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Boosted SPO VLocity
As paintball hoppers development has worked to keep up with ever faster paintball markers, not only have new hopper designs hit the market, but a whole side industry has grown for hopper accessories, mirroring paintgun accessories. David Cross started Boost Hoppers, with his “hot packs” - disposable battery packs for the HALO loader that sent the loader into overdrive by delivering it more voltage than it was designed to receive. Since that time, Cross has continued to provide hopper specific battery systems, as well as build customized loaders. The Boos SPO VLocity is one of the latest products from Boost Hoppers, and according to Cross one of his most popular. We took a Boost SPO VLocity for a test drive to see how it handled – and how it was different from a stock VLocity – both in terms of performance and features.
Cross starts by completely disassembling, inspecting and testing all of the hopper's components, including a performance test of the motor. According to Cross this attention to detail goes beyond what is practical for large-scale hopper production, and ends up providing higher quality control.
The shell is where the hopper gets its name. A durable custom color finish is applied to the two halves of the hopper shell by SPO Gear. In the case of the hopper used for review, this finish was a white and silver checkerboard, reminiscent of the weave pattern in carbon fiber cloth.
Powering the VLocity is a 16 volt rechargeable Lithium ion (Li-ion) battery pack rated at 650 milli-amp hours. The battery pack is installed with a charging port next to the battery compartment, so the included charger may be used without needing to open the loader or exchange battery packs.
At 16 volts, the battery pack delivers two volts less than a series pair of 9-volt batteries for which the VLocity was designed. This is not necessarily a problem, the loader's motor is actually driven at lower voltages through