Summer Conference Gadget Guide: 2019 Edition ft. Aer SF, Vapur, RAVpower, Anker, ZMI, Native Union, and more

For the last couple of years I’ve brought you recommendations for preparing for your summer conference season. For the first time since 2013 I will not be at Cisco Live, but I will be back at Interop in Las Vegas in May, and will probably have a late August visit for the Cisco sales kickoff.

Items that I discuss here may have referral or affiliate links. These usually provide a modest monetary benefit to me, which (perhaps obviously) goes back into items to review for the blogs here and at rsts11travel.com. You can also check out the “support” page to see other ways to support rsts11.

Personal comforts

A couple of perennial tips that have saved me a lot of inconvenience outside of the technical side of things may help you too.

First, break in your shoes in advance. I often think about new shoes before an event that will involve a lot of walking. Having learned the hard way, I now start buying, and breaking in, new shoes at least a couple of weeks ahead of an event. Your feet will be much more comfortable with a few 5000-10000 step days rather than days at a trade show where you might break 5000 steps in an hour. While you’re at it, make sure you have a spare charger for your fitness tracker, and put it in your laptop bag now.

Second, bring a sturdy but convenient-to-carry water bottle (or buy one once you get there). There will be water everywhere you go, but those little 8 ounce plastic cups only go so far, especially if you stroll down the Las Vegas strip. Whether you choose something like the metal H2GO FORCE 17oz ($20ish at Amazon, a personal favorite since it fits in my Saturn Sky’s DDMWorks cupholders), the Vapur Element roll-up water bottles (from $12 at Amazon), or Nomader’s collapsible reinforced water bottle ($25 at Amazon), you’ll be prepared to refill and stay hydrated indoors or out. Many of the Strip hotels sell the H2GO Force or one like it in their gift shops for around $25 (I have one from Delano, and one from a Ritz-Carlton outside Vegas).

You can also choose to reuse a substantial bottle. On my last three-day trip I bought a $5 bottle of Evian in an airport shop and just refilled it along my journey. It fit nicely in my backpack bottle sleeve, and I recycled it when I got home.

Third, if you’re planning to get a lot of swag at the trade show or conference, consider printing a prepaid label and bringing a USPS flat rate box. You can get the boxes free at most US Postal Service post offices, or from their website. You can even get postage for the flat rate box at the post office if you prefer not to print at home. Maybe do two, and if you don’t need both, you can cancel for a (delayed) refund when you get home.

And fourth, consider bringing (or buying on site) some portable relatively-weatherpoof snacks and beverage additives if you’re into those things. Some granola or cereal bars, instant beverages, or even an electrolyte like Drinkwel’s LyteShow (which I use along with LyteCaps when traveling as well as at home).

Power to the People

The most important thing for me during a conference is power. I usually have a laptop, a phone, and a tablet, and sometimes more than one of each, but I’m rarely seated near a wall outlet. I generally carry an enhanced extension cord and a battery pack to support my device needs.

Last year I recommended the Anker 26800 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($120 at Amazon with USB-PD wall charger and cables plus travel pouch included) and the ZMI 20000 USB-C Power Delivery Battery Pack ($70 at Amazon with cables and storage pouch included, rapid charger currently $20 at Amazon). I also suggested the Native Union SMART HUB BRIDGE extension cord which gives two AC outlets and 5.4V of USB charging across four ports, up to 3A per port, including 15W USB-C ($55 at Amazon).

Any of those would still be a good choice this year, and the prices have remained consistent. But this year I have two devices to suggest in addition.

If you have a Macbook, a USB-C Chromebook, or another small Ultrabook other than Dell, the two packs and the charger above will charge your device nicely. Unfortunately, Dell has quirky power delivery support, so the Anker will not charge at all, and the ZMI will give a slow charge warning. Better than nothing, but I’ve found some new options.

The RAVpower PD Pioneer 20100mAh battery pack, currently $56 at Amazon before a $4 instant coupon, provides 45W of power over USB-C Power Delivery, as well as supporting 18W quick charge on the USB-A port. I’ve tested it with my XPS 13 9370, and it charges nicely. It also rapid-charges my iPad Pro 12.9 (2015) at ~28W, which is excellent as well. If you’re charging a laptop with USB-C, you won’t have use of the USB-A charging port, but for smaller devices you can double-up. Charging input on USB-C is 30W, which means you can recharge in 3.5 hours. [Disclosure: RAVpower provided me with a free unit of this pack to test, and I reviewed it on their Facebook group May 8.]

