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The Best Travel Power Strip (with USB) Today

By Karissa Bell, The Wirecutter

The best travel-size surge protector is the ~$16 Accell Home or Away surge protector. Its compact size, outlet placement and powerful, full-sized-tablet-ready built-in USB charger make it the most convenient and well-designed mini surge protector.

The best travel-size surge protector is the ~$16 Accell Home or Away surge protector. Its compact size, outlet placement and powerful, full-sized-tablet-ready built-in USB charger make it the most convenient and well-designed mini surge protector.

Why a Mini Surge Protector?

Whether you’re jostling for one of the few available outlets at an airport or in a tiny hotel room, wall sockets are often at a premium when traveling. Having a mini surge protector on you can mean the difference between enjoying fully charged devices or trying to stretch the last 10% of your battery over an hours-long flight.

What Makes a Good Mini Surge Protector

Most importantly, a mini surge protector needs to be, well, mini. It should be easy to pack in a small bag or carry-on. Ideally, the plug should retract or fold in when not in use. This not only makes it easier to fit into smaller pockets but also makes the plug less likely to catch on or scratch other items in your bag.

You should be able to plug in all of your devices without blocking adjoining outlets, regardless of plug shape or size.

Outlets should be spaced out, not placed right next to each other. You should be able to plug in all of your devices without blocking adjoining outlets, regardless of plug shape or size. High-output (at least 2.1 A) USB ports are essential for charging smartphones and tablets quickly. Exactly how many outlets you need will vary from person to person, but two or three AC outlets and two USB ports should be enough to satisfy the needs of most while keeping the surges to a travel-friendly size.

Finally, it should provide peace of mind that gadgets plugged into it are adequately protected. A power surge may last less than a second, but that is more than enough time to destroy your devices. The best way to tell how much protection you’re getting from a surge suppressor is to look at the Joules rating.

“The higher the surge protection rating, the more energy it can absorb, so the better it is,” explained Richard Baguley, who designs tests for us and Reviewed.com. “Joules is an energy measure, so the number indicates how much energy the device can shunt away from your electrics before it blows, leaving your electrics unprotected.”

So how many joules do you really need? To some extent, this will depend on how many and what types of devices you are trying to protect. The mini surge protectors we looked at had joules ratings ranging from 612 to 1,050. Full-sized power strip surge protectors, on the other hand, can have joules ratings up to 3,000 or higher. All that said, anything above 600 is enough for most people’s needs. And, considering the surge protectors we tested will have a maximum of five connected devices at once, all of our models offer more than adequate surge protection for the laptops, tablets and handsets most people will use them for.

Given that we rely on surge suppressors to protect our most valuable devices, a surge protector should guarantee surge protection by offering a warranty covering connected devices should the surge protector fail or malfunction. These warranties vary, but the brands we looked at had warranties covering connected devices ranging from $75,000-$100,000.

Who Should Buy This?

Obviously these are great for traveling, particularly in airports where wall outlets can be few and far between. Any frequent flier would be well-served by a good mini surge protector that can be easily packed into a carry-on or purse for when you need extra outlets in a pinch.

But even if you don’t travel much, or at all, a mini surge protector could easily come in handy at home. Many older houses and apartments don’t have many wall outlets to begin with, so a couple extra outlets could make a big difference, particularly in rooms like the kitchen, bathroom or bedroom where you may not have the space for a full-sized power strip.

How We Picked

Unfortunately, there’s little to no useful existing editorial on these things. As such, we had to start from scratch using our own criteria and then conduct our own tests. Here’s why and how we ended up testing the models we did.

A surge protector isn’t going to do you any good if it’s too bulky to take with you in a carry-on…

When traveling, the most important factor is size. A surge protector isn’t going to do you any good if it’s too bulky to take with you in a carry-on or can’t squeeze into hard-to-reach outlets in a hotel room. In order to keep our picks to a travel-friendly size, we limited our choices to surges with no more than three AC outlets and two USB ports.

