4/11/2023: Luxurious portable power banks

Portable power banks get fancy

Plus: A better remote desktop tool, PC gaming tricks, and Google-powered smart displays left behind

Hey folks! For this week’s feature column, I’m excited to share an article from Dwight Silverman, a veteran tech journalist whose work I’ve long admired. Dwight has spent more than 30 years covering personal technology for the Houston Chronicle, where he served as tech editor and still writes an excellent weekly column. (I’m also honored that he sometimes hangs out in Advisorator’s own chat room on Slack.)

This article, adapted from a previous Chronicle story, is all about the high end of portable power banks. It’s topic I know a bunch of you are passionate or at least curious about, so I thought it’d be a great fit here in the pages of Advisorator. Take it away, Dwight!

If you own a slew of mobile electronics, that means you’ve also got a slew of batteries that need to be charged on the go. If so, let me suggest one more product to go with them.

Another battery.

Specifically, I’m talking about a power bank — an external battery used to charge other batteries, or in some cases power a device for use. Power banks typically look like an oversize bar of soap, have multiple USB ports and need to be charged themselves — often slowly. Traditionally, they have been mostly dumb and relatively inexpensive: Pay around $15-$35, plug in your stuff, then charge that stuff without having to be connected to an outlet.

That’s changing. Power banks are getting smarter; many now come with screens that display information about the battery’s status, including how fast it’s charging a device. For those of us who obsessively check a smartphone or a laptop’s charge level, advanced power banks satisfy an itch.

Additionally, it no longer takes all day to fully replenish the higher-capacity banks, even those that can charge a big-screen smartphone four or five times. It may only take a couple of hours, compared with eight or nine.

There are downsides, though. They can be pricey and heavy.

Here’s a look at two brands of smarter power banks with very different approaches to design.

Shargeek Storm 2 and Storm 2 Slim

Shargeek’s Storm 2

Techies went nuts when these two power banks first debuted in Kickstarter campaigns. When you see them, it’s easy to understand why.

The $229 Storm 2 and its sleeker sibling, the $199 Storm 2 Slim, look like a bomb with a timer on it. While they are conspicuously labeled as “Airline Safe,” taking it through a TSA airport checkpoint in your backpack might result in a tense moment.

That’s because the two power banks’ cases are clear. You can see their system boards, and beneath that a set of cylindrical power cells. A small screen and a power button sits atop each case, and the display provides lots of useful data, including the charging wattage, voltage, temperature and the amount of juice left in the power bank.

The larger and more expensive Storm 2 holds eight cells for a total of 25,600 mAh (milliampere hours) of charge, which is enough to power a laptop or an iPhone 14 Pro Max several times over, and most tablets at least twice. With a powerful enough charger, you can juice up the Storm 2 itself in about 1.5 to 2 hours. Anker’s 120-watt 737 GaNPrime charger charged the power bank from just under 50 percent to full in less than an hour.

There are four ports on one end of the bank: A USB-A port capable of charging at 18 watts; a USB-C port for 100-watts of fast charging; a second USB-C port for 30 watts of charging; and a DC port for up to 75 watts. The latter is useful for devices such as laptops that don’t use USB-C for charging, and the wattage is manually configurable to match your device. But you need a male-to-male cable, which may be hard to find for the make and model of your laptop.

Shargeek’s Storm 2 Slim

The Storm 2 will definitely add heft to your gear bag. It weighs in at just over 1.3 pounds and is chunky, at 5.94 by 2.32 by 1.81 inches. For those who want something (a little bit) lighter, there’s the Storm 2 Slim, which is a little less than pound. As the name implies, the Slim is less bulky at 6.14 by 2.56 by 1.18 inches, but also more limited.

There are only two ports on the 20,000 mAh Slim: a USB-A that charges up to 30 watts, and a USB-C that goes up to 100 watts. Each can provide their full wattage even when both ports are in use, for a full 130 watts of output. Although it’s not a bargain, it may be the more practical of the two.

A word about the display: Its fonts are tiny, and the bank’s charge indicator flashes when it’s being replenished, making the level hard to read. And you must push the button several times to move between different screen modes, including one that lets you schedule a charging session. The process is a little clunky, particularly when you want to get to the Off selection, which is second to last in the menu.

(Note from Jared: Confused by charging jargon? This issue of Advisorator will help.)

Anker 737 Power Bank

If you’d rather your power bank looked more like the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey” than an explosive device, consider Anker’s 737 Power Bank for $149. It bears the same model number as the aforementioned 737 GaNPrime charger, and they pair well together.

Unlike the Shargeek products, the Anker model has a more sedate look – a black case with a space-gray plate on one side, above which is a small display. It’s slightly heavier than the Storm 2, at just over 1.5 pounds, and its edges have a slightly rough texture, making for a good grip. It’s not petite, at 6.13 by 2.15 by 1.95 inches.

