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Review: Vagabond Mini Lithium portable power pack
Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | by Rob Galbraith
Not that many years ago, portable power options for studio flash were exclusively heavy, expensive or both. While battery + pure sine wave inverter systems have gotten less expensive as well as more powerful over time, commercially-available options have remained bulky and fairly hefty.

The Vagabond Mini Lithium changes that in a big way. Make that a small way: as by far the most compact product of its type, the Vagabond Mini Lithium has the potential to significantly alter how photographers work on location. How? Whether you're shooting on a street corner, in the middle of a field or some other spot that's away from an AC outlet, the new location power product from lighting maker Paul C. Buff is so trim and light that it becomes viable to bring out monolights instead of Speedlights for certain jobs that could use more flash oomph. Even when portability is key and even when the nearest wall plug is well out of reach.

But only if this new portable power source lives up to the promise of full-size performance in a pint-size package. We review the Vagabond Mini Lithium, comparing its recycle and runtime capabilities with several larger portable power packs from Godox, Innovatronix, Profoto and others.

Introducing the Vagabond Mini Lithium

The Vagabond Mini Lithium is comprised of a 120 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter with thermostatically-controlled cooling fan, quick-change 14.8VDC/8.8Ah Lithium battery module, twin three-prong AC sockets and four-stage battery gauge in a trim 3.5lb/1.6kg ABS plastic shell. It can be fixed to a lightstand with the included spring clamp or any other mounting accessory that can attach to the unit's 1/4-20 socket. The Vagabond Mini Lithium ships with a shoulder strap as well, for those who wish to suspend it from the stand, or themselves.

The Vagabond Mini Lithium is available in both 120VAC output and 230VAC output versions and is supplied with a universal (95VAC to 250VAC input) three hour charger. The battery can be charged while attached to the inverter or separately. A USB A power output port on the front is rated at 5VDC/500mAh, the same as USB 2.0 ports on many computers, for powering or charging smartphones and the like.

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Lightweight: Views of the Paul C. Buff Vagabond Mini Lithium and its included charger. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Vagabond Mini Lithium is the first such product we know of to use LiCoxNiyMnzO2 battery chemistry. The few studio flash units that incorporate a Lithium battery within the pack use LiFePO4, including the Profoto Pro-B3 and AcuteB2, Hensel Porty models and others. So do various inverter systems from LibertyPak, including the Little Genny LG400 we reviewed in 2009.

Compared to LiFePO4, the Vagabond Mini Lithium's LiCoxNiyMnzO2 formulation - one of the newest Lithium battery flavours - is meant to offer considerably longer runtime per charge, but at the expense of fewer total charge cycles before available capacity has dropped noticeably. LiCoxNiyMnzO2's longer runtime for a given size and weight, says company founder Paul Buff, is the primary reason it was selected over LiFePO4 and a key part of why the Vagabond Mini Lithium's diminutive battery is rated for as much as 400-500 full power pops at 600ws.

If true - and as you'll see in the test results section ahead, it is - the Vagabond Mini Lithium can provide a quantity of flash pops per charge that's in line with a much beefier sealed lead acid (SLA) battery, which is what you'll find in most of the portable power packs for studio flash on the market these days.

The Vagabond Mini Lithium sells for US$239.95 when purchased from Paul C. Buff's direct sales operation in the U.S. Extra batteries, the inverter portion of the unit as well as the charger can all be purchased individually too. Optional accessories include a carrying bag roomy enough to comfortably hold a Vagabond Mini Lithium with its battery in place plus one extra battery and the charger.

Let's get to the numbers.

Recycle and runtime performance of the Vagabond Mini Lithium

The Vagabond Mini Lithium is inexpensive portable power for studio flash, minus the bulk normally associated with battery + inverter systems. It's not enough to be small, light and cheap, though. The Vagabond Mini Lithium has to recycle quick enough and run long enough to make it usable on real world assignments. Below you'll see the outcome of tests we've performed with a handful of Elinchrom, Paul C. Buff and Profoto monolights and packs.