Likewise, when outlet space is at a premium, outlet placement on the surge protector itself is important. We tried to find surge protectors that placed outlets in a way that maximized the number of devices that could be plugged in regardless of the size or shape of the plug. Ones with ports that were obviously too close together were eliminated from contention. (There was one exception to this, but more on that in a minute.)

Finally, we limited our search to surge protectors that had high-powered USB ports. 2.1 A is the minimum amperage required to efficiently charge an iPad (and most other tablets) so anything with fewer amps were crossed off our list as well. 2.1 A is also enough to simultaneously charge two smaller devices like a smartphone and mp3 player.

Using this process of elimination, we went from dozens of candidates to just a few. We then looked at specs, combed through warranty policies and read user reviews on Amazon. When all was said and done, we wound up with only a handful of candidates: the Mediabridge Portable Surge Protector, Belkin Mini Surge Protector, Monoprice 3 Outlet Power Surge Protector, Accell Home or Away Power Station and the 360 Electrical Power Curve Mobile Surge Protector.

A Note About International Use

While we keep saying how convenient these are for traveling, technically, none of these are recommended for use outside of the United States. None of the surge protectors we saw are rated for use with 220 V outlets (the ones found in most European and Asian countries). In fact, many of the companies specifically state these aren’t meant for international use and the warranties are void should you use them outside of the US.

Several Amazon reviewers note they have successfully used the Belkin abroad, but we can’t recommend doing so, as using a 110 V power strip in a 220 V outlet can result in short circuits and sparks (or worse). If there’s one of these you should absolutely not try using abroad, it’s the Monoprice unit. There are at least three user reviews on Monoprice’s site that report the surge protector catching fire or “exploding” when the owner tried using it abroad in a 220 V outlet.

How We Tested

During testing, we considered portability, outlet placement, USB charging ability and overall design. We began by looking at overall design and testing the efficiency of the outlet placement. We tried plugging in a variety of different chargers with different plug shapes for devices like laptops, tablets, digital camera batteries and smartphones. We tried different combinations to see which surge protectors could accommodate the greatest number and variety of devices.

We also took into account the design of the surge protector and the placement of its plug, and considered whether or not it could be used without blocking the adjoining wall outlet.

Next, we looked at the USB charging ports and tested the charging abilities of each surge protector. We did this by testing how long it took to charge a fourth-generation iPad from 50%-80%. We thought this closely represented a range you might get when charging during a layover at an airport, for example.

We did not, however, test surge protection, and we have no testing data to back up the manufacturers’ claims. Almost all of the models we looked at offer warranties covering connected devices from $75,000-$100,000. And no user reviews on Amazon complained about faulty surge protection or damaged electronics.

What About Android Devices?

While we did all of our official testing with iOS devices, we did test for Android compatibility with our two favorite surge protectors—Accell’s Home or Away and 360 Electrical’s Power Curve.

While we did all of our official testing with iOS devices, we did test for Android compatibility with our two favorite surge protectors…

We tried the USB charging ports with the Moto X, HTC One, Samsung Galaxy S IV, Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and Motorola Droid 2. The USB charging ports on both surge protectors were able to charge all of these devices in full AC mode, so we are pretty confident these should work with Android handsets.

The only Android tablet we tested with, however, was a first generation Nexus 7. While the Nexus 7 was able to recognize both chargers, it would not charge at full speed with either surge protector’s USB ports. That’s because the first-generation Nexus 7 will only charge at full speed with 2 A ports, not the 2.1 A ports used to charge iPads.

It also wouldn’t work with the 2012 Nexus 7, which charges at 1.3 A. “The USB charging spec includes the ability to set different charging rates in a standard and device-aware fashion, trouble is, 10W at 5V is the minimum, and that’s a lot,” explains Jason Inofuentes, reviews editor and technology reporter at ArsTechnica. “So most devices actually don’t comply, as is the case here. You can set different charging levels independent of the standard, but only your own charges would know they could serve up more charge. Hence the complaints that using anything but the Nexus 7 charger leads to problems. In this case, the Nexus 7 charger is set to charge at about 1.3A corded, a little lower than that on the wireless charger, and if there’s any proprietary system for ramping up the charging rate, it’d have to come from Asus.”

