Thanks to Apple’s patent on the MagSafe connectors used in MacBook Airs and Pros, the list of third-party external batteries for MacBooks previously began with Hyper’s HyperJuice/HyperJuice 2 and ended with Lenmar’s ChugPlug — not much of a variety. Apple’s legal department chased Hyper for attaching harvested MagSafe connectors to its batteries, and Lenmar chose a workaround, sending ChugPlug’s power indirectly though an Apple wall adapter. Neither solution was ideal. It took until now for a completely different third solution to appear: BatteryBox ($220) from Gbatteries Energy.

BatteryBox is the first MacBook power option I’ve tested that doesn’t require either MagSafe or an Apple wall adapter to function. Since the developers went out of their way to create something that won’t run afoul of Apple’s legal team, there’s absolutely nothing Mac-like about its brick-like rectangular design. And it’s not cheap, priced between the two HyperJuices and higher than ChugPlug, which can now be had for only $100. But it works, adding a 60-watt-hour additional battery to the 38-95-watt-hour cells already inside MacBook Airs and Pros. So if you’re on the road without access to a power outlet and need to add hours of additional runtime to your Apple laptop, this is a viable alternative….

Key Details:

  • First MacBook external battery with an alternative to MagSafe
  • Offers 5-13 hours of power for MacBooks, depending on model and what’s being done with Mac
  • Boxy shape and large size are unusual, suited to large bags
  • Requires 6-8 hours to recharge with a user-supplied 2A charger
  • Also powers iPhones and iPads

 

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As its name suggests, BatteryBox is a box measuring roughly 3.7″ long by 2.5″ wide by 1.95″ tall. Gbatteries markets it as “smaller than the size of a can of soda,” which might be handy for figuring out if it can fit in a given compartment you have in a bag, but it looks like a big black wall adapter, with a physical volume equivalent to four stacked decks of playing cards, or three stacked original iPods. Apart from five bright green power indicator LEDs and a button on the top, and spots for cables and ports on the edges, BatteryBox is very plain, contrasting with the handsome metal HyperJuices and the almost futuristic-looking ChugPlug.

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A gray MacBook charging cable is permanently attached to one side next to a full-sized USB port. The opposing side has a micro-USB port, which connects to an included micro-USB to USB cable so you can recharge BatteryBox from a self-supplied 2-Amp USB power source. Apple’s iPad power adapters work, as do third-party alternatives such as Anker’s awesome 60W 6-Port USB Charger, but the total charging time is a lengthy 6 to 8 hours. I was disappointed that Gbatteries doesn’t include a wall adapter given BatteryBox’s price point, and surprised that the battery didn’t appear to recharge at all when connected overnight to a 1-Amp USB port.

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What’s new in BatteryBox is SnapFit, a MagSafe alternative that completely does away with magnets in favor of four large black plastic clasps. Each SnapFit connector is specific to one type of 2012 or later MacBook Air (11″/13″) or MacBook Pro (13″/15″) model, with markings on the bottom to indicate compatibility. They’re shaped like keys, each with a center channel that grabs BatteryBox’s cable and surrounds its charging pins with a rigid frame. A second channel on the edge can hold another part of the cable when it’s wrapped around BatteryBox for storage.

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A small plastic peg goes into the hinge gap between the MacBook’s keyboard and screen, holding the charging pins in place. Since you can see a large black bar on top of your MacBook, it’s not a beautiful solution; similarly, as you lose the ability to enjoy magnetic attachment and detachment, it’s not as foolproof as a MagSafe connector. But again, it works, notably without interfering in any way with port or keyboard functionality. It’s 100% stable on a desk, and unless you’re doing a lot of jostling, not prone to disconnect on a lap, either.

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Rather than attempting to recharge the MacBook, BatteryBox serves as an alternative to wall power, “bypassing” the MacBook’s battery while also reducing BatteryBox’s own performance degradation over time. Gbatteries claims that its cell will last for 3,000 cycles — several times more than other batteries — in part because it’s not being drained in the same fashion, or inefficiently. The company measures BatteryBox’s Mac-powering abilities by the number of continuous hours the accessory can conceivably keep various MacBook models running on its own: an 11″ MacBook Air (with an internal 38Whr battery) is said to last up to 12 hours, versus 7.4 hours for the 13″ Pro (74.8Whr), 5 hours for the 15″ Pro (95Whr), and oddly 13 hours for the 13″ Air (54Whr), probably a misprint.

Are the numbers realistic? Sort of. In my testing, BatteryBox performed in the exact manner promised: I started by running my 13″ MacBook Pro down to 93%, then connected BatteryBox, and used the computer for many hours doing a variety of both low-power and deliberately battery-killing tasks. Over the first several hours of use, the MacBook’s battery never wavered from 93% until I disconnected BatteryBox as a test; it fell to 92% and then stayed there for additional hours as I continued to rely on BatteryBox. The upshot is that you will definitely get multiple hours of extra power for your MacBook regardless of the model you’re using, though Gbatteries’ numbers presume that you’re using the newest and most power-efficient Macs, while doing the least power-intensive work.

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BatteryBox also works as an iPhone and iPad charger, actually refueling the devices’ built-in batteries multiple times as needed rather than needing to sit alongside them during regular use — a relief given the cell’s unwieldy size. Gbatteries estimates BatteryBox will deliver 80 hours of additional life for an iPhone 5s, 75 hours for an iPhone 6, 25 hours for an iPad mini, or 22 hours for the iPad Air 2, which is to say two or more charges for most current-generation Apple tablets, and five or six for various iPhones. Based on tests with an iPad 2 and iPhone 6 Plus, I believe that these numbers are reasonable.

My single biggest issue when using BatteryBox with Macs, iPads, and iPhones is the lack of granularity of its remaining power indicators: with such a large battery, five lights doesn’t tell you enough about how much power’s left. I found that when BatteryBox is unable to continue charging a Mac, even if it has one light left, it doesn’t have the strength to push remaining power to a less power-hungry iOS device, either. It can also be finicky when getting reconnected to its included micro-USB cable for wall recharging; I once had to reset the battery by holding down its button, which really shouldn’t need to be done, but did work.

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Overall, BatteryBox is a pretty good option for MacBook Air and Pro users who really need extra power on the go. Its biggest assets are the SnapFit system, which indeed works around Apple’s MagSafe in a reasonable (though not beautiful) way, and its considerable power output, which is enough to keep any supported MacBook Air or Pro running for quite some time. On the other hand, its shape may well prove awkward for some users, the lack of an included wall adapter is an issue at this price point, and its power indicators could use some extra work, as well. HyperJuice and ChugPlug definitely have a strong new competitor to contend with, but each of these options has its own strength, and none is definitively superior to the others.

Manufacturer: Gbatteries MSRP: $220 Compatibility: MacBook Air/Pro (2012+)