As vacation season approaches, I thought it might be handy to survey "multichargers", devices that can charge multiple gadgets, sometimes at once. Unless your a travel person, you might not have even HEARD of these devices, though the ubiquity of the induction chargers in the Target battery aisle is hard to ignore. If you EDC a phone and a camera, one of these devices is worth it. If you carry more, they are even more valuable. Some multichargers even help cut the clutter at home, again, serving as a power station for all your things.
NB: There will be no pictures in this post because all of the stuff discussed here is really ugly. AC Adapters and mouse pad looking devices aren't worth the effort of getting a picture.
There are four major ways to go about charging different gadgets with a single device. First, you can get the traditional AC adapter that comes with multiple "tips". Second you can use a "station" that can charge multiple devices at one time using the same tips. And finally you can use an inductive current charge pad. See here for more on how they work. Finally, you can try some of the weird looking green options out there.
Single Device Multicharger
I have a very simple multicharger, the iGo Wall Charger (I have an older model than the version here). It works well enough. I like it quite a bit. It is a nice AC adapter (with collapsible prongs for easy storage) with a generic terminal at the end of the wire. The generic terminal takes tons of little plastic and metal pieces that fit the power ports of thousands of different devices. Right now I have a tip for my iPhone and a tip for my Kodak Zi8 camcorder. For a small, throw in your bag, take on vacation set up it works very nicely. During non-vacation, travel time I have it as a spare iPhone charger next to my bed on the nightstand. This is a super simple, super cheap set up with the charger costing about $15 and tips running from $5-10. Mine can't charge two devices using an available splitter, but the new version can.
I am sure there are bunch of different one at a time multichargers out there, but the iGo stuff works so well, is quite a good vale, is well-supported, and (this is the clincher for me) is available at Radio Shack. I am not a huge fan of the high pressure, low brain salesmen there (sorry if you are a Shack employee, I understand the issue...), but they are everywhere. If you lose a tip or need a tip, you can find them in just about any city in the US, because just about any city in the US has a Radio Shack. Be sure to check the iGo website for device compatibility. Not all devices, usually high powered things like laptops, can be charged using the wall charger I have.
Here is a unique approach to the single device multicharger: the Callpod Fuel Tank. You charge the Fuel Tank, which has a high capacity and long lasting lithium power cell in it, and then you use that to charge your devices. It is billed as not needing an outlet, but obviously that is not true for long. Still, it is a neat idea.
There are a lot of "emergency" mutlichargers, like this one from Duracell. It is limited in that it can power a device, but not necessarily charge it. It also limited in the devices it can power. They have to have some kind of USB or mini-USB connection to work. There are also versions of this that use AA batteries. They seem like a good last ditch form of gadget power, but they cost about as much as the iGo and you have to buy new batteries. Additionally they cannot power as many different devices as the iGo can.
Multi Device Multicharger
The Callpod ChargePod is perhaps the most emblematic of these devices. It uses a single power cord and a central hub to connect to a myriad of devices using small corded tips, much like those found on the iGo. There are literally dozens of these type devices, and they all work basically the same way--one cord, bunch of devices, swappable connectors. The ChargePod seems to be the best supported of these devices, but I am sure many of them work just as well.
They have a few drawbacks. First, these devices are very messy--they look messy, they have lots of cords, and they sprawl out. This limits their utility on vacation, in my opinion--lots and lots of spare parts to lose or forget. I also think they look messy for use at home. All of my desktop space is at a premium and using up 2 square feet like this is stupid.
But if you and your partner both need to charge your phones, a camera, and a camcorder, this is the device for you. And unlike the iGo stuff, some of the callpod devices can charge laptops and smaller devices at the same time on the same device.
Inductive Pad Chargers
The original design, so far as I can tell, is the Powermat (Powerjohn, already taken as a trademark in the portable toilet industry, apparently). Energizer makes one, as does Duracell. There are probably a hundred different inductive charger devices. They all work the same way--the device is fitted with a sleeve or a little cover that fits into the power port and has an inductive connector on the back. The device, in the sleeve, is laid on the pad and the connector in the sleeve uses a magnetic impulse to connect to the power cells in the pad and power is transferred WIRELESSLY from the pad, through the sleeve, into the device.
These chargers have a lot of promise, but they have some drawbacks too. Again there is the real estate issue. They take up a good deal of space. They are also quite expensive (a quick search found the pad and a sleeve for the Duracell device costs about $90). Then there is the "inductive connector" sleeve. It can operate as a case for the device, but that adds weight and size to a portable device which you chose, at least in part, because it was small. And the cases are fat looking. They are like installing pleats on your phone (as one of my friends put it, pleated pants are for people who say to themselves "I'm not fat, but I would like to look fat today. Pleated pants it is.").
Still wireless charging sounds so awesome in theory. It has potential and when devices are built with these chargers in mind, I think the technology will take off. As for now, it seems like an awkward retrofit.
Technically, these devices aren't necessarily multichargers (though I know Solio makes one that is), but these chargers use solar power and swappable cables to power devices. I am not sure how durable or reliable these are, but if your in the Gobi, I bet there is enough sun to get these to work. Tons of companies make them, they cab be ridiculously expensive, but they can do something nothing else can--let you play an Angry Birds marathon on the top of Mt. Everest (because like the view gets old after a while, right?).
Get out there this summer and do stuff. If one of these multichargers helps you do that, it is totally worth a few bucks. Plus, really, if your phone dies is that the worst thing in the world? You are, after all, on vacation.