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Hands-On: New Belkin Conserve Power Strips

Belkin Conserve Valet

The Conserve Valet is an odd bird. At first glance, I thought it might be some sort of wireless charging surface of the sort Intel and MIT were discussing a couple of years ago or that Powermat now sells. But with Powermat kits starting at $70 just for an iPhone setup, I had a feeling that the $40 Valet, pictured charging multiple devices, was something different—which it is.

The Valet is half charger, half cable management system. Like the Socket, the Valet has an activation button near the top of its platform, and when all attached devices are charged, the Valet cuts all power flow. A white power cable connects the back of the Valet to the wall. There are three USB ports next to the power port in the back plus another USB port on the right. Measuring 6.25 x 8.5 x 2.25 inches, the unit is probably too large for travel but might fit well on a dresser, kitchen counter, or a little table by the front door. The Valet ships with two USB cables. Both have 90-degree L-bends where they plug into the Valet; one ends in a Mini-USB plug, the other a Micro-USB. Given that the market is now transitioning from Mini to Micro in phone-related gear, supporting both is a smart move. The slanted top platform will typically hold three devices, and a raised lip around the platform’s edge keeps them from sliding off.

I lived with the Valet for several days and must finally admit that I think this product should have been designed very differently. The idea behind it is great. Most of us now need a convenient spot to recharge our everyday pocket-sized devices in a way that doesn’t promote cable clutter. Unfortunately, the Valet only solves half of this problem. First, the white power cable has no L-bend, so the Valet won’t press flush against the wall. Second, the platform surface is slick plastic rather than gripping rubber, so it’s harder to get your devices to line up neatly and look tidy. Third, the five holes tucked under the platform do a great job of holding charging cables in roughly the spots you want, but once you unplug the devices, then what? You have several inches of cable jutting out at weird angles from under the platform. Few users will bother with pulling the cables out of these holding holes and tucking the cables away, so you still have cable clutter.

My suggestions for Belkin: 1) Make the Valet reasonably flat and foldable so it can be taken on the road. 2) Embed four flexible, retractable USB cables into the underside of the mat, each of them ending in a Mini-USB tip. If the cable isn’t needed, it can tuck out of sight, and pushing the cable back into the mat when the user disconnects a device is easy. 3) Include three Mini-to-Micro USB adapters that can stash into pockets located near the thicker power supply at the back of the pad. These changes might add $10 to the price, but I think it would make the Valet more aesthetically pleasing and far more useful for traveling professionals.

As for the Valet we have today, I still question its “green” angle. As noted earlier, most portable electronics these days hardly draw any power when charged, so you’re not really saving much electricity. The value here is in convenience and looks. Functionally, any $10 powered USB hub could do the same job. So if convenience and looks are this device’s reason for being, then I think more of those qualities are needed to justify the price.

A Bit of Insight

Belkin has one additional new Conserve product, a smartly updated power meter called the Insight. It’s essentially a white wall wart tethered to an LCD readout via a six-foot cable. For everyone (including me) who ever complained about having to get on hands and knees in order to monitor a Kill A Watt meter, this is the answer. With a $29.99 MSRP, the Insight is only a few dollars more than a Kill A Watt.

Unfortunately, this was the one new Conserve unit that Belkin wasn’t able to send me before this writing, so I can’t give you any hands-on impressions. I don’t see it noted anywhere in Belkin’s literature that the Insight offers real-time amp, watt, kWh, and similar data, as the Kill A Watt does, although you can see “Watt” and “kWh” outlines if you zoom in on the LCD. It would be an unforgivable omission if the product lacked this. Belkin only notes that the Insight lets users track their “cumulative energy usage and cost,” which I trust means details such as kWh consumed. Belkin spends more time detailing that the product lets users view their cumulative energy dollars spent (which owners will care about) and their CO2 generated at the power plant (which they probably won’t). As a Kill A Watt owner, I see good value in the Insight and its design. Just know that these meters in general tend to get used for a few weeks, then, once you’ve found the data you want about your electronic devices, spend the rest of their lives in a drawer.

In the end, I still want to praise Belkin for keeping this product group alive and evolving. Even though I think the marketing team may have unwisely overshadowed the engineers at some points, the bottom line is that we need more ways in which to lower our total energy consumption. When used appropriately, these Conserve models can help achieve that and more than pay for themselves in short order.