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Tronix Explorer 1200 delivers on its promise of bargain performance  
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 | by Rob Galbraith

Last month, we wrote about the Innovatronix Tronix Explorer 1200, a pure sine wave inverter and battery combo purpose-built to power AC strobes up to 1200w/s on location. At the time, we hadn't used one. Now, among the cadre of photographers here at Little Guy Media, we have four units, three of which have been given a good workout so far.

The verdict? It delivers on its promise of good performance at a bargain price. We've found it useful to date at providing power to not only our Elinchrom Style 600 S strobes, but to laptops, flat panel displays, camera battery chargers and more.

The Tronix Explorer 1200 is comprised of an Innovatronix-designed 150 watt continuous (600 watt peak) pure sine wave inverter, charging circuitry and a 12V/12Ah sealed lead-acid battery. It's all housed in a sturdy metal case with a grippy rubber handle, and features two output sockets for either 115 V AC or 230 V AC power, depending on the unit purchased.

Tronix Explorer 1200 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The unit seems sturdy and well-built, with ample use of sealant on larger circuit board components and cable ties to keep things neat. The battery is properly fixed in place as well. Though we're no electronics experts, based on what we see under the hood it appears that care has been taken in the unit's design and assembly. The internals of the Tronix Explorer 1200 won't be confused with a Bang and Olufsen receiver, but then neither will the price. Only the handle looks like it might not stand up to extended use.

Handle of Tronix Explorer 1200 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Shipping from the company's home base in the Philippines was smooth and efficient. In fact, our second shipment arrived here in Calgary, Canada only two days after it left its destination. In that time, we received a total of four emails confirming the order and charting the progress of the shipment.

After publishing an earlier article on the Tronix Explorer 1200, we heard from a handful of photographers facing difficulties actually purchasing one (the company only sells direct currently). Innovatronix's Ramon Castillo indicates that they were having trouble with their credit card processing company, and have subsequently switched to another firm which, he says, has smoothed out ordering troubles.

Payment is possible now using a VISA, Mastercard or JCB credit card, Western Union money transfer or direct wire payment, says Castillo.

Using the Tronix Explorer 1200

Using the Tronix Explorer 1200 is straightforward. Turn it on, plug in an AC-powered strobe and start shooting. With Elinchrom strobes, recycle time and overall performance has been better than expected.

In our testing, the 600w/s Elinchrom Style 600 S (115 V version) will, when connected to AC wall power, recycle after a full power burst in about 2 seconds. When the power source is a fully-charged Tronix Explorer 1200, recycle time is about 3.5 seconds, though the recycle time soon settles in at about 4 seconds. After 100 full power bursts, we measured a recycle time of 4.5 seconds. By the 250 full power pop mark, 7 seconds.

With the strobe set to 300w/s, recycle time held steady at about 1.9 seconds through 100 flash bursts (we didn't test the strobe at this power setting beyond 100 flash bursts). This compares to about 1.1 seconds when the Elinchrom Style 600 S is plugged into AC wall power.

Given the fairly modest continuous power output rating of the Tronix Explorer 1200's inverter, these recycle times are impressive. In fact, the time it takes for the strobe to get ready to fire again is just fine for the type of location portrait photography we do.

We tested the capacity of two different fully-charged Tronix Explorer 1200s with the same strobe. Set to full power and firing every 20 seconds, we managed 287 flash bursts with one unit and 310 with the other before the Tronix Explorer 1200's auto-shutoff mechanism activated for the first time. These numbers are respectable, and will not limit the device's usefulness on location for us. But they're also well short of the 500 full power burst at 600w/s rating of the Tronix Explorer 1200.

We're currently working through some of the possible reasons for this with Innovatronix. It may be that the Elinchrom's cooling fan is a power gobbler, or that the output-stabilizing circuitry of the flash is draining power more than Innovatronix's reference strobe. Whatever the reason, be aware that if you're counting on 500 full power bursts from your 600 w/s strobe, you may not achieve that if it's similar in design to the Elinchrom Style 600 S.

Tronix Explorer 1200 connected to an Elinchrom Style 600 S (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Other observations:

  • The Style 600 S's fan slows considerably while the strobe is recycling. When the Tronix Explorer 1200's battery is nearly spent, the fan all but stops during the several seconds it takes for the flash to gather enough power to fire again. Once the strobe is re-energized, the fan spins up to normal speed. Innovatronix's Castillo assures us that the cycling of the fan - which doesn't occur when the 600 S is connected to AC wall power - isn't damaging to the strobe unit. Plus, we've observed that even with fairly rapid firing of the strobe on full power, the air being blown out by the fan remains cool. So, while the fan's behaviour is a bit disconcerting, it's likely not a problem.

  • The output of this strobe, when connected to AC wall power, is impressively consistent; the Elinchrom Style 600 S will put out a nearly-identical burst of light all day long. When the power source is the Tronix Explorer 1200, the brightness of the output is equally consistent, except when the battery is almost fully depleted. We measured a drop in output of 2/10ths of a stop shortly before the unit's low-voltage shutoff kicked in.

  • We used an Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer to measure the colour characteristics of the strobe when powered by the Tronix Explorer 1200. The smooth spectral curve that typifies the Elinchrom Style 600 S when plugged into AC wall power was essentially identical when plugged into the Innovatronix unit.