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Illuminating: The Vagabond Mini Lithium and Einstein 640 monolight, at rest and in use. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Travel Pack: A Profoto Acute2 1200 pack and head with the Vagabond Mini Lithium. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The table below shows results for the Vagabond Mini Lithium with the flash or flashes listed, at power settings between 400ws and 1280ws. Tests were done with each flash at full power, except for the pairing of the B400 and B1600, where each was set at half power for a total of 400ws. For the tests up to 640ws, the firing interval was 10 seconds until the battery was spent. For the 1200ws and 1280ws tests, the firing interval was 20 seconds, with a 10 minute cool down every 50 to 70 frames. The "fresh" recycle time was measured after 30 flash pops. The "tired" recycle time was measured with between 25-45 flash pops left before the battery was exhausted.

All the single flash tests were performed twice, with a second Vagabond Mini Lithium inverter and battery, and the results averaged (though in all cases the second unit delivered an almost-identical number of flash pops to the first). The wall socket recycle time was measured with the flash(es) plugged into a standard AC outlet running at 123 volts.

All testing was of the 120VAC version of the Vagabond Mini Lithium.

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The Vagabond Mini Lithium recycle times up to 640ws are acceptable, while the number of pops per charge is nothing short of staggering given how small the unit's battery actually is.

This table of data alone will be sufficient for some of you to fish out your credit card and place an order. Particularly if you're familiar with the performance offered by bigger portable power packs and know how close the Vagabond Mini Lithium's flashes-per-charge figures are to much larger competing products.

To get an idea of exactly how close in performance the Vagabond Mini Lithium is to larger and/or pricier portable power packs, we repeated a portion of the tests with the Dynalite XP1100, Godox Leadpower LP-750, Innovatronix Tronix Explorer 1200, Tronix Explorer XT SE, LibertyPak Little Genny LG400, Paul C. Buff Vagabond II and Profoto BatPac. These products range in price from about US$280 to nearly US$3000 and represent the majority of battery chemistries found in portable power units today: Lithium, NiMH and SLA.

Off the Grid: Left to right: LibertyPak Little Genny LG400, Paul C. Buff Vagabond II, Innovatronix Tronix Explorer 1200 and Explorer XT SE, Godox Leadpower LP-750, Profoto BatPac and Paul C. Buff Vagabond Mini Lithium (circled in red). Not shown is the Dynalite XP1100. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The other portable power sources tested are:

Dynalite XP1100 Dynalite's portable power pack is comprised of a 1100 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter, user-removable SLA battery module and useful 10-increment battery gauge in a sturdy metal shell. It has a single three-prong 120VAC output socket, can draw power from an external 12VDC battery and weighs about 23lb/10.4kg.

The XP1100 unit tested was several years old, though in good working order. The battery was new.

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Godox Leadpower LP-750 Introduced at Photokina 2010 and now shipping in some parts of the world, the LP-750 from Chinese manufacturer Godox incorporates a 750 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter and user-removable 13.2VDC/9Ah NiMH battery module in a case that resembles a traditional power pack. It has three AC sockets, can draw power from an external 12VDC battery connected to +/- terminals on the side and has the nicest fit-and-finish of the group. The LP-750 weighs about 14lb/6.4kg.

The LP-750 is available in both 120VAC and 230VAC output versions. We tested the 120VAC version.

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Innovatronix Tronix Explorer 1200 First introduced in 2005 and selling in the same price range as the Vagabond Mini Lithium, the Tronix Explorer 1200 has been a dependable mainstay of our location lighting kits for a long time. It sports a 150 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter and 12VDC/12Ah SLA battery in a rectangular metal case with carry handle. It weighs about 14.5lb/6.6kg.

The Tronix Explorer 1200 is available in both 120VAC and 230VAC output versions. We tested the 120VAC version. A new battery was installed prior to testing.

