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Review: Vagabond Mini Lithium portable power pack - Continued
Beyond studio flash

The Vagabond Mini Lithium was conceived to power studio flash in the field. As you can see from the previous page, it excels at that. Its compactness makes it a potentially viable option for powering other AC photo gear too, including laptops and various digital gadgets. For example, we've already adopted the new Paul C. Buff pack to power an AC-only Wi-Fi router on location. Hooked up to the Vagabond Mini Lithium it will run for well over 20 hours of steady operation, which is more than sufficient to get through the longest shooting day.

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Versatility: A Vagabond Mini Lithium powers a Ubiquiti Networks PicoStation M2 HP router, left. A Canon EOS-1D Mark IV powered by a Vagabond Mini Lithium is controlled from Canon EOS Utility in the screenshot, right. Click photo or screenshot to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Here are some examples of the runtime you can expect from the Vagabond Mini Lithium when called on to power equipment other than studio flash:
  • RAW conversions on location A MacBook Air 11 inch's internal battery has sufficient capacity to keep the laptop going for as much as eight hours of light-duty computing in our experience. A processor intensive job, such as converting RAW files, amps up battery drain considerably; an eight hour runtime quickly becomes three hours or less when both of the computer's 1.4GHz cores are tasked to turn RAW data into finished JPEGs. Throw in an external hard drive drawing power from the Mac and you can expect runtime to drop even further.

    Knowing all this, we set up a test that would measure how much longer Apple's most portable Mac, running full tilt, could keep on converting when plugged into a Vagabond Mini Lithium.

    The test: A MacBook Air 11 inch, with screen brightness set to 120cd/m2 and Airport Wi-Fi on, was set to continuously convert Canon CR2s in Digital Photo Professional. The source and destination was an external USB drive, which was drawing its power from the computer. The computer's own battery was fully charged at the outset.

    The internal battery ran the computer for a total of 2h:05m, while the Vagabond Mini Lithium managed almost exactly 5h:00m, for a combined runtime of 7h:05m of RAW file converting.

  • Really long exposures The top-tier digital SLRs from Canon and Nikon are equipped with high-capacity batteries that last through thousands of exposures per charge, even with heavy use of autofocus and lots of time spent reviewing photos on the rear LCD. Even the smaller batteries that ship with entry level digital SLRs these days are good for several hundred frames or more. Because of this, the need for an external battery to shoot pictures with a digital SLR has plummeted over the last three years or so.

    There are some notable exceptions, principal among them being SLR video capture and the shooting of multiple-minute time exposures. Both keep the camera's image sensor active for long periods, which in turn depletes the battery rapidly. To see whether the Vagabond Mini Lithium could provide appreciably more runtime than a camera's own battery when the sensor is active for extended periods, we set up a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV to capture 20 minute Bulb exposures, one every 30 minutes, while connected to a computer and controlled by Canon EOS Utility.

    The camera's 11.1V/2300mAh LP-E4 battery managed 12 exposures over a six hour period before the EOS-1D Mark IV shut off. Replacing the LP-E4 with Canon's ACK-E4 AC Adapter connected to the Vagabond Mini Lithium enabled the camera to shoot 28 exposures over a 14 hour period. Note that the LP-E4 has a higher capacity than most digital camera batteries. If we'd compared to, say, the LP-E6 that comes with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the EN-EL3e that powers a Nikon D300S there would almost certainly have been an even greater difference in favour of the Vagabond Mini Lithium.

  • Heavy duty wireless To transmit pictures several hundred feet or more from a Wi-Fi capable camera with minimal speed loss, a Wi-Fi router with high output power is required. The Ubiquiti Networks PicoStation M2 HP and its 1000mW transmitter is what we rely on, and it needs AC to operate. But where we use it, to monitor and take in photos from sports remote cameras, a wall socket is often inaccessible.

    Enter the Vagabond Mini Lithium. In one test, transmitting roughly 50% of the time, the PicoStation M2 HP stayed up for 21.5 hours before the Vagabond Mini Lithium's battery was spent. Another time, after transmitting 700+ pictures from two cameras in back-to-back basketball games, the Vagabond Mini Lithium's battery gauge still registered between 50% and 75% capacity remaining.