I’ve also added the Anker PowerStrip Pad and PowerPort Cube to my travel complement. Neither of these will charge the XPS laptops, but they have AC outlets for the Dell charger.

The PowerStrip Pad ($36 at Amazon) has a 5 foot attached cord, two AC outlets, 2 switchable USB-A “IQ” 12W (5V 2.4A) smart charging ports, and a USB-C Power Delivery port that offers 30W (20V 1.5A or 15V 2A). The USB-C port will rapid charge iPhone 8 and later.

The PowerPort Cube ($26 at Amazon) offers a 5 foot attached cord, three AC outlets, and three 18W (5V 3.6A) max USB-A ports. For the newer Apple devices or your computers, you’d want to use an AC charger with this one, but you’ll have room away from the wall to plug in with either of these extension options.

 

By the way, If you’re traveling with an IOS device like the iPhone 8 or anything newer,  by the way, I highly recommend Anker’s PowerLine II USB-C to Lightning charging cables. The 3ft version is $16 on Amazon, available in black or white, and sturdier than the Apple cable while still being MFI certified and ready to rapid-charge even your largest iPad Pro. The 6ft version is coming in June for about $20, and gives the same sturdiness and power potential with twice the length.

If you’re looking for a wall charger to supplement the above extensions (and charge up the batteries and your devices), check out my review of the Anker PowerLine II cable. There are six adapters listed there that I’ve personally used. You might have one or more already, and that post may give you an idea of what to look for if you choose to get something else.

With current prices, those six suggested power adapters are:

Where Do I Put All This Stuff?

I have no shortage of luggage, from a Waterford Executive Folio (from $89 direct from the maker) for my iPad, to my checked-bag Samsonite 8-wheelers. But I’m finding that my regular travel fits well with a couple of pretty easy choices.

First, for a laptop bag I’m still liking the Solo Duane 15.6 Hybrid. It’s a briefcase-style bag that holds 15.6″ laptops (including my Thinkpad P51 juggernaut) along with an iPad (like the 12.9 I use as a daily driver with a keyboard case) and power adapters, chargers, magazines, and other gadgets. It converts from briefcase to messenger bag (with detachable strap) to backpack (with stowable straps) and fits under most airline seats. I have the slate one ($50 at Amazon) but the gray one is only $37 as I write this.

My sub-1-week preference remains the AER SF Travel Pack. The new version (Travel Pack 2, $230 direct from the maker) has some additional features, but I still find the original to be great for up to a week of carefully curated clothing and toiletries. There’s a laundry or shoe pocket in the bottom, laptop sleeve that easily handles even the Thinkpad mentioned above, a lot of useful pockets, and straps to keep everything together.

Where do we go from here?

Off to a conference, of course!

If you’re looking for an accessory suggestion that’s not covered above, leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

And by way of additional disclosure, while I do get a commission from Amazon on many of the items above (unless mentioned as “from the maker”), I am not recommending anything I have not personally purchased (or otherwise received) and used for travel purposes. Also, no vendor has paid for, previewed, or requested inclusion in this post. It’s all based on what will be in my luggage (or what will be my luggage) this summer and fall.

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On The Road With A Travel Router: The RAVPower FileHub WD009

A few weeks ago, the folks at RavPower asked if I’d like to do a livestream review on their Facebook group for the newest version of their FileHub travel router/battery pack/micro-NAS device.

You can find the video of that 25 minute session here on Facebook.  Skip to 4 minutes in, and excuse the terrible laptop audio artifacts.

Note: the promo code for the FileHub expired, although they do post occasional promos and giveaways on their Facebook group. You can still purchase through this link and possibly get an Amazon native coupon for a few bucks off.

I also talked about their newest “PD Pioneer” 20100mAh Power Delivery charging bank on another live stream on May 8th, There’s a very generous promo code for that battery as well, through June 8th, which should be stackable with the native Amazon coupon.

See part one: “Introduction and Overview” for an explanation of the concept of a travel router and what you might look for in one. Watch for part three coming soon.