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Innovatronix Tronix Explorer XT SE Almost identical in appearance to the Explorer 1200, the better-specified Explorer XT SE sports a 350 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter, a pair of internal 12VDC/7Ah SLA batteries (wired in series to operate at 24VDC internally) and twin output sockets. An external 24VDC battery, including the Tronix Auxiliary Battery Pack, can be connected to the Explorer XT SE through a dedicated connector for longer runtime. The Explorer XT SE weighs about 18lb/8.2kg.

This portable power source is available in both 120VAC, 230VAC, standard and Special Edition (SE) versions (the SE model extends compatibility to certain bi-voltage flashes but is otherwise identical to the standard model). We tested the 120VAC SE version.

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LibertyPak Little Genny LG400
The LG400 is comprised of a 600 watt (continuous) pure sine wave inverter, internal 29.4VDC/12Ah Lithium (LiFePO4) battery and twin three-prong AC sockets in a customized Hardigg Storm iM2100 case. Total battery capacity can be tripled by connecting one of the external battery accessories available from LibertyPak, which plug into the LG400's XLR-type power/charge connector. The LG400's weight is about 19lb/8.6kg.

This pack has been our primary portable power source for over 18 months now, thanks to a class-leading combination of short recycle times even when powering multiple monolights, long runtimes and tough-as-nails build quality. It's as fantastic as it is expensive.

The LG400 is available in both 120VAC and 230VAC output versions. We tested the 120VAC version.

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Paul C. Buff Vagabond II The Vagabond II combines a 300w (continuous) pure sine wave inverter and 12VDC/20Ah SLA battery in a nylon carry bag. It has a single AC socket and is available exclusively in a 120VAC output version. It's possible to swap its battery in the field, though it takes a few minutes, or to connect an external 12V battery. It weighs about 19lb/8.6kg. The Vagabond Mini Lithium does not replace the Vagabond II in the company's portable power lineup (though as you'll read ahead, the Vagabond II's days may be numbered nonetheless).

Paul C. Buff halted shipments of the Vagabond II for some time while the maker of the inverter component investigated a problem that was leading to failures, often in the very first use of the Vagabond II. The problem should now be corrected, says Paul Buff, and he indicates that shipments are gradually resuming. We tested a Vagabond II that included the reworked inverter (and which has performed flawlessly so far).

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Note: If you like what you see in the Vagabond II results then you might want to order one sooner rather than later. Buff indicates they are in the early stages of development of a Lithium-powered bigger brother to the Vagabond Mini Lithium. At the same time, they're also leaning towards phasing out the Vagabond II, and plan to decide on its future shortly. If they choose to discontinue the product, then the relatively low existing stock levels, says Buff, point towards remaining units being snapped up fairly quickly. Preliminary specifications for the possible next Lithium-based inverter system from the company are not set, nor are other details such as how much it'll cost or when it might ship.

Profoto BatPac Profoto's offering is comprised of a 600 watt (continuous) inverter and 12VDC/17Ah SLA battery in a nylon carry bag with shoulder strap and backpack harness. It has two AC sockets and is available in both 120VAC and 230VAC versions. It's possible to swap its battery in the field, though the task takes a few minutes, or to connect an external 12V battery. The BatPac weighs about 25lb/11.3kg.

We tested the 120VAC version.

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Summary The table below summarizes the key data from the above tests, plus adds one more piece of information: recycle time with three flashes connected. For all but the three flash column, the data was derived from testing with one or two AlienBees B1600 monolights, each set to full power for a total of either 640ws or 1280ws. The three flash recycle time test was conducted with one Elinchrom Style 600 and two Style 600 S monolights connected. Each was set to full power for a total of 1800ws.

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Interpreting the results

The most important interpretation of the results is your own. Think about how much you shoot at a given job, how rapidly you need your lights to recycle and how much portability you require and a clear picture should emerge as to which one best suits what you do. We can give a little guidance, however, based on our particular shooting circumstances as well as on product characteristics that aren't revealed by the numbers alone.
  • One of the first things you might notice is there isn't much of a relationship between the cost of the portable power source and the number of pops per charge it can deliver. The more costly units do tend to have inverters that recycle flashes faster than the less expensive options, however.

