Heading off on a road trip, or renting a car for your next vacation? As well as the usual collection of snacks and suitcases, there's one more thing you shouldn't leave home without: a USB car charger.
The more people in the car, the truer this becomes, but even solo drivers will benefit from having one. Here are the reasons why, what you should look for when buying one, and a few suggested options.
What is a USB Car Charger?
In simple terms, a USB car charger is a small gadget that plugs into a vehicle's cigarette lighter/accessory port, and provides one or more powered USB sockets.
It's typically used to charge smartphones and tablets, but can also be used to power battery packs, certain models of camera, and many other USB-powered devices.
While a single USB socket is a good start, you're better off looking for a charger with two or more. Since you'll often leave your phone connected to the charger when using it for driving navigation (more on that below), having one or two extra sockets let you and your passengers charge other devices as needed.
Not All USB Sockets Are Created Equal
As you may have already discovered if you've ever tried to power a new iPad from your old iPhone charger, not all USB chargers and sockets are the same. The original specification called for an output of half an amp, but as devices have got ever more power-hungry, these numbers have gone way up.
2.1 and 2.4amp chargers are now common. If you use a lower-rated charger than your device requires, it will take hours longer to do its job, or just refuse to charge at all.
Tablets and new smartphones are most likely to need the extra juice. Check the fine print on your existing wall charger, then ensure the car charger you buy has at least one socket with the output you need.
When using your phone for driving directions, the heavy screen and GPS use will drain the battery quicker than usual, so it becomes even more important to have a charger powerful enough to keep it topped up. Don't underestimate this–with an underpowered charger, it's quite possible to end up with less charge than you started with at the end of a long journey, even if your phone's been plugged in the whole time.
To be safe, look for a charger that has two high-power sockets that can both operate at the same time. This requires around 4.8 amps of total output or more.
There are a few other things to think about as well, although none of them are vital. Look for a charger that has a light to let you know when it's working, but not one so bright it distracts when driving at night. Red is better than blue or white, for that reason.
You should also take the physical size of the charger into consideration. Depending on the vehicle you're using it in, there's not always much clearance around the cigarette lighter/accessory port.
Buying a charger that only protrudes by an inch or so avoids accidental knocks and bumps. This is especially relevant when you're switching vehicles often (rental cars, for instance), and don't know the exact layout ahead of time.
Finally, integrated cables might seem like a good idea, but they usually aren't. To start with, they limit the devices you can charge–what happens when you buy a different kind of phone, or a friend needs to charge something up?
The cable is also the most likely part to break, and if it's built in, that renders the entire charger useless. Just use the cable that came with your device, or buy a spare to use in the car instead. If you do buy an extra, try to get one that's longer than usual, so it can easily reach from the charger to a vent or dashboard mount if you use one.
Models and specifications change regularly, but here are a few USB car chargers that fit the above criteria and are worth buying at time of writing:
The Scosche reVOLT 12W + 12W is a slim, powerful charger that works with most devices.
The Anker 24W Dual-Port Rapid USB Car Charger is larger than the Scosche, but works with everything.
The 1Byone 7.2A / 36W 3-Port USB Car Charger can charge three devices at once, and fast-charge a phone, at a very affordable price.
The Powermod All-In-One Travel Charger offers extra flexibility, as its a combination car and wall charger.