  • In bright sunlight, the Hi-Mid-Lo status lights are nearly impossible to see. Fortunately, when the unit is teetering on the edge of low-voltage shutdown, it makes an audible chirping sound. That should be enough of a clue (along with the slowing recycle times) that the Tronix Explorer 1200's battery is in need of a recharge.

  • Recharging the unit to about 80% capacity (which is when the charging light stops blinking) takes about 4 hours. To top the battery up fully, Castillo recommends leaving it plugged in for a full day.

  • The internal sealed lead-acid battery, CSB model GP 12120 F2, should last 10 years if the Tronix Explorer 1200 is used once a week, charged up and then left plugged into AC power between shoots, says Castillo. The company estimates the battery life to be this long both because of the nature of sealed lead-acid batteries and because the unit's low-voltage limit is fairly conservative. That said, the battery itself is so darn cheap - we found prices between about US$25-50 around the web for both the CSB replacement and equivalents in other brands - that battery service life isn't much of a concern here.

CSB GP 12120 F2 battery (Photo courtesy CSB Battery)

The pure sine wave inverter inside the Tronix Explorer 1200 makes it possible for it to power AC strobes (the more-common modified sine wave inverters generally will not work with strobes of this type). But it can power other devices as well, as long as they don't individually or collectively draw more than 150 watts continuously.

For example, it powered a Dell UltraSharp 2005FPW flat panel display (running at 120cd/m2 brightness) for 96 minutes. A Powerbook 12 inch G4/1.33GHz powered by its own battery and processing D2X NEFs continuously in Nikon Capture can run for 114 minutes in our testing; powering this laptop with the Tronix Explorer 1200 extends this time to 313 minutes. (The 313 minute figure is a combination of power from the inverter and, when that was spent, from the laptop's internal battery; put another way, the Tronix Explorer 1200 provides a little more than 3 hours of runtime for this Powerbook when the laptop is working hard). We've also had no problems using it to drive various Canon and Nikon battery chargers.

Weighing Your Options

If you don't need to power AC strobes on location, but you do need to be able to run laptops and other devices for a good long time away from wall power, then the Tronix Explorer 1200 probably isn't the best choice. For example, simply purchasing two additional batteries for our tester Powerbook would be less expensive and total run time would be longer than using the Innovatronix inverter. Plus, those two batteries would take up a lot less space and weight in a road kit. Or, if you have a digital camera or shoe-mount strobe that needs extra juice, the Digital Camera Battery might be more sensible, since it can power those devices plus certain laptop computers.

And while a 96-minute run time for the Dell flat panel is respectable, it's possible to purchase a modified sine wave inverter like the Xpower Powerpack 1500 with 5 times more battery capacity for roughly US$300 in the U.S. It won't power strobes like our Elinchrom Style 600 S, but it will power most other digital photography-related devices for a really long time, including this monitor.

The reason to consider the Tronix Explorer 1200, and the reason that we have a small collection of them in our lighting kits now, is because it appears to do a solid job of powering AC strobes. In our numerous email exchanges, Innovatronix's Castillo has emphasized the price/performance ratio they were trying to achieve with their inverter, and there's no doubt that the Tronix Explorer 1200 is an excellent value for the money. In fact, it's the price/performance ratio that made the purchase of several units practical here.

Because we need to both power AC strobes and other devices on location, our only real beef with the Tronix Explorer 1200 is its capacity. While it should be sufficient for typical location lighting setups, if the battery were easily swapped out in the field or, better yet, Innovatronix made available an external battery pack with perhaps 3-4 times the capacity (not unlike the Elektrona Feeder Battery Case we saw previewed at Photokina 2004), the unit would be considerably more versatile. Then, it could be counted on to power strobes and a whole lot more through the course of a long day of shooting and processing pictures. Innovatronix is developing a high-capacity battery solution, says Castillo, for release in mid-2006, though what exact form it will take is still being determined.

If you're pondering the purchase of location power for your AC strobes, we doubt you'll find a better value than the Tronix Explorer 1200, even without an external battery pack option.

Before you plunk down US$249+shipping for one, however, you might want to examine some of the other available options, since it is possible in some instances to get more if you spend more:

  • Alien Bees Vagabond. The Vagabond 150 sports similar specifications to the Tronix Explorer 1200, comes in a soft-sided case suitable for deploying the unit as a sandbag and is about US$100 higher in price. The company also makes the faster-recycling Vagabond 300.

  • D-I-Y. It's possible to purchase a pure sine wave inverter, battery and charger, package them up yourself and presto: location lighting power for less money than the more expensive products in this category. It will be touch to match the price of the Tronix Explorer 1200, however, and that's even before factoring in the time spent in assembling the components and putting them together in some fashion. Though this sort of project doesn't require an engineering degree, it's important to have some idea of what electrons are about so you don't damage your strobes or yourself. Suitable pure sine wave inverters are available from Powerbright and Xantrex, among others.

  • Dyna-Lite XP1100. We've used the XP1100, and like it a lot. But at about US$1200 in the U.S., it's not cheap. The same applies to Elektrona's products.

The Tronix Explorer 1200, complete with a worldwide charger, car charger and one year warranty, is US$249 direct from Innovatronix. Three different versions of the device are available: 115V AC/60Hz, 230V AC/50Hz and 230V AC/60Hz. Shipping is a flat fee of US$45 worldwide.

Revision History
 Added information about a high-capacity battery solution being developed by Innovatronix (July 14, 2005)

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