Apple’s new MagSafe Battery Pack is a white rectangle you can stick to the back of an iPhone 12 to charge it. It’s Apple’s third run at designing an external battery solution for the iPhone and I like it better than the earlier battery cases.

However, anybody considering spending $99 on this battery ought to keep one important fact in mind: even Apple cannot break the laws of physics. It is just as bound by the same rules of magnetism and electrons as everybody else.

Those laws require tradeoffs: A battery that could fully charge up most iPhone 12 models would be big. A battery small enough to not look odd on a phone wouldn’t have enough juice. Plus, electrons can only flow so fast without building up heat and degrading the battery.

Apple found a balance between all those extremes and it maintains that balance with a tight software integration that aggressively manages how this battery charges your phone. The result is a gadget that’s singularly focused on the iPhone — sometimes to its own detriment.

The best part about the MagSafe Battery is that it also serves as a fast-charging wireless MagSafe puck when it’s plugged in. So the big question is whether all that is enough to justify the price, especially compared to the competition.

The MagSafe Battery doesn’t have enough energy to fully charge an iPhone 12 Mini from zero to 100 percent.

In my testing, the MagSafe Battery was fully drained when my iPhone 12 Mini reached 83 percent, which took 130 minutes of charging. I didn’t have it plugged in for this test, which meant it charged at a relatively pokey 5W speed, so as to minimize heat and maximize the battery’s longevity.

I used the iPhone very sporadically during the charging period (mostly to record the results every 15 minutes), though I did listen to a 15-minute podcast over Bluetooth which slowed the charging down a bit.

Bottom line: it’s a small battery and it will help you top up your iPhone, not fully charge it. On larger iPhone 12 models, it won’t even hit that 83 percent.

It performs better than its 1,460mAh rating would suggest

There is a discussion to have about what the right way to talk about battery size is. The MagSafe Battery only has a 1,460mAh battery, but that number isn’t comparable to other batteries because it can push through more volts (7.62V). So the MagSafe Battery’s rated 11.13Wh (Watt-hours) is the number that actually matters. Meanwhile, Anker makes a 5,000mAh battery with wireless charging and magnets for under $50. It’s rated at 18.5Wh, so the differences are smaller than they first appear.

The battery measurement discussion is interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that the MagSafe Battery is simply small. It’s meant to be pocketable and easy to carry, and so you should think of it as something that can stretch your battery life just a little — not get you through multiple days away from a charger.

As you might expect, the software experience with the MagSafe Battery is tightly integrated into the iPhone. There are big animations that show the charge of both your phone and the battery when you attach it. It shows up on the battery level widget, too.

More interestingly, when you first attach the battery, your iPhone will pop up a notice that this battery won’t charge your phone above 90 percent — by design. Those last few percentage points put a lot of stress on batteries, and in this context it’s just not worth it. I think it’s a smart move, but if you absolutely want that last 10 percent, you can long press the battery icon in the Control Center and tell it to charge past 90 percent.

I know this sounds both complicated and disappointing, but in use it’s actually the opposite. I would just slap the battery on the back of my phone when I was worried about battery life and didn’t sweat the details. The result was not needing to keep an eye on battery life as much as I usually do. It’s elegant instead of powerful.

That’s all smart, but it only happens with the iPhone. It is certainly a nicer overall experience than you’d get with the Anker battery, which is thicker to boot. But the Anker has other advantages. Its battery is bigger, for one thing. It also has a USB-C port on it that both takes charge when plugged in and can be used to charge devices via a wire. It’s less elegant for iPhone users, but it’s much more versatile.

The Lightning port on the bottom of the MagSafe Battery means iPhone users can keep using the same charging cable, so it’s probably the right call to keep it. It’s just too bad that Lightning can’t charge in either direction like a USB-C port can.

The MagSafe Battery is designed to match the dimensions of the iPhone 12 Mini perfectly. It aligns exactly to the edges and is more comfortable to hold than I expected. If you have a larger iPhone, it will sit on the back a bit more awkwardly — it looks positively tiny on the iPhone 12 Pro Max.

I polled Twitter for questions about the battery and I was taken aback by the vitriol I saw in my replies — and elsewhere. It’s easy to make fun of how a battery pack looks on the back of a phone. It’s also easy to go after it for not providing enough charge. Having used it, I’m not sure I’d want it any larger and I certainly wouldn’t want it any smaller. To me, there’s no such thing as a good-looking external battery. At the end of the day, they’re all squarish or oblong hunks of plastic or metal.

The white plastic has a matte finish that helps a little with grip, but I wouldn’t call it soft touch. I do wonder if it’ll pick up stains from blue jeans over time, but in the few days I’ve been testing it, it’s remained clean.

It snaps on the back of a caseless iPhone with a satisfying snick. It’s as secure as I think can be fairly expected from something connected with magnets. It’d be nice if the alignment magnet was a little stronger, but I am glad that my iPhone doesn’t contain magnets so strong that it messes with credit cards. Physics!

You can intentionally shake off the battery or have it slip off when putting it in your pocket, but I didn’t have those problems. However, if you are planning on using it with a case, you absolutely need a MagSafe compatible case that itself has magnets on it. I use a very thin plastic case and that minimal layer was more than enough to stop the magnets from working effectively.

After two days testing a couple different MagSafe Batteries on both an iPhone 12 Mini and iPhone 12 Pro Max, I came to a surprising conclusion. My favorite part isn’t the battery, it’s the MagSafe charger.

When I think of the MagSafe Battery as a MagSafe charging puck that just happens to have a battery attached to it, I think it makes a little more sense as a product. Apple’s MagSafe puck costs $40 — that certainly doesn’t make the $99 asking price for this battery a deal, but it might be worth buying the battery instead of the puck for some people.

I do have to point out that for $99 I would have expected Apple to at least include a Lightning cable. It doesn’t, nor does it include a charging brick.

When plugged into a powerful enough wall charger, the MagSafe Battery can charge the phone at up to 15W, just like the standard MagSafe disc. The charger can fill up both itself and your iPhone. If you want to prioritize charging speed on the iPhone, you can plug it in instead and then the iPhone will use reverse wireless charging to top up the battery. (Unfortunately and unlike Android phones, the iPhone’s reverse wireless charging doesn’t work for other devices, like AirPods.)

The MagSafe Battery’s best feature is that it is a good MagSafe wireless charger. It’s also a decent battery — but only if you think of it as a small extender, one that trades longevity for size. Do I wish it had more capacity? Of course. I also wish it could have more capacity without getting any larger than it already is. I don’t begrudge physics and I get why Apple chose the size it did.

But paying $99 for all the MagSafe Battery’s elegance and integration doesn’t make sense when there are much cheaper options that are less beholden to working with just one phone. A battery pack is going to look silly no matter what, you might as well get one that’s as versatile as possible.

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