Gadling’s ultimate guide to powering your gadgets on a plane

Welcome to the Gadling “ultimate inflight power guide”. After reading this guide, you’ll know everything you need to know in order to power your gadgets, and keep them going during any flight. I’ll explain what all terms mean, and give you some handy tips that will make you a real pro at inflight power.

The basics

The inflight basics really are simple – there are 4 scenarios when it comes to powering technology on a plane:

  • Powering your laptop on flights with seat power
  • Powering your laptop on flights without seat power
  • Powering your gadgets on flights with seat power
  • Powering your gadgets on flights without seat power

To make the whole thing more complicated, airlines offer seat power through four different systems:

  • EmPower
  • DC power
  • AC power
  • USB power

Finding what your airline and seat have to offer

Before you know what you’ll need to purchase in order to power your equipment, you’ll need to know what your airline has to offer.

The easiest way to find this, is to head on over to Seatguru or Seatexpert. These sites specialize in displaying very accurate seat maps, along with all the amenities you can expect in your specific seat. For those of you that fly coach, only a handful of US domestic flights will provide power in the back. Newer airlines like Virgin America understand the need for power, and offer an outlet at every seat, including Coach.

The various seat power systems

EmPower

The EmPower system was the first airline seat power product – it offers 15 volts DC through a special (EmPower) plug. In order to plug your gadget into this outlet, you’ll of course need a compatible cable/charger.

The EmPower system has a limit of 75 watts – which means it can power and charge most laptop computers and low power gadgets. EmPower is becoming a rarity, but there are still some major carriers that installed it back in the early 2000′s and have not yet upgraded their cabin to something more common.

DC Power

Airlines with DC power offer the same kind of outlet you’ll find in your car (often referred to as a cigarette lighter outlet). The advantage of these is that they offer a higher current, the disadvantage is that they only supply 12 volts. Many laptop computers need 19 volts to charge.

DC power can easily be converted into AC power, which means you can invest in a cheap converter, and use your own laptop power supply. These converters do tend to get hot, and many require some additional cooling, so don’t keep them in your bag when you use them. The disadvantage of a DC converter is of course the bulk – using one of them along with your own laptop charger makes for a rather messy pile of cables.

AC Power

AC power is the easiest of all the inflight power solutions. The plane simply offers a regular AC jack by your seat, just like you find back home. These outlets are also limited to about 75 watts – so don’t expect to be able to power your hair dryer from your seat. The AC power comes from the same kind of jack you’ll find at home or your office, and most of them accept US and European plugs.

USB Power

The addition of USB power ports on some airlines has to be in the top 5 of great things they have done for geeks. A powered USB port means you can bring your usb cable with you, and charge your device, without having to invest in special chargers or cables. USB power ports are still pretty rare, but on longhaul flights with an up to date entertainment system, you’ll have a good chance at finding one.

Laptop power on flights with seat power

Lets start with the first scenario – powering your laptop on a flight with seat power. In an ideal world, this would be really simple to accomplish, but the airlines have (as usual) decided to make things complicated by using the different systems mentioned above:

EmPower – Use a DC/Air laptop charger from your manufacturer, or a third party version
DC Power – Use a DC/Air laptop charger from your manufacturer, or a third party version
AC Power – Use your regular laptop charger
USB Power - N/A, won’t charge your laptop

For virtually every laptop brand, you’ll be able to find an affordable and compact DC/Air charger. Pay attention when you pick one – some third party chargers only power off AC, others only do AC/DC (no EmPower). If you want to be 100% certain your investment will work in any scenario, go for a good AC/DC/Air charger. Some good examples of these chargers are

The Kensignton wall/air ultra thin notebook power adapter
($129.99)

Mobility Electronics iGo everywhereMAX ($119.99)

Innergie myCube90
($99.95)

To make matters worse, because of the power restrictions on each outlet, some laptops may only charge – they can’t actually be powered. This means a dead battery will have to be recharged before you can use it again. Thankfully, most recent laptops have low power requirements, which means your charger will power and charge at the same time.


Laptop power on flights without seat power

So, you’ve booked your flight, and the seat map site show no power outlets anywhere near your seat. You’ll have to make a decision – is keeping your laptop working for the duration of the flight that important? Before you invest in any accessories, there are several things you can do to keep that machine running longer:

Turn things down or off

How long is your flight? How long will your laptop work off its battery pack? If you have a five hour flight, and your laptop only works for four hours, you’ll probably be fine – the first and last 30 minutes of the flight won’t allow you to have it turned on anyway. If the flight is longer, or your battery won’t last that long, you’ll need to start saving some power.

Turn your display brightness down as far as you can, without losing the ability to read what is on the screen. Enable as many power saving features as possible, turn off WiFi (unless you are on a WiFi enabled flight). Disable Bluetooth, and unplug any accessories you won’t be needing during the flight. A really conservative power setting can easily add about 30% more run time on your machine. Of course, the harder you make it work, the quicker it’ll burn through your battery – basic word processing will use a lot less than watching an HD Movie off your hard drive.

A second battery

If your battery and flight time really don’t go together, you’ll need to go shopping for something that will keep it working longer. The easiest solution may appear to be a second battery, but these have a couple of disadvantages you’ll need to keep in mind:

  • You’ll need to turn your computer off to do a battery swap
  • An original second battery is very expensive
  • Third party/OEM batteries can be very cheap, but also poorly built
  • Your battery investment will usually only work on this machine

You’ll also need to find a good way to carry the second battery, as they almost never come with a case or other protection method.

An external laptop battery pack

I’m a huge fan of external notebook battery packs – they are usually a bit more expensive than a second battery, but they are future proof – most of them come with power tips that can be used on a variety of brands. If you switch from one model to another, you simply swap out the power tip. Some external battery packs also include a USB charging port, and many of them come with a carrying case. Recently, we reviewed the Tekkeon myPower on Gadling, this battery pack doubles the run time of most computers, and comes with power tips that will allow it to work on almost any brand of laptop.

Powering your gadgets with seat power

Let’s assume you loaded your iPod/iPhone/Zune or other device with some cool movies for the long haul flight. You’ve already burned through 3 hours of battery power on the trip to the airport, and chances are, you’ll only make it through the first of your movies before the “low battery” message appears. There are simple and affordable ways to keep your gadgets going.

EmPower – Find a dedicated EmPower charger cord for your device or an EmPower to AC converter
DC Power – Use a regular car charger cord
AC Power – Bring your AC adapter
USB Power – Use the USB cable included with your device

Powering your gadgets without seat power

If you are not flying an airline that provided seat power, you’ll need to carry your own power source. Just like with the laptop solution, you are going to need a battery pack. Of course, for gadgets, these are much smaller than what you need for a laptop. Many of these devices have an internal battery pack sufficient for 2 or 3 full charges of your mobile device. On an iPhone or iPod, this means you’ll be able to watch movies for up to 12 or 13 hours. There are countless options on the market, and a decent quality battery pack will cost you about $40.