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And now for something completely different - a Fuel Cell charger!

Thu Sep 6, 2007 - 10:15 AM EDT - By Harv Laser


Note: click any picture in this review to view a full-sized version in a new window..

If you watch enough movies, eventually you'll catch one with the over-used plot device of the hero grabbing a cell phone and desperately trying to make a call to someone in peril. Naturally, the phone's battery is ALWAYS almost depleted and the phone conks out just as he hears the number he's desperately trying to reach ringing on the other end of the call, or he gets through, and he's shouting "Get out of there! The killer is in the next room.. he's headed your way!".. followed by a close-up shot of the phone's screen and the dreaded "Low Battery!" warning just before the phone croaks at exactly the wrong moment. Sound familiar? If not, just keep watching enough movies and sooner or later you'll see a scene like this. Sometimes real life is actually this dramatic. Luckily, most of the time, it's not.

There are so many different ways to re-charge, or keep a charge on your Treo (or any other kind of cell phone or battery-powered portable electronic gizmo), but none of these movie thrillers ever make use of them.. after all, it'd take all the suspense out of it.

When you're at home, or at the office, or in your car, hey, no problem – you've gotcher AC wall chargers and cradles, DC car chargers and cradles, and plenty of other options to avoid that dreaded low battery dilemma. Maybe you've upgraded to one of the "Extended" longer-life batteries, like the Seidio 3200mAh monster I reviewed a while back, or one of its lesser brethren, depending on what model Treo you carry, and how beefy a battery it can accommodate. Or you just carry a spare, stock battery on you wherever you go.

But sometimes, you might find yourself in a situation when you're not even a fictional action hero, and where there's no AC or DC outlet anywhere around to jack into. In that case, there are other solutions..

Hey, the Sun's not supposed to burn out any time soon (at least we hope not), in which case, there's the interesting Solio solar charger. Seidio and BoxWave make emergency Treo (re)-chargers that use either a 9-volt battery, or a quartet of AA batteries. These are compact, easy to carry, and you can keep them loaded with re-chargeable NiMH batteries. NiMH batteries are good. I have a ton of them. Although the initial buy-in cost is much higher than standard Alkalines, you can usually get 500 to 1000 re-charges out of them, saving you a TON of money over use-once-throwaway batteries in the long run..

All you have to do is REMEMBER to tote one of these portable chargers WITH fully-charged batteries in it along with you. It won't do you any good if you're out on a hike in the woods and your Treo's battery croaks but your emergency power source is back at home, will it?

The other thing you have to keep in mind, is that if you use NiMH batteries in one of these charging boxes, even if you fully charged up those rechargeables, they don't hold a charge indefinitely; you have to re-charge them from time to time, usually every couple of months at least, because it's the nature of NiMH batteries - they drain their charge if they just sit there long enough doing nothing. And of course, this brings forth the dilemma of remembering to bring along a charger like this but NOT with dead batteries in it because you forgot to charge them up first. It's always something..

Well, there are always good old Alkaline batteries, which you can buy at any Quickie Mart, gas station, supermarket.. assuming there IS one of those around. Throwaway Alkaline batteries at about a buck each (Duracell, Energizer Bunny, whatever brand you can find) have a shelf-life of years. But they're not re-chargeable.

So the first rule of thumb is to plan ahead. You can do your best to always make sure you have SOME kind of way to power your Treo, for hours, or even days, if you have to, but no one can plan for emergencies. That's why they uhh.. call them emergencies. A heavy storm comes up, knocks out a power transformer on your street, and you're sitting there by candle light until the boys in the helmets and trucks come out to fix it, or, any of a million other possible scenarios where you simply have no way to re-charge your phone. A Treo with a dead battery makes a handy paperweight, but it sure isn't good for much else.

But now comes along yet another way to get portable power when you're in need of it. A company called Medis Technologies Ltd. makes yet another new emergency / totally portable charging solution – their "24-7 Power Pack Fuel Cell", the subject of this review.

So what's a Fuel Cell?..

Unlike a battery, which stores electricity, a fuel cell is an electrochemical device that actually creates or produces energy (electricity) through a chemical reaction of some material that eventually depletes itself and has to be replenished, and there are MANY different kinds of fuel cells. Rather than go into a long diatribe about the ins and outs of how fuel cells work, I'll leave it to good old Wikipedia to explain it. Just click the link and if the concept is alien to you, you'll learn a lot about them.

Scroll part way down that page and you'll find an informative chart that describes the different kind of fuel cells and the chemicals that drive them.. when you get to "Direct Borohydride", stop.. that's the chemical inside the Medis charger that performs its magic.

The $29.95 Medis 24-7 Power Pack, or just "Medis" for short, is a new product, made in Israel, but supported by a US-based head office. When "activated", this gizmo generates anywhere from 20 to 60 claimed hours of juice to power and charge all kinds of portable electronics, depending on what power tip you connect to it.

Here's a shot of the Treo "bundle" showing everything included in the box: (this bundle is in NO way Treo-specific except for the charging tip.. the exact same charger can be used for any number of other makes and models of phones, MP3 players, portable game machines, or anything else for which Medis sells a tip)..