Long story short, if you have a Nexus 7, you’re going to want to use one of the AC outlets with your tablet’s wall charger.

Our Pick

Accell’s Home or Away mobile surge protector edged out its competition in every category: size, design and charging capability. It’s small, charges quickly via USB and offers a claimed 612 joules of surge protection, more than the minimum 600 joules suggested for normal household use. And it can accommodate an impressive variety of devices and plug sizes. We tried every size and shape of device we could find, and it handled them all easily. There might be some combination of devices that doesn’t work, but we haven’t found it yet. In fact, we even managed to get three of the other, larger surge protectors into all of three of its outlets just fine.

It was also the only design we saw that had all three AC outlets easily accessible at all times…

First, let’s talk about its design. At 4.5 inches long, 2.5 inches wide, and just under 1.5 inches deep, it was the smallest of any surge protector we tested. It easily fits into smaller backpack or carry-on luggage pockets, and the plug’s prongs fold away neatly when not in use. It was also the only design we saw that had all three AC outlets easily accessible at all times, because they’re placed on different faces. Other surge protectors couldn’t handle two large plugs next to each other, but this wasn’t a problem for the Home or Away. While it was easier to plug very large plugs into the front outlet, larger plugs could squeeze into the side outlets as well.

Despite its small size, it’s very sturdy. It stayed solidly in the outlet it was plugged into and didn’t wobble around, even when it had three very large devices plugged into it. This was a problem with some of the other models like the Belkin, which did not sit flush against the wall when plugged in.

That being said, the best-designed protector would still be useless if it didn’t perform well. Fortunately when it came to testing, the Home or Away power station outperformed its competition every way.

It had the fastest charging USB ports of all the models we tested (though all the models charged at reasonable rates). An iPad plugged into the Accell’s USB ports took, on average, just 96 minutes to charge from 50%-80%, only three minutes slower than the iPad’s wall adapter and the best of all the models we tested.

Our only minor complaint was that it’s not rated for anything other than 110 V outlets. Then again, same goes for all the other models that met our criteria.

DeviceTime (in minutes) to charge iPad 4 (50-80%)
Wall charger93
Accell96
Belkin99.5
Monoprice107.5
360 Electric103.5
Mediabridge98

*Averages based on two tests

The Competition

There are a few companies that make surge protectors nearly identical to Accell’s. Of those, Mediabridge’s $20 Portable Surge Protector is the most popular. It’s been for sale longer and has 91 five-star reviews on Amazon, and it’s very close to being as good as the Home or Away. But there are a few areas where it falls short.

The design and specs are identical, but the warranty is not nearly as comprehensive as the Accell’s. The Mediabridge surge protector offers a standard one-year warranty on the device itself, but not one covering connected devices, which is what really matters with a surge protector. Granted, these things don’t fail very often, but why take the chance to begin with when you can get the same surge protector for less money and a better warranty?

Out of all of the models we looked at, Belkin’s $22 Mini Surge Protector was the most popular coming into testing, which is why it wasn’t eliminated initially despite its tight outlet placement, which could make it impractical with larger power bricks. Reviewers at Lifehacker, CNET, Gizmodo and Macworld have sung its praises. Steve Wozniak even uses one when he travels. It has three AC outlets in a line, evenly spaced, and two USB ports on the side. On the underside of the surge protector is a small button that allows you to swivel the surge protector a full 360 degrees when plugged in.

Though this is a useful feature, the button on my unit was prone to getting stuck and I found it difficult at times to to get the plug to swivel around. And while the swiveling plug is cool, the plug itself doesn’t fold away flush for storage. It does come with a plastic cover for the plug that also attached to a slot in the side and acts a cord separator, but this felt more gimmicky than useful and is too easy to lose.

