enough to go with a third-party adapter? Or are there other benefits you can find?
MadsonLine’s Lucille — Back in the days of the Wallstreet PowerBook G3, the best AC adapter I could find was the MicroAdapter by MadsonLine. It was about half the size of the power block that Apple used at the time, and even smaller than the yo-yo adapter that Apple switched to later. When the white iBook and Titanium PowerBook G4 came out, with a different-sized power socket, MadsonLine went their previous adapter one better by making the power tip – designed at a right-angle to reduce the amount of clearance needed – a machined aluminum piece instead of molded plastic. Unfortunately, the G4 MicroAdapter didn’t produce enough power to run and charge simultaneously a last-generation Titanium PowerBook, or the 15-inch and 17-inch PowerBooks. And so for a couple of years, I’ve been operating without my preferred adapter, and missing it.
I was therefore excited to learn that MadsonLine was finally coming out with a new adapter that would provide the 65 watts needed for the newer PowerBooks. I was even happier to see that the new $90 adapter – named "Lucille" after B.B. King’s guitar – would have a USB and a FireWire jack, to power devices like iPods and Palms that would charge over one of the two connections. I placed my pre-order as soon as I could.
Unfortunately, when the Lucille arrived several months later, it turned out to be something of a disappointment. While MadsonLine’s Web page lists accurate dimensions for the adapter (if you don’t count the cord-wrapping flanges), I still hadn’t imagined how bulky it would end up being: substantially larger than the old MicroAdapter, and even a bit larger than the current Apple power adapter. What’s more, while the power tip looks from a distance like the machined aluminum of the prior model, it turned out to be molded plastic.
That said, once I got over my disappointment, the Lucille is still a good AC adapter. The angled power tip doesn’t have the same "expensive equipment" feel as the aluminum one on the previous MicroAdapter, but it’s still solid and saves space, and the cord seems sturdier than the Apple adapter’s cord at both the brick and the tip ends. The MadsonLine Web site touts Lucille’s power consumption, claiming it draws very little power when not in use, half the power of the Apple AC adapter. I don’t have the test equipment to verify this, but I can say it remains cool when nothing’s plugged into it, which many wall warts cannot claim. Raised flanges give you an easy way to wrap the cord around the case; they’re a nice touch, and not as susceptible to breakage as Apple’s flip-out cord posts.
The USB and FireWire power jacks work as advertised; with the appropriate cable, I could charge my iPod through either port, and my Palm handheld through the USB port. The large number of devices that can be charged or powered through USB gives this power port additional value; instead of carrying several chargers for your devices (I’d normally have at least three: Palm, iPod, and cell phone), just pack the Lucille and appropriate USB charging cables. And while you can always plug a USB-powered device into your PowerBook/iBook, the Lucille’s port doesn’t add to the number of cables hanging off your laptop. (For those who haven’t tried it, actually using a PowerBook or iBook on your lap becomes awkward if several devices are hanging off the ports on either side.) You can also use the Lucille to give something a quick booster charge without dragging your entire laptop out of the bag, which can be a boon in a crowded airport. (Insert obligatory "Why can’t airports provide more power outlets?!?" rant here.)
All in all, I have to give the Lucille a qualified recommendation. It’s well-built and well-designed for its size, and the extra power ports give it added versatility, for only $10 more than the Apple adapter. However, it wasn’t the modern version of the svelte MicroAdapter that I was hoping for – and that I still hope MadsonLine will release, someday. If versatility is your prime goal, other adapters go beyond the Lucille’s capabilities, though with correspondingly increased clutter.
Kensington Universal AC/Car/Air Adapter — I originally bought this unit as the Kensington Universal AC/Car/Air Adapter model 33069; Kensington also sold the same unit in white plastic instead of black. While this model seems to have been discontinued by Kensington (I could only find it on their Web site through a model number search, and their online store lists it as out-of-stock), another company sells what appears to be an identical model (save some minor cosmetic differences) as the iGo Juice. Because it no longer seems to be available from Kensington, for the sake of this review I’ll usually refer to this unit as the Juice.
(Note: Kensington has released replacements for the various AC/Auto/Air models; the transformer bricks look thinner but wider, and the Web site now lists a series of "SmartTips" similar to the iGo system. However, I can’t tell from their Web site whether they remain cross-compatible with the iGo parts.)
The basic Juice is a fairly large transformer brick with an input socket and an output socket. The input socket accepts one of two cables: an AC cable for wall power, and a DC cable that fits a typical 12V car cigarette lighter socket. Remove a shell from the DC cable and you expose a DC power plug that fits the Empower socket featured on some airplanes.
The output cable has a plug on each end, plus a round power socket partway down its length (more on that in a moment); one end goes into the brick, while the other accepts a series of tips made to fit various models of laptops. The tip handles the appropriate power manipulations needed to make the brick work with a given laptop. (The Juice comes with tips for both the previous-generation PowerBook socket – PowerBook 1400/2400/3400, Wallstreet/Lombard/Pismo, original iBook – and current socket – all PowerBook G4 models and white iBook G3/G4 models.)
By itself, this would be handy, and that was all I was expecting when I originally bought the Kensington model. However, I was curious about the extra socket on the cable, and asked the Kensington people about it at Macworld Expo this year. They explained that it was meant for an adapter from the iGo power system, and could then be used to power/charge other pieces of equipment, with the appropriate tip. Soon after the event, I went to Radio Shack to pick up the adapter (called the iGo DualPower Accessory) to see what I could do with it.