Disclosure: RavPower provided the review unit at no cost to me, and will provide a commission for any sales through my promo code. They also shared some use cases to focus on, but did not preview or edit the  livestream or this post.

WHAT’S WITH THIS RAVPOWER FILEHUB YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT?

The WD009 FileHub. Credit card sized hotel key card and US quarter for scale.

The WD009 FileHub. Credit card sized hotel key card and US quarter for scale.

So first of all, here it is on Amazon. It’s $59.99 as I write this, with a $3 coupon on Amazon (and I’ve seen $4 coupons in the past month). Through May 11, 2019, you can use coupon code 8TYFTXPV to save a bit over $12, bringing your cost down to around $47.

The FileHub WD009 is (I believe) Ravpower’s third generation travel router. I’ve used the first generation (WD02, no longer available on Amazon) and they have a WD03 “FileHub Plus” model that’s available internationally with 802.11n wireless connectivity.

If you can’t acquire the WD009 (sorry to the Aussies in particular), the WD03 is a good deal at $43. It is single-band like the WD008 “FileHub Nano“, so no option for 5GHz band, and I’d expect it to be a little bit slower (and with no one-touch backup option–we’ll discuss this later). It does have the same 6700mAh battery built in. Continue reading

On The Road With A Travel Router: Introduction and Overview

A few weeks ago, the folks at RavPower asked if I’d like to do a livestream review on their Facebook group for the newest version of their FileHub travel router/battery pack/micro-NAS device. Since I’d used previous versions and had a grasp of the feature set, I agreed to do it, and they sent me a free unit to test and discuss.

You can find the video of that 25 minute session here on Facebook.  Skip to about 4 minutes in if you can.

There’s also a promo code (8TYFTXPV) good through May 11, 2019, that will give me a small commission and give you $12+ off the purchase of a FileHub on Amazon (US only I believe). If you want to skip the video, you can purchase through this link and still get the discount with that promo code.

Some of the advice in this post will apply to other routers, including some I’ve discussed in past blog posts.

Disclosure: RavPower provided the review unit at no cost to me, and will provide a commission to me for any sales through my promo code. They did also share some use cases to focus on, but did not preview or edit the livestream or this series of posts.

 

WHY DO I WANT A TRAVEL ROUTER?

With a travel router, you’re able to connect multiple personal devices to a single Internet connection, with some level of security protection. And you can do this for all of your devices (or your family’s devices) without having to pay for extra device connections to your host facility’s service.

Some hotels still limit the number of devices or MAC addresses that can connect on a single account. Others may have mobile-unfriendly splash screens or access methods. And if your hotel’s WiFi uses your highly secure loyalty program password that is a pain to type on a mobile phone and can’t be auto-filled from your password manager, that’s going to be a headache too.

So with a travel router, you can authenticate to this device, and whenever you go somewhere, you connect to its portal and set up the Internet connection once. Everything else just connects in.

Some travel routers have additional features. Most have a battery built in so you don’t have to plug into the wall (and you can even charge your phone from it). Some have options for USB modems for cellular connections. Many offer some sort of media sharing and backup feature. Depending on your needs during travel, one or all of these features may be desirable.

SO WHAT IS A TRAVEL ROUTER? HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FROM A REGULAR ROUTER?

You probably know that a router is a device with at least two network connections that acts as a gateway between those two networks. You have one at home if you have Internet service. It might be built into your cablemodem or DSL modem, or it might be a product that connects to that modem. It may even provide your WiFi access point too. For me, I have a Meraki MX84 for my home network, and my DSL backup uses the provider’s router with integrated wifi.

The problem with these devices for travel use is fourfold:

  1. They’re often expensive. A good home router is probably going to cost around $200, although you can get viable devices for around $100.
  2. They’re often heavy/bulky. My MX84 is a 1U rackmount device that would take up a lot of room in a suitcase. Many consumer devices have unwieldy-for-travel antennas.
  3. They almost always require wall power (although with devices like the Omnicharge battery packs with AC out, you could get around this).
  4. They usually don’t support WiFi-as-WAN, which is what you need to connect them to a WiFi network, whether in a hotel, a business center or conference facility, or even a coffee shop. Some do, but not all.