  • The charger itself, which weighs 6 oz. and is about the size of a bar of soap, or three decks of playing cards stacked atop each other (one shown for scale). The charger comes un-activated, sealed in a plastic bag, and has a half inch wide, orange band around it, whose purpose I'll explain shortly
  • A 30 inch long cable, thoughtfully equipped with a velcro bundling strap, instead of the usual twisty-tie that everyone loses
  • A Treo-specific charging tip that jacks into a round hole on one end of the cable, and your Treo's charging port on the other.
  • A small six-page fold-out, illustrated instruction sheet
  • A small Ziploc bag into which you can toss the Medis, throw it in the box, and mail it back, once its reached the end of its useful lifespan. Unlike some other Fuel Cells, the Medis is NOT "renewable" – you can NOT replenish the chemicals inside, unfortunately.

And here's how it works..

If you don't use it at all, the Medis has a shelf-life of about a year, and the month and year of mfr. are printed on a label on its bottom side.

Once you've "activated" it, (and you cannot UN-activate it), it has a usable lifespan of about three months, or when its energy is depleted, whichever comes first.

I've provided shots of the front and back of the instruction sheet so you can see exactly how this baby works, but here's a walk-through:

  • Take it out of its sealed baggie, and tear and remove the orange strip that runs all the way around it.. this strip lives in an indentation that circles the charger.
  • Grip the Medis with both hands, and using a LOT of pressure, press it together from both sides, until it solidly clicks into place all the way around, so there's no gap at all where the orange strip used to be.
  • Give it a little shake to mix the approximately 50ml of Borohydride solution inside. You can faintly hear liquid sloshing around inside as you do this. Not to worry, that's normal.

The energy-producing chemical reaction starts, and the Medis is ready to use to power and charge your Treo.

  • Then take the included cable and plug the flat end into a slot at the top of the cone-shaped lump on the front of the unit, above the logo. A green LED on the flat end of the cable will start to glow dimly.
  • With the Treo-specific tip plugged into the other end of the cable, plug THAT into your Treo's little square power jack on its bottom side, just like you would any other charger's plug. An embossed arrow on the tip reminds you which side is "up". (They COULD have painted that arrow white to make it easier to see).

That's it. Your Treo's power LED should light up solid red, and you can now use the phone, or keep the Medis connected until the Treo's LED changes from red to green and stays green, indicating its internal battery is back to a full charge. You can monitor your Treo's battery's charge progress with good old fileZ, a free program I put on EVERY PalmOS device I've ever owned, and so should you.

The Medis instruction sheet advises not to leave the fuel cell connected to the Treo for more than 2-3 hours at a time "to extend the lifetime of the Power Pack." What happens if you DO leave it connected longer than that, I can't tell you, because the instructions don't say, and I wasn't about to try it.

While charging, I could hear the Medis making a faint, sort of very high pitched squeal / hissing noise. This is apparently normal, although the instructions don't mention it at all. The Medis also has air vents on its face above the logo, but no odor of any kind came out of them, and it didn't even get warm to the touch while it was charging my 700p.

When done charging, pull the charging tip out of the Treo, and pull the other (flat) end out of the Medis, and store the whole shootin' match somewhere. The Medis, although "air vented", is sealed, and SHOULD not ever leak any liquid. The instructions advise that the Borohydride fuel inside it is "corrosive and MAY be toxic if ingested." MAY be? Their words not mine.. let's just say don't bust the thing open and drink it, don't let children play with it.. but if it gets smashed by something and leaks on you, wash off immediately and seek medical attention as you would with if you came into contact with any kind of corrosive liquid.

Other warnings and caveats..

The manual also advises to keep the Medis from freezing temperatures as it will not work if it's frozen. On the other end of the scale, don't store it anywhere the temperature can exceed 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Now this could be a problem, especially on a Summer outing, as the interior of a closed, parked car with the windows up can EASILY exceed 122 degrees on a hot day, so don't leave the Medis on your car seat if you're visiting Vegas or Phoenix and parked in the sun, but in the glovebox, console, or trunk, it should be okay.

The tip's a bit flakey..

In my futzing around with the activated Medis for an hour or so, I had it cabled to and charging one of my 700ps, and the pair were set on the sofa next to me as I typed. The Treo power tip that Medis includes in this pack seemed to me to be slightly out of spec with the Treo's power port, and I tried it in both my 700ps. It wiggled a bit too much and didn't make a solid, tight connection, like the standard Treo AC wall wart supplied in every phone's box makes. Medis needs to check their mfg. tolerances on that tip, as if I just bumped the phone a little bit, my Treo's red LED would go off and I had to fiddle with the charging tip to make a secure connection again. And this WAS a brand new, fresh out-of-the-box Medis unit.

The green LED on the end of the cable that slides into the only slot on the Medis would sometimes glow a very bright green, sometimes go out, and sometimes flicker a bit, even when the Treo's charging LED stayed a solid red, indicating a charge WAS in progress. I have no idea what this means, and the manual doesn't mention it other than to say the LED comes on when charging is in progress. So, I can only assume that whatever chemical magic is happening inside the Medis (and I'm no expert on Fuel Cells) was kicking on and off and that's the nature of the beast.

Eventually, my Treo's LED DID change to solid green, so the Medis DID do what it claimed to do. Since the same charger is built to charge all different kinds of portable electronics, and they use many different voltages, the power tip particular to whatever device you have a power tip for must have some circuitry inside it to regulate the Medis' voltage output to properly charge that device. A Treo, an iPod, a PSP, and all the other devices Medis sells tips for all take different voltages.

Next Page: Conclusion >>

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