As it turned out, I could use the DualPower Accessory to run just about every portable electronic device I had access to, with the appropriate tip – Nokia cell phone, Palm Tungsten T and Tungsten E, iPod with dock connector, even an old Sharp Zaurus. (See either URL above for a tip selector wizard that helps you pick the right tip for your device.) This was, needless to say, pretty cool; instead of needing to travel with several wall warts, or several USB charge cables, I could just bring the Juice, the DualPower Accessory, and a set of tips. I like this.
Unfortunately, this versatility comes with a price, and the most notable one is the complexity. While the Kensington version included a carry-bag that holds all the various parts and tips, there are a lot of pieces; you have to be careful to avoid spilling something accidentally. The multiple parts also mean it takes longer to set up; instead of "pull out, plug in, and go," you must assemble all the various bits for the power you have access to and the device you’re charging.
The Juice is also bulky and heavy compared to the other adapters I discuss here, making it more suitable for a suitcase than a laptop case. And while the system in general has a tough, durable feel, the plug where the output cable attaches to the brick feels chintzy; it binds occasionally when it goes into the socket, and while the plug is keyed to prevent it from going in the wrong way, I can’t avoid a nagging feeling that I could plug it in wrong if I wasn’t careful.
Finally, the system is not cheap; the Juice itself normally sells between $100 and $120, the DualPower Accessory lists for $25, and individual tips list for $10 each. I was lucky enough to find good deals and paid a lot less than that, but you should plan on investing a chunk of change to get the most out of the system. Of course, there are much less expensive options.
MacAlly AC Adapter for PowerBook G4 — This unit’s main virtue is value; it’s a reasonably well-built unit for half the price of the Apple model. And while it’s not as elegantly designed as the Apple adapter, or versatile as the Juice, or balanced as the Lucille, it is solid and functional.
The adapter is a rectangular brick about the length of the Lucille, but narrower. Most of the adapters I’ve worked with, including all the Apple and MadsonLine models, have the output cord to the laptop permanently attached and the input cord from the wall plugging in; on the MacAlly, the input cord is the one permanently attached, with a strain relief that feels very solid. Both design styles have advantages, as I’ll describe momentarily. The output cord plugs into the brick with a connector that looks like a mini headphone plug; while there is a plastic locking mechanism to hold it in place, and I have yet to have a problem, I still feel a bit uneasy about the stability of the connection. The combination of cords stretches to 10 feet, a respectable length. Although all that wire makes for an awkward lump in the carrying case, the unit has an attached velcro strap that keeps the cables mostly under control.
I can’t say a whole lot more about the MacAlly adapter. It does the job, simply and unobtrusively, and does it well enough that I don’t notice any significant irritations – although there also aren’t any design innovations that I can note on the positive side of the ledger, either.
A Few General Notes — It can be difficult to visualize how large these adapters are, especially in comparison with one another, so I put together a comparison photo of the various adapters to give you a better idea of the relative sizes and parts included. The top row shows the various stand-alone adapters; the bottom row shows the various parts of the Kensington/iGo Juice AC/Auto/Air system.
A recent TidBITS Talk thread discussed a problem people were having with the PowerBook tip of the Kensington adapter. I’ll say the same thing here that I did there; I’ve had problems with loosely fitting connections with several different AC adapters on my 15-inch PowerBook G4 – including several different Apple adapters, the Kensington, and the Lucille. I’ve seen the exact same adapters have no trouble at all on other iBooks and PowerBooks. My best guess is that the metal ring around the adapter tip can spread apart over time as it gets plugged and unplugged, and the tolerances on some recent PowerBooks (I haven’t seen this on any iBooks, yet) are loose enough that the ring doesn’t make solid contact. I’ve had success in the past by gently squeezing the ring to make it fit tighter. However, you must be careful, because if you squeeze too hard, you can distort the ring badly enough that it won’t make good contact again. I’ve seen extreme cases of this more than once, where the tip became caught under something and was crushed. On adapters where that cord is permanently attached to the brick, that’s it for the adapter; you now have an expensive paperweight. That’s one advantage to the Juice and the MacAlly; if you crush the tip, you ought to be able to buy a replacement for a fraction of the price of replacing the whole adapter.
Of course, there are also advantages to having the input cord going to the wall as a detachable part. While Apple includes an input cord with a custom-shaped plug that matches the exterior of the case, the power socket behind it is an industry-standard AC input; you can buy cords that fit for $3 each at someplace like Radio Shack, and leave them plugged in around the building wherever there’s a wall outlet that’s awkward to get to. So when you move around the building – or between home and office – all you have to carry around is the brick, and you only have to crawl under each desk once.
Overall, each of these units has something good to be said for it. The Apple AC adapter is a model of elegant design, with features like the charging indicator on the tip that aren’t matched by any of the other AC adapters here – even if the occasional durability issue means it falls short of true elegance. MacAlly’s is a good cheap second adapter. The Lucille offers a good balance between simplicity and versatility, while the iGo Juice is versatility transcendent, usable with a wide variety of power sources and a wide variety of devices, and letting you replace a multi-brick travelling suite with a single adapter. Any of them would be a good choice in the right circumstances. I currently travel with the Kensington/Juice in my suitcase, and an Apple adapter in my laptop case for immediate use; I will probably replace it with the Lucille on my next trip.
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