    It will power other AC-only routers too. We've plugged into the Vagabond Mini Lithium Apple's current Airport Express and Airport Extreme as well as the Cisco/Linksys E3000 without any problems, though we haven't timed how long they'll run for. Well, except for one partial test of the Airport Express: after five hours of continuous transmitting, the battery gauge on the Vagabond Mini Lithium dropped down one LED.
If all you need is extra power for your laptop, then you might be better served by a second battery or, in the case of Apple's current crop of laptops and their non-removable batteries, an external pack such as those in Sanho's HyperMac line. Dedicated solutions such as this have an inherent performance advantage over an inverter system like the Vagabond Mini Lithium, since they aren't subject to the same efficiency losses that naturally occur when voltage is stepped up within the inverter circuitry and then stepped down again by the laptop's AC adapter. Lower efficiency translates into less usable energy devoted to the job of powering the laptop.

In this way, a 1.6lb/0.7kg MBP-100 HyperMac battery, whose rated operating voltage (12VDC) is very close to the input voltage range (14.5-18.5VDC) required by Apple's portables, will almost certainly outlast the 3.5lb/1.6kg Vagabond Mini Lithium. The latter unit's superduper battery isn't enough to overcome the voltage conversion loss.

Same goes for increasing your camera's shooting or video capture time. If this is the only instance in your shooting day that you require additional power, then one of several dedicated options such as a battery grip + second battery or an external battery and camera cable from Anton Bauer, Quantum or others will usually be preferable.

But, if you need an ultraportable power source that is darned good at powering studio flash as well as AC-only devices such as Wi-Fi routers, one that is also flexible enough to run your laptop and your digital SLR too, charge up your phone and camera batteries and even light up a low wattage desk lamp for several hours, the Vagabond Mini Lithium is going to be hard to beat.

Other observations

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Going Going: The Vagabond Mini Lithium's three-light, four-stage battery gauge, in action (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
Battery gauge The accuracy of the three-light, four-stage battery gauge is spot on, but only when the Vagabond Mini Lithium is not under load - that is, when it's not busy recycling a flash that just fired - and then, only when it has been given time to stabilize with only a small load or no load on it, such as when a flash is connected but not recycling.

Buff indicates that it takes up to two minutes after a period of heavy flash recycling for the gauge to give a true reading, though in our experience it will stabilize in 30 seconds or less, most of the time. So, the battery gauge does take some getting used to, but now that we are it's behaviour seems preferable to the typical gauge that rapidly floats down and up, down and up with every pop of the flash.

Reliability Vagabond Mini Lithium hiccups appear to be restricted to a few instances of the battery case separating (which Paul C. Buff addressed through a change in the assembly process some time ago) and the occasional flakey charging connector. Based on our own experience, and the overwhelmingly positive feedback we've received from early adopters, Vagabond Mini Lithium inverter and battery reliability is shaping up to be excellent. In addition, Buff indicates that of over 2000 units shipped to date, only one customer has reported a failure, of the battery specifically. Salt water had gotten inside, Buff says, and caused the battery's demise.

It's impossible to predict precisely what the unit's long-term reliability will be, but based on how it's holding up in the first couple of months there's reason to be optimistic that the Vagabond Mini Lithium is built to last.

Compatibility The Vagabond Mini Lithium has been able to power every 120VAC flash we've tried, but that's been a relatively short list from Aurora, Elinca, Paul C. Buff and Profoto. Buff reports that neither the Profoto Compact or D1 series of monolights are compatible in his own testing (though the D1s probably would be if switched to their slower-recycling Bat mode, which Buff has not yet tried), while online reports suggest that either or both models of Elinchrom D-Lites ought not to be plugged into the Vagabond Mini Lithium.

Update, April 9, 2011: Photographer Victor Tavares reports that he's able to successfully power a single Profoto D1 500 from the Vagabond Mini Lithium if the flash is switched to Bat mode. More information about this mode is on page 12 of the manual for the Profoto BatPac .

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USB port The Vagabond Mini Lithium incorporates a USB A port on the front, to provide current to devices designed to be powered or charged by a computer's USB port. The Vagabond Mini Lithium's USB port is rated to output a maximum of 5VDC/500mAh, the same as most computers.

But, it's either not delivering its rated output or something else is amiss, because in our testing the USB port was able to charge or power only a handful of the same devices that work just fine when connected to either a computer or an external battery with a USB port and the same 5VDC/500mAh output rating.

