If you have a relatively new car, it probably has a USB port in the dashboard, glove box, or center console. So naturally, you should just use them to charge your devices, right? Not so fast: if you want speedy charging, those built-in ports just don’t cut it.
Unfortunately, the built-in ports in your car are pretty anemic when it comes to amperage. As we discussed in detail in our guide to choosing a USB charging station for your home, amperage is king. The lower the amperage, the longer it takes to charge a device (and the more difficult it is to maintain a charge if the device is in use). The higher the amperage, the faster you can charge your device (and keep it topped off while using it).
The problem with built-in automotive ports is that they don’t deliver enough juice to keep modern power-hungry phones, tablets, and other devices on and charging. We measured multiple vehicles with a USB voltage/amperage meter and found that the data port in the dash (commonly used to hook up a USB drive or phone to play music) offered a very weak 0.5A output. While that’s enough to power up your USB drive full of MP3s, it’s barely enough to trickle charge an iPhone and maintain the current battery level—if you’re using the phone for navigation, a notorious battery hog, it’s unlikely you’ll even charge it faster than it drains.
The other ports in the vehicles, specifically designated as charging ports, didn’t fare much better. Every charging port we tested, in both the front and rear passenger spaces, was only 1A. How does 1A fare in real world use? Under ideal conditions, 1 amp will charge your smartphone or tablet, albeit very slowly, but it won’t keep up with active use (under less than ideal conditions it might not even work with your high-demand device). This means if you’re a passenger using the charging port to charge your iPhone while playing games, expect the battery to slowly drain despite being plugged in.
The solution? Give up on the built-in USB ports and harness the power of your car’s 12v ports and some universal chargers—the 12v port on most cars is rated for at least 10A, which means there’s plenty to divide among your devices. A good plug-in USB car charger can offer more charging goodness with 3-4 2.1A ports than all the built-in ports in your car combined.
Our favorite charger, thanks to its low profile, is the the Omaker Intelligent USB Car Charger ($11.99). It has 3 ports (two 2.1A and one 2.4A). If you want even more power than that and don’t mind a little bulk, our second favorite charger is the Aukey 4 Port USB Charger ($14.99). It’s a lot chunkier, but offers four ports each with 2.4A of power—that’s enough juice to fast charge four energy hungry tablets at once. Finally, if both of the prior option are too bulky for your taste and you don’t need so many ports, the the Scosche USBC242M Car Charger ($11) has two ports with 2.4 amps each and is so low profile it will look like it was built right into the car.
Given how inexpensively you can upgrade using the 12v port and a third-party charger and how even a single 2.1A charger would be a massive improvement over using one of the car’s built-in charging ports, there’s no reason to suffer through sluggish charging.
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