And since I ruined my intended threefold list, a fifth item is that if you pull your home router out to travel, anyone still at home is out of luck (or you need a second expensive device).

So here comes the travel router to save the day. Let’s run down the fit.

  1. They’re usually inexpensive. Think $75 or less for a full-featured device.
  2. They’re often light and manageable. Most of mine are the size of a box of bandages or a small block of cheese, and one would fit in about half of a Red Bull can. Not sure why you’d have a block of cheese or an empty Red Bull can in your laptop bag, but that’s fine.
  3. They almost always have an integrated battery, which powers the router and wifi functionality as well as offering an external charging source for your phone or the like. The few that don’t will use a MicroUSB connection to power them, so you can plug into a phone charger or your laptop for power.
  4. They almost always support WiFi-as-WAN, letting you log in once to the hotel or conference WiFi and run all of your devices behind it.
  5. Since it’s not your home router, nobody left at home will even know your travel router is gone.

So the take-home summary is that with a sub-$100 travel router, you can share a public and/or paid Internet connection with multiple devices, sharing media and connectivity between your own devices securely, and even back up your mobile devices on the road.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

This is the first part in a three part series on travel hubs. Check out the second part that goes into deeper detail on the RavPower FileHub WD009 (coming very soon), and keep an eye out for the third part covering another vendor’s travel hub that provides cellular hotspot and Ethernet bridging.

Remember to jump on the promo code if you do choose to buy the FileHub WD009. Use this link to Amazon. It’s $59.99 as I write this, with a $3 coupon on Amazon (and I’ve seen $4 coupons in the past month). Through May 11, 2019, you can use coupon code 8TYFTXPV to save a bit over $12, bringing your cost down to around $47. When the discount expires, I’ll remove references to it then; you can probably still get $3-4 off with the Amazon coupons.

Good news on the USB-C to Lightning front… maybe…

There are a few power units I’ve been using, testing, and documenting over the last many months. It’s easy to get 5V 2.4A charging, and Qualcomm Quick Charge standards (or Anker’s analogue to them) are pretty easy too. But there’s a somewhat new charging consideration that’s lighting up even more this year, with a possible catch.

When Apple released the iPad Pro (12.9″ 1st generation) in 2015, it was an amazing media consumption and even creation device. Support for the new Apple Pencil for creative types, a huge beautiful screen, and a huge 10Ah 38Whr battery… what’s not to like?

How about charging that huge battery?

Aye, there’s the rub. The iPad Pro came with a 12 watt USB-A charger like iPhones did, and a USB-A to Lightning cable like iPhones did. It’s what Apple had available, and it would probably recharge your iPad Pro in 4-6 hours. (As you can see on the right, mine hasn’t left the box in about 3 years.)

Soon, though, Apple released a USB-C to Lightning cable, which would allow you to charge at about 28 watts (that’s 2.3x as fast on a good day). This cable also opened the door to directly connecting to the new USB-C Macbooks, and with the 30W or better Apple chargers, you could get that 28 watt charge going. Most USB Power Delivery chargers and battery packs at 29 watts or higher can also rapid charge your iPad Pro.

When the iPhone 8 generation came out, Apple started supporting a rapid charge at 18 watts for those devices, and newer iPad non-Pro models (in the last year) have also taken on the faster charge rates.

The catch was, Apple did not sell or license their USB-C rapid charge chips for third party manufacturers. So while some overseas companies made USB-C to Lightning cables, they couldn’t charge faster than the standard USB-A cable, and wouldn’t be MFI-certified. So $19-35 went to Apple for each of those cables, and you got your rapid charging.

You also got typical Apple cable sturdiness (such as it is), which left many people replacing cables and grumbling.

But then, it all changed

Anker USB-C to Lightning Cable

Now that Apple is moving to USB-C for charging their devices, they’re also allowing third party USB-C to Lightning cables by licensing the C89 and similar connectors/chips.

Anker announced one last month at CES, pre-orderable now on their website and shipping later this month, and a crowdfunding project from a company called Cascade Cables is also promising such a cable coming in April.

These new cables are sturdier, potentially more aesthetically pleasing, and the Anker cable is priced lower than the Apple version by a couple of bucks. Now the question is whether these cables will support the full range of charging rates that those of us with larger devices will need.