  • The most power-efficient battery of the bunch is that of the Vagabond Mini Lithium. By a long shot. We noted earlier that Paul Buff selected LiCoxNiyMnzO2 over the more-common LiFePO4 Lithium chemistry because it promised longer runtime for a given size and weight of battery. The number of flashes per charge that can be extracted from the Vagabond Mini Lithium's small, lightweight pack prove Buff's point, in dramatic fashion. And while LiCoxNiyMnzO2 can't sustain nearly as many charge cycles as LiFePO4 before capacity drops noticeably, at US$90 for a replacement battery this hardly matters, at least to us, and particularly when put against the long runtime LiCoxNiyMnzO2 provides.

  • For what we photograph with lights on location - group photos and portraits, mainly - there's a lot to like about the Vagabond Mini Lithium. While its recycle times for the higher watt-second (1200ws+) tests are too long, I'd personally never envisioned using the Vagabond Mini Lithium with more than one studio flash anyway. The ease with which it can be mounted to a lightstand makes it ideally suited to powering a single 640ws or lower monolight, and its low cost makes it practical to purchase one unit per lightstand also.

    For example, to light a sports team outdoors away from wall AC power, shooting partner David Moll and I will typically deploy three B1600s set to 640ws each, powering all three of them with a Little Genny LG400. The LG400 has been great, providing a consistent recycle time of 3.2 seconds and about 350 pops per charge when used this way. At roughly U$3000, however, this portable power source isn't for everyone.

    Take the same setup, but replace one LG400 with three Vagabond Mini Lithiums (one per light), and recycle time is the same at 3.2 seconds while the number of pops per charge climbs to 544. Plus, no extension cords are required, since the flash's power cable only needs to travel a few feet down the lightstand. The total cost, at about US$720, is much less than an LG400 or indeed all other premium portable power options. This leaves cash for a backup Vagabond Mini Lithium or two, as well as extra batteries. Also three Vagabond Mini Lithium units are lighter and take up less total space in a gear case than any one of the other power packs tested for this article.

  • The Vagabond Mini Lithium, LP-750 and XP1100 are the only packs in the group that were designed for quick battery changing in the field. The first two allow for particularly rapid swapping.

  • The LG400 and Vagabond Mini Lithium, the two Lithium-powered packs tested, offer the most consistent recycle times overall. The Vagabond Mini Lithium is especially consistent when recharging 640ws or less. For example, with an Einstein 640 connected and set to 640ws, the recycle time lengthens by no more than 0.1s as the battery depletes, right up to the last flash pop before the inverter shuts down. The NiMH-based LP-750 is also really good in this regard. The SLA units, however, show either a gradual but constant lengthening of recycle time as the battery is drained - look at the Tronix Explorer 1200 results for an example - or, with a unit like the BatPac, a temporary lengthening of recycle time by a couple of seconds or so if the connected flashes are fired two or three times in succession.

  • The capacity of Lithium batteries is said to be less affected by long periods in which the portable power pack isn't in use or has been stored with less than a full charge. Plus, they can be charged and discharged simultaneously with no ill effect. Given these characteristics, and the impressive performance vs size/weight ratio offered by LiFePO4 and especially LiCoxNiyMnzO2, it's hard to get too excited about SLA as an inverter's battery source going forward. The low price of an additional Vagabond Mini Lithium battery also makes it difficult to argue that Lithium is too costly when compared to SLA.

  • For this article, we've tested only portable packs intended to power existing AC studio flash. That's because we're not especially interested in owning separate AC-powered and battery-powered studio flash kits anymore, or at least not ones whose output and functionality are largely the same, except for how they receive electricity. The improvement in portable power for AC flash is the reason.

    If a self-contained battery system is your thing, however, note that the combined specifications of a Vagabond Mini Lithium and a better-quality 300-640ws AC monolight will generally match or exceed - and sometimes greatly exceed - a battery-powered system with an equivalent watt-second rating, whether a monolight or a pack. Also, a pairing like the Vagabond Mini Lithium and an Einstein 640 is a lot less money than any name brand battery-based system in the same output brightness range.
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