My car is where cell phone chargers go to die. Please help.
March 3, 2013 1:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a service/sales job for which I drive a lot. Between Spotify, podcasts, and using GPS to locate various places, my cell phone gets a workout in the car. Add to that the steady stream of phone calls I make and receive while not driving and the typically fidgety gadget nerd surfing, app-using etc. I do all day long, and my Android phone's battery has a lot of work to do every day. I end up leaving it charging pretty much whenever I'm driving. The problem is, I burn through chargers at a rate something like one every three to five weeks. It's expensive and I need a better solution. Ideas?

Now when I say I go through a lot of chargers, what happens to them, almost without exception is this: over time, they go from...

Phase one: constantly charging whenever plugged in
Phase two: charging most of the time but occasionally not showing as plugged in
(even when they are)
Phase three: begging and pleading for the phone to acknowledge the damned thing even a little

I've tried licensed Samsung and Sprint car chargers (my phone is a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, via Sprint), various other carrier/manufacturer name brand chargers, BestBuy's Rocketfish brand, whatever those select-your-charging-tip things are they sell at big box stores, and just about everything else you could name. I've tried plugging my reliable wall outlet AC chargers into a car lighter to AC converter; they developed the same issue. Recently, I had the brainstorm to try cheapo USB car chargers with generic micro USB cables plugged into those, but about 60% of the cables I got started off at phase two and not one of them made it two weeks before hitting phase three. I've probably spent $300 on car chargers in the past 18 months.

I'd blame the phone, but I've had a half dozen phones since starting this job, from various makers, and they all had the same issue. Plus, whenever I buy a new car charger, they work great again... for a while. I'm inclined to believe it's just the wear and tear caused by a device getting banged around while driving and getting picked up and put down over and over while plugged in. I'm not allowed to talk on the phone while driving my work car (and I don't). But I frequently use it in parking lots while still plugged in. Maybe this is hard on a charger? not doing that isn't really a practical option.

Has anyone else had this issue? Is there a brand of car charger that can stand up to this level of use? Would I have better luck with a dock of some kind? Are there quality-made docks that would work well in say, a cup holder? What about those power mat wireless charge pad things? Has anyone had any luck with one of those in the car? Would that be more forgiving?

Assume for the purposes of this answer that I'm not going to buy a new phone and changing my workday phone usage patterns is not going to happen.
posted by DirtyOldTown to Technology (14 answers total)
I think you might need to get your DC output checked. I also charge two phones all the time in my car (and one phone is my GPS, so it's in use while plugged in all the time), with a Griffin USB converter and drugstore cables. It's been in use for over two years.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:15 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I end up leaving it charging pretty much whenever I'm driving.

Even when the battery on your phone isn't depleted? That might be the problem. As a first step, I'd try only charging your phone when it's below, say, 20% (or you know you're going to be away from power for a while), then unplugging it when it's fully charged. Not sure whether that falls under the "workday phone usage patterns" that you don't want to change, though.
posted by supercres at 1:16 PM on March 3, 2013

Have you tried unplugging the chargers when not in use and, especially, when starting the car? I suspect you're getting the equivalent of power surges through your cigarette lighter or DC outlet and they're frying your chargers.
posted by carmicha at 1:16 PM on March 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you've tried multiple phones, and multiple chargers, I would suspect something is wrong with the car itself. I would check the cigarette lighter - maybe there's some regulator you can put in between?
posted by unexpected at 1:32 PM on March 3, 2013

The "check the car" idea is a good one, but... I had the same problem with my previous vehicle. However, both were large work vans, so maybe there is something about how work vans provide power to their cigarette lighter outlets that is hard on devices?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:40 PM on March 3, 2013

Android phones are notorious for sucking more power than a car charger can provide. While I can't answer the reason why your car seems to be breaking chargers, make sure you're getting a charger that can supply more than 500 milliamps of power. A charger like this one will output close to 1A because the two "data" USB pins are shorted together. Otherwise your phone can be plugged in, running GPS navigation, and still lose charge.
posted by dobi at 1:41 PM on March 3, 2013

You might consider getting an external battery like this one or larger, and plug your phone into that. Perhaps it won't draw charge from the same way that an Android phone draws from the cigarette lighter, and it can function sort of as a line conditioner.
posted by chengjih at 1:49 PM on March 3, 2013

Yeah, I came in to mention what dobi said.