Cascade USB-C to Lightning Cable

Anker responded to an inquiry on Facebook about the iPad Pro charge rate by telling me that my iPad had USB-C and I could use USB-C to USB-C cabling. Alas, the 2015 iPad Pro doesn’t have USB-C, and they didn’t follow up on the question. However, their pre-order page says it uses USB Power Delivery, which has me feeling optimistic.

I’ve inquired with Cascade Cables as to whether they’ve tested with 28W devices. I’ll update this post if I hear back from them.

It takes more than a cable

With the higher power cabling, whether from Apple or a third party, you’ll need a USB-C Power Delivery charger to negotiate the higher power level.

The easy option is to pick up an Apple USB-C Macbook charger.

If you already have one for your Macbook, you can use it to rapid-charge your iOS devices as well. And note that if you have another USB-C charged laptop (like a Dell XPS 13 or XPS 15, a newer Lenovo, and so forth), you can use the Apple chargers as long as they feed enough wattage to charge your device.

For the third party side, I’ve had very good experiences with Anker, so it’s worth considering a charger from them that provides at least 29 watts on USB-C, like the Powerport II ($30) or Powerport Speed+ Duo ($26). The Powerport II offers up to 19.5 watts on USB-A, which is good for quick-charge devices or iPhone 8 or later; the Speed+ Duo is limited to 12 watts on USB-A.

If you’re patient, Anker has also announced their entry into the GaN (gallium nitride) charging field, the Powerport Atom PD1 charger which gives 30 watts of juice in a tiny form factor. It’s listed on their website for pre-order on Amazon, but Amazon is currently offering email alerts for when it’s available to order. I’ll update when that comes out of unobtanium as well. I have the RavPower 45W GaN charger in house, and will be writing that up soon too.

And if you want to see what power profile your charger is negotiating, regardless of which charger or cable you use, I’ve used the Plugable ($20) and Satechi ($30, right) USB-C power meters with good results. You don’t need a power meter to just charge your devices, but it can be useful to troubleshoot slow charging, flaky cables, or power profile mismatches (like the ones we’ve experienced with the Dell XPS 13 9370).

Where do we go from here?

As the newer cables come out, I’ll be acquiring and testing them. Same goes for the new PD1 charger from Anker. With an iPhone 8 Plus, a 2017 iPad Pro 10.5, and a 2015 iPad Pro 12.9 in the house, rapid charging is an important topic.

I’ll also have some updated coverage on battery packs to rapid charge your iOS devices, and even charge your USB-C Power Delivery laptops. The new HyperJuice “World’s Most Powerful USB-C Battery Pack” and Omni Ultimate battery packs are in house and ready to test, when work lets up a bit.

What are your charging concerns, and what interesting solutions have you found to keep your devices up and running? Share in the comments, or ask any questions you may have.

As always, if you buy through our links above, we get a small commission, which then goes back into buying more stuff to review here and on rsts11travel. We appreciate your support.

 

 

Quick Take: Charging with the Monoprice 80W USB-C/USB-A wall charger

[Update below from Monoprice on the USB-A ratings.]

I recently bought the Monoprice 33467 wall charger, and got a question about charging wattage on the site a little while afterward. Since Monoprice does not provide specific rates for the ports on this device, other than 60 watts on USB-C (standard for USB Power Delivery chargers) and 80 watts total, I decided to get out some thirsty high-draw devices and USB power meters to see what the rates would be.

Testing kit

This device has a removable two-pin power cable, a USB-C port, and four USB-A ports. The USB-C port is rated for up to 60 watts with USB-PD, and the total adapter is rated for 80W.

Update: The vendor confirms 2.4A per USB-A port, with full capacity available across all four ports simultaneously. See end of post for more.

It gets a bit warm when you load it up, so I wouldn’t put it on a container of ice cream or on bare skin, but it’s not too hot for an 80 watt device.

These are bidirectional-capable testers that show voltage, amperage, milliamps of current, and direction of power. I believe these are identical devices, either licensed or flattered by one or the other vendor. I bought the Satechi almost two years ago, and wrote about it here); the Plugable came out afterward, I believe.