The Anker has a 24,000 mAh capacity, and there are three ports: Two USB-C ports, each capable of charging up to 140 watts, and a USB-A charger, which supports up to 18 watts.

Individually, it can charge a standard-sized iPhone up to 5 times or a MacBook Air 1.3 times. It charged my 2021 MacBook Pro from 30 to 100 percent in a little more than an hour, with more than 90 watts of power at its maximum rate. (The laptop throttles the rate as it gets closer to 100 percent to protect the battery.) You can also charge it at a full 140 watts of power, so it replenishes quickly.

The display is simpler than that of the Shargeek banks, but gives you the info you need: wattage, voltage, battery cycles and, strangely, the number of times you’ve looked at the display (compulsive much?). Bonus feature: there’s apparently an accelerometer in the Anker, because when you turn it upside down, the display flips accordingly.

For me, the Anker 737 Power Bank is the one to get, mainly because it’s as powerful as the Storm 2 but much less expensive (though all three often see heavy discounts online). The Storm 2 Slim is a good choice if you want something a little less bulky — and a lot less boring to look at.

Thanks again to Dwight Silverman for this week’s feature column! Check out his other Chronicle columns, or find him on Mastodon or at his own Workaround blog.

Need to know

Goodbye, non-Google smart displays? Lenovo’s 10-inch Smart Display has been a fixture in our kitchen since it launched in 2018. Its integration with Google Photos has provided a steady supply of happy memories, and its Google Assistant voice controls come in handy for other things, such as adding grocery list items and answering simple questions.

Now I’m wondering how long it’ll last. As spotted by 9to5Google, the company appears to be ending support for all sizes of the Lenovo Smart Display along with JBL’s Link View. While Google hasn’t made any big announcements, a support document on how to make Duo video calls from these devices warns of a degraded experience as they’re no longer receiving any more software updates. (Extra irony alert: Duo itself technically doesn’t exist anymore, having merged with Google Meet last year.)

Google still sells its own Nest Hub and Nest Hub Max smart displays, and hasn’t indicated that their support is in jeopardy. But amid executive reshuffling, cost-cutting, and panic over the rise of ChatGPT, little seems certain for the company’s voice assistant products right now. A lack of clear communication from Google to its customers isn’t helping.

Tip of the moment

A better remote desktop option: While I’ve been pretty happy using Chrome Remote Desktop to access my desktop PC and Mac Mini from afar, I’m enjoying RustDesk even more. Just install the free, open-source software on your computer, and you can use Rust’s mobile apps or website for remote access and control.

Compared to Chrome Remote Desktop, RustDesk has a bunch of extra features, such as two-way clipboard sharing, support for a wide range of desktop keyboard commands, and a file transfer tool for Android devices. It also has some quick screen size options that make navigating your desktop from a phone just a little easier.

On the downside, the login process is a bit clunky. Instead of a typical username, RustDesk assigns a “Remote ID” number along with a randomly-generated password that you can change. You’ll need both when logging in for the first time on a new device, so I suggest saving them in your password manager of choice.

Like other remote desktop programs, RustDesk doesn’t work if your computer is turned off or suspended, but it comes in handy if your computer is always on. I’m using it to manage my Plex and Channels DVR media servers from outside the home, and for that it’s been great.

Hello, friends of Dwight! I hope you’re enjoying this free issue of Advisorator, my weekly newsletter for tech advice, tips, and deals.

I’m Jared Newman, and I’ve been covering personal technology for nearly 15 years, writing for sites like PCWorld, TechHive, and Fast Company. I started Advisorator to focus on ways people can get more out of technology, without having to wade through boring business news and industry gossip.

If you’d like to get newsletters like this one every Tuesday, consider becoming a paid subscriber. All subscriptions start with a four-week free trial, and cancellation is super easy. Thanks for checking it out!

Jared plays games

A couple fun follow-ups on my switch to a $300 mini PC for daily work: Having moved my big desktop tower to the basement for gaming purposes, I’ve written a guide over at PCWorld on how to make a PC feel more like a game console.

Meanwhile, I’ve started using Nvidia GeForce Now to stream games to the ultrawide monitor in my office. Nvidia recently updated its servers nearest me to run on RTX 4080 graphics cards, enabling ultrawide support at up to 4K resolution, and input lag is much better than it used to be. The result has been a surprisingly great gaming experience even on my cheap little desktop. I wrote about it over at Fast Company.

Around the web

Spend wisely

On the topic of charging tech, RAVPower’s popular $9 charger deal is back. Use the code DED132 at checkout, and you’ll be able to charge two devices at once with both an 18W USB-C port and a 12W USB-A port.

Other notable deals:

Thanks for reading!

One more shout-out to Dwight Silverman for contributing this week’s feature topic! If you enjoyed this newsletter and want to read more like it, sign up for a four-week free trial below.