Walt Mossberg

This Is a Test of Emergency Power Systems

Regardless of how “wireless” communications technology has become, your laptop, cellphone, BlackBerry, radio or TV will keep working only if the batteries can be recharged. These gadgets may be your communications lifeline, but, as we saw during Hurricane Katrina, they can become useless if the electrical grid is down for days or weeks — just when you need them most.

Of course, if you stock numerous extra batteries for each device, and keep them charged fastidiously, you might ride out a long power outage. But that takes a fat wallet and an iron will. You could use a car charger to keep these gadgets going in a power outage, but during Katrina many people couldn’t get gasoline to power their cars. You could recharge your gadgets from a home generator, but few people own them or stockpile the fuel they consume.

The Multi-Purpose Radio FR300 by Eton.
The Multi-Purpose Radio FR300 by Eton

So this week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I tested gadgets that are specifically designed to work in emergency situations. We tested two radios that use cranks to recharge their batteries, including one with a built-in cellphone charger. We also took a look at disposable chargers for cellphones, smart phones and even iPod music players.

Obviously these products won’t help you stay connected should the communications infrastructure itself go down, as happened during Katrina. If the cellphone towers, Internet providers, and TV and radio stations are knocked offline, even a well-charged laptop, phone or radio might be useless. But it’s best to have your end of the system ready if some of these networks do remain operational, or come back on line during the crisis.

The crank radios were pretty easy to set up and use, which is a relief for anyone who might buy them and not learn how to use them until actually necessary. We found the $50 Multi-Purpose Radio FR300 by Eton Corp. at Hammacher Schlemmer (www.hammacher.com) and liked its multifaceted functionality, which includes picking up the audio signal from TV stations.

Freeplay Eyemax Weather Band Radio from Innovative Technologies Distribution Inc. Price: $69.99 For info: www.windupradio.com
Freeplay Eyemax Weather Band Radio from Innovative Technologies Distribution Inc. Price: $69.99. For info: www.windupradio.com

This sturdy-looking, square radio has a carrying handle on top and comes with a case. Its front displays a speaker, small flashlight, and tuning display for five settings: AM, FM, the TV1 and TV2 television audio bands, and a “WX” band for the government’s weather channels. Katie used a slide bar just below that display to choose which she wanted to hear. She turned the tuning knob to hear a specific radio station; a smaller knob built into the larger knob allows for more precise tuning. There is a collapsible antenna.

To generate power for the FR300, we simply folded a plastic crank out from the radio’s side, and turned it for a little while, evoking a loud whirring sound. Eton says that two minutes of cranking should suffice for an hour of radio play time, but we got 35 minutes out of a 30-second crank, which is even better than that estimate.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration broadcasts can be tuned in on the FR300 by setting the slide bar to the WX setting. A separate tuning knob lets you turn to whichever is the strongest of the seven NOAA channels. You can set another separate knob on “Alert” so as to hear whenever the NOAA announces emergency weather news in your area. A siren is also built into this radio.

A small cellphone-charging piece plugs into the back of the FR300, and five included adapters permit charging of certain Samsung, Motorola, Nokia, Siemens and Sony Ericsson phones. Katie easily plugged her Samsung cellphone into the adapter and had it charging after a few cranks.

The $70 Freeplay Eyemax Weather Band Radio from Innovative Technologies Distribution Inc. (www.windupradio.com) was similar to the FR300, but it lacked a few features. This radio has its crank, speaker and tuning display all lined up on the front, with a tiny flashlight at one end and an antenna at the other.

iRecharge for iPod mini by Compact Power Systems Inc.Price: sold in $79.99 Value Pack. For info: www.cellboost.com.
iRecharge for iPod mini by Compact Power Systems Inc. Price: sold in $79.99 Value Pack. For info: www.cellboost.com

A solar panel on its top can be used to operate the radio in direct sunlight, which might be a nice feature if you’re not up for repeated hand-cranking. The Freeplay also comes with an AC adapter, unlike the FR300. But the FR300 can run on three AA batteries, which might be more useful during an evacuation; the Freeplay had no option for disposable batteries.

While the Freeplay Eyemax is also advertised to receive seven NOAA weather-band channels, its weather-tuning display is confusingly represented on the same display as AM/FM tuning. We liked the FR300′s separate weather-channel knob better because it allowed us to set one weather station and not have to change it after listening to the radio.

The Freeplay’s estimated crank/run time was more accurate — as the company said, 30 seconds of cranking enabled the battery to work for 35 minutes, the same as the FR300.

Katie and I also re-tested a product we have reviewed in the past — Cellboost by Compact Power Systems Inc. These are tiny disposable cellphone chargers that can give your phone 60 minutes of usage time or 60 hours of standby time. But this month, the company introduced the same devices for smartphones, which are cellphones designed for email and Web browsing. Other new Cellboost models power portable game stations, camcorders and even iPod music players — though these aren’t necessarily emergency lifelines.

Cellboost for Treo smartphones by Compact Power Systems Inc. Price: $7.99. For info: www.cellboost.com
Cellboost for Treo smartphones by Compact Power Systems Inc. Price: $7.99. For info: www.cellboost.com

I use the Treo 650 smart phone every day, for email and phone calls, so I tested the $8 Treo Cellboost, which promises 60 minutes of talk time. As soon as I attached the Cellboost and flipped its on/off switch, it worked like I had plugged my smartphone into its wall charger. Katie tried the $8 BlackBerry charger and the $10 iPod mini charger with the same simple results. The Cellboosts for iPod and iPod mini each afford eight hours of play time.

Compact Power Systems also introduced a product called the iRecharge, a rechargeable portable battery that fits snugly around your iPod, iPod mini or iPod shuffle giving the iPod and iPod mini 12 hours of extra play time and the iPod shuffle 40 extra hours. It has an on/off switch, so you can charge your iPod as needed, as well as a charge-level indicator that glows to tell you how much juice is left.

Katie used the iRecharge with her mini, and it worked easily. The iRecharge for iPod and iPod mini is sold for $80 in a Value Pack with a disposable iPod Cellboost, belt clip and a leather carrying case. The iPod shuffle’s iRecharge Value Pack costs $40.

We highly recommend getting a couple of Cellboosts to keep in your briefcase, purse or glove compartment; each charger remains usable for up to two years. And we recommend a crank radio as well. But, while Cellboosts are an inexpensive solution for recharging your gadgets, crank radios are more of an investment. Be sure to look for one with as many power sources as possible — such as a slot for disposable batteries and AC adapter — and make sure it includes a good flashlight.

Then, pray you don’t have to use any of these things.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret


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