You definitely need a charger pushing 1A, and not 500mA, which is the norm for most "usb" chargers. The original Nexus One car adapter was smart enough to push 1A out and I've kept it for my GN and it's able to keep pace.

The Galaxy Nexus had a pogo pin car dock that was originally built for the GSM version of the phone, but with a minute of scraping could be made to work with the LTE version. It was sold here but appears discontinued now, though I'm sure you might be able to find it elsewhere.
posted by disillusioned at 1:53 PM on March 3, 2013

I've a 2.1A charger plug in there. It does charge faster... when it works. My overarching problem remains: why does there always come a point where random wiggling is needed to get the phone to recognize the charger?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:08 PM on March 3, 2013

It sounds to me like you might be breaking the cords internally. One easy way to check is to get a cheap charger with a removable cord (a few dollars from the internet, or available in stores), and try replacing the cord once you notice bad behavior, and see if it now works. If the cord turns out to be the problem, the main way to fix it is behavioral, i.e. stop pulling on the cord and be careful how you wrap it.
posted by anaelith at 2:33 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Can you get some sort of integrated speakerphone system for your car? That would save your chargers from all of that bendy stress. Bonus points if you use velcro strips to keep your phone from moving as little as possible.
posted by oceanjesse at 5:09 PM on March 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

upon reading your most recent post, i can offer a simple solution.

stop buying chargers that have an integrated cord. buy the ones that just have a socket on them for a USB cable, and unplug that only if the cable fails.

i've had the same crappy $5-on-ebay brandless 2.1A charger for ages. so long in fact, that the plastic face of it fell off from how shoddily it was assembled. it still works perfectly.

during that time however, i've ruined more than a couple cords from the charger to my phone. buying a charger with an integrated cord is just kind of a ripoff, since a failure of the cord = a failure of the charger.
posted by emptythought at 1:58 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

While it's interesting to imagine various electrical reasons for your dead chargers, I think they're a lot less likely than (as anaelith and emptythought both suggest) something else that you're doing to the chargers. E.g., if you are rough on the cords, they will inevitably stop working. This isn't just "rough" like grabbing/pulling hard on the cords, but also any objects that are pressing/bending the cords. Some cars put the DC outlet in a place so it's tough to not have cords get pressed by gearshifts, seats, etc.; that could be the underlying cause.

The other thing that might be the case is that your DC outlet could be wearing out the contacts on your chargers, if you are plugging and unplugging them frequently. Some DC outlets have sharp metal pieces in them and are made out of pretty tough steel (esp. ones designed to actually be used as a cigarette lighter), while the contacts on chargers and other accessories are often pretty soft, and have pretty weak springs holding them in place.

If you are frequently plugging/unplugging your cell charger, perhaps to plug in something else like a GPS, or move the charger from car to car or take it out at the end of the day, stop doing that and see if it fixes the issue. (There are 1-to-2 cigarette lighter plug splitters you can get from RadioShack if you need to keep multiple devices in your car; get one of those and then you won't need to swap back and forth.) If the chargers suddenly start lasting longer, you'll have found part of the problem.

And I'd definitely use the chargers that just have USB plugs on them, and then you plug in a generic USB cable rather than having an integrated cable. Having two parts will let you swap them around to see whether the part that constantly breaks is actually the charger part, of if it's the cord part. If you can work that out you'll be a lot closer to solving the problem.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:16 PM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

The answer ended up being a 2A USB car charger plug and a sackful of cheap USB2 cables from Monoprice. Whenever I have issues, I toss the cable and move on to the next cheapy.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 5:33 PM on August 20, 2013

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