The table at right lists a few of the devices that worked, or didn't. Note that the workaround is generally pretty simple. For example, even though it's not possible to charge up an iPhone 3GS from the Vagabond Mini Lithium's USB port, it is possible to plug in an Apple USB Power Adapter to one of the unit's AC sockets and charge the iPhone that way.

Still, we hope that whatever glitch in the Vagabond Mini Lithium's electronics that's limiting the usefulness of the USB port can be fixed in the future.

Spring clamp alternatives Update, November 15, 2011: We've now published a rundown of four alternate mounting methods for the Vagabond Mini Lithium.

Anderson connectors Paul C. Buff utilized Anderson Powerpole connectors (15/30/45 amp version) to bridge the gap between the battery and the inverter, the charger and the inverter and the charger and the battery.

This connector type is ubiquitous, so much so that Anderson Powerpole-equipped cables and accessories of every description are only a mouse click away, if you're inclined to customize your Vagabond Mini Lithium setup.

We've assembled three different configurations so far, with the help of components from online reseller Powerwerx. They are:
  • Power the Vagabond Mini Lithium inverter from a car's 12V accessory jack. This worked like a charm to keep the inverter going through a recent 700mi/1125km road trip, during which it powered an Apple MacBook Pro 17 inch and my 11-year-old's arsenal of electronics. The Powerwerx parts required are:

  • Link the Vagabond Mini Lithium's battery to the Leadpower LP-750's external power connectors. This did NOT work, most likely because the battery's voltage when fully charged is higher than the 11-15VDC input range allowable by the LP-750.

  • Connect two Vagabond Mini Lithium batteries, in parallel, to the Vagabond Mini Lithium inverter for about double the runtime. The Vagabond Mini Lithium's battery supplier says the packs have been designed for this usage and, says Buff, a two-battery parallel configuration can be accomplished through one of two methods:

    Method 1
    With one battery attached to the inverter as usual, connect a second battery to the charging port on the front of the inverter using a 10 gauge Powerpole extension cable. The inverter's internal wiring will effectively parallel the two batteries together.

    Method 2
    Link both batteries together in parallel and then connect them as a pair to the inverter's battery input connector. This can be accomplished with the following Powerwerx parts, and is shown in the picture at right, below.
There's no reason, says Buff, that three or more Vagabond Mini Lithium batteries couldn't be parallel wired in the same fashion. Powerwerx's PS-4 splitter, for example, enables up to three batteries to be connected. With whatever number of batteries you attempt to parallel wire together, Buff cautions that for trouble-free operation you'll want to make sure they're all charged to about the same level before you start. Ensuring they're fully charged from the outset would accomplish this.

We've only tested a two-battery parallel configuration, and only once as of this writing, but it worked just fine.

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Road Trip: The components required to power the inverter from a car's 12VDC accessory jack. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media) Seeing Double: Two Vagabond Mini Lithium batteries connected in parallel to the inverter. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Conclusion

The Vagabond Mini Lithium is a sweet new way to power studio flash on location. In both testing and actual use it has exceeded our expectations of what a small portable power source should be able to do. The number of pops per charge is both impressive for the size of battery and also more than sufficient to last through a long shooting session. Plus, it's one of the few products of its type that was designed with quick battery swapping in mind. The recycling times it provides aren't quite as impressive as its battery capacity, but are acceptably quick up to about 640ws and completely fine at output levels below that.

Combine the Vagabond Mini Lithium's prowess at powering studio flash with its ability to drive other devices such as AC-only Wi-Fi routers, laptops, battery chargers and more, throw in its compact size and the fact it's the least expensive commercially-available inverter system for studio flash on the market and you have a killer new tool for photographers. The Vagabond Mini Lithium is awesome.

The Vagabond Mini Lithium, including the inverter, battery module and universal charger, is US$239.95 direct from Paul C. Buff in the U.S. It's shipping now in both 120VAC output and 230VAC output versions.

Revision History
March 17, 2011: Added new information from Paul C. Buff regarding a possible replacement product for the Vagabond II and wiring two or more Vagabond Mini Lithium batteries in parallel.
April 1, 2011: Added Dynalite XP1100 test data.
April 11, 2011: Added Innovatronix Tronix Explorer XT SE test data.
April 12, 2011: Added alternative lightstand mounting method.
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