Satechi told me some time ago that they should handle 300W of power, and I’ve used theirs with the 130W proprietary Dell Thunderbolt 3 Docking Station charging option for the XPS 15 9550 laptops, without releasing any smoke.

The bidirectional feature is interesting, in that  you can use some USB-C mobile phones to charge other devices, and this will tell you which way the power is going. It’s also conceivable that you could charge a USB-C power bank with your laptop, as opposed to the other way around.

This is a formidable device in that it supports USB-A, USB-C, and Micro-USB input, with USB-A and USB-C output based on the input source. It’s rated for up to 30V/5.1A which should cover any USB-C charging I’ve seen.

It is large and not friendly to being plugged in next to another cable, as you can see from the picture, but it’s very convenient (even showing four wire voltage and three different English interfaces/displays as well as Chinese). It is not bidirectional, so you’ll plug the metal plug into the power source and your charging cable into the jack.

PortaPow is a UK company that came to my knowledge for their charge-only / data blocker cables. These cables block/bridge the data lines in a USB charging cable, letting you charge (potentially) faster while keeping a host or charging device from spuriously accessing the data on your device.

Their power meters offer similar functionality along with a backlit LED power display. The pictured/linked one is their third version; I’ve used the first two versions successfully, although the older ones do not to my knowledge support higher than 5V charging.

Charging targets:

All targets were chosen for capability to charge at higher than 10W rates, as well as being under half charge so that full charging rate would be realized.

  • Pixel 2 XL from Google, at around 20% charge (USB-C)
  • iPhone 8 Plus from Apple, at under 20% charge (Lightning)
  • iPad Pro 10.5 from Apple, at about 45% charge (Lightning)
  • PowerCore 26800 Premium Portable Charger from Anker, at about 20% charge (Micro-USB)
  • XPS 13 9370 from Dell, at about 40% charge (USB-C PD)
  • XPS 15 9550 from Dell, at about 4% charge (USB-C PD)

Quick and dirty test results

The Pixel 2 XL charged at 12 watts (9.33 volts) with a USB-C cable. With a USB-A to USB-C cable, I got closer to 5 watts, although the cable might be to blame.

The iPad Pro charged at about 12 watts (5.12 volts) with a USB-A to Lightning cable, and about 28 watts with the USB-C to Lightning cable.

The iPhone 8 Plus charged at about 18 watts (9.37 volts) with USB-C to Lightning, but only 8 watts with USB-A to Lightning.

The Anker battery pack charged at about 17 watts (9.34 volts) which is fair for the Quick Charge 2.0 level of input (the newer version of the pack supports QC 3.0, and the Power Delivery version of course supports USB Power Delivery at up to 27 watts input).

The XPS 13 9370 negotiated to 30 watts of input (at 20V profile) while powered down.

The XPS 15 9550 negotiated to 45 watts of input (also at 20V profile) while powered down. This would have reported a BIOS adapter error if I had booted up while connected, as would the Pixel C 60 watt charger, but it will still charge.

Where do we go from here?

In short, if you need to charge several devices at a time, but don’t want 4-5 chargers, the Monoprice 80 watt charger is probably a good choice. If you have a more power-hungry device, like a large MacBook Pro or a heavy USB-C battery pack, you may still want to keep an 87 watt charger around for it, but for modest / travel use, the power this device offers should be good enough to keep you going.

I will probably plug the charger itself into an AC power meter, and see how it handles multiple inputs (including the laptops) in parallel. My expectation is that USB-C would take priority, so with 45W going to USB PD, I could use up to 35W max on the USB-A ports. I did have the iPad, Pixel XL, and Anker battery plugged in at the same time and they seemed to have similar charge rates to each one individually connected.

Have you had experience with the Monoprice charger, or have any test conditions you wonder about? Share in the comments, and I’ll check them out if I can.

[This was intended to be a Quick Take post, and while it was created quickly, it’s not as short as I’d originally planned.]

Update: A Monoprice product specialist responded to my inquiry this morning (11/9/2018). They said that the charger “can supply at least 2.4 amps each port and all four can supply this current simultaneously. The total wattage of 48 Watts across all USB-A ports.” Based on this reading, if you are pulling 12 watts per port, you should be able to drive 32 watts of USB-C which should cover an XPS 13 or smaller, a battery pack, or the newer Apple devices with rapid charging.