While the Belkin did charge at rates comparable to to the Home or Away, we found it too big and bulky to be convenient for traveling. At nearly 10 ounces, it weighs almost twice as much as the five-ounce Accell and is considerably longer and wider than the rest of its competition. The non-folding plug only adds to the bulk and could easily bend if you lose the protector or interfere with packing.

The outlet arrangement is also not ideal. While there are three outlets, they are spaced so close together that if your plugs are any bigger than, say, a laptop charger, chances are at least one outlet will be unusable.

360 Electrical’s $21 Power Curve Mobile Surge Protector has a particularly innovative design. Its two AC outlets are placed next to each other, but they rotate a full 360 degrees to maximize the amount of space for devices with larger plug shapes.

This design works surprisingly well. With a little maneuvering, I was easily able to plug in two very large transformer-size adapters without obscuring the adjacent USB ports. It’s conveniently sized at just five inches long and two inches wide—just slightly larger than the Accell surge protector. The plug also folds away nicely for easy storage.

My only complaint with this surge protector, besides the fact it charged slightly slower, is with its smallest features—its two LED indicator lights. All of the surge protectors we tested had these lights and most were bright enough to be noticeable but not distracting. Unfortunately, the Power Curve’s blue and green lights are extremely bright. They give off a distracting amount of light in an otherwise dark room, which could be a significant problem in most hotel rooms—unless you like the idea of a surge protector that could double as a nightlight.

This flaw aside, the Power Curve easily had the next best design after the Accell and Mediabridge surge protectors, particularly if two AC outlets are enough for your needs.

The $9 Monoprice 3 Outlet Power Surge Protector was by far the cheapest surge protector with 2.1-amp USB ports that we came across. It’s just barely longer than the Accell and the Mediabridge, but the plug doesn’t fold in, which makes it feel bulkier than it is. It has two AC outlets on one side, one on the other, and two USB ports on the front. This arrangement gives you a bit more flexibility than the Belkin or Power Curve, though it’s not quite as good as the Accell or Mediabridge.

But its biggest drawback is that it’s designed in such a way that, when plugged in to a standard two outlet wall socket, it always blocks one of the outlets—even if plugged into the upper outlet. This means you only get a net gain of one AC outlet, which is far from ideal.

It also had the slowest USB charging time. It took an iPad just over 107 minutes to charge from 50% to 80%, on average—more than 10 minutes longer than the Accell.

Those were just the ones we tested. There were just as many ones we didn’t test for one reason or another.

Monster Outlets To Go - While popular, it’s not actually a surge protector, only a power splitter. And it only has one USB port of unspecified amperage.

Satechi Slim Surge Protector - This one got a favorable review from PCMag and is generally well-reviewed on Amazon but the AC outlets are placed too close together to actually be functional as three outlets, as many Amazon reviewers note.

Several surge protectors have an identical design to the Accell and Mediabridge but have USB outputs of only 1.5 A, including: XTG Technology’s XTG-3AC2USB AC Outlet and USB Charger, Ideative’s PP0321W Flipit! 2 USB 3-Outlet Travel Surge Protector, Aluratek’s AUCS05F Dual USB Charging Station with Mini Surge andVulcan’s VPS11Q1PS Portable Surge Protector.

Globe Electric’s 46082 2 Outlet Surge Protector with 2 USB Charging Ports Removable Phone Shelf - The AC outlets are placed too close together and the USB ports are underpowered.

RND Power Solutions Wall Power Station - The AC outlets are placed too close together.

Wrapping It Up

Accell’s Home or Away power station is the best mini surge protector that we could find after much research and testing. It’s portable, can handle a variety of devices, fits snugly in small spaces and has a high-powered USB port for rapidly charging devices.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 11/15/13 and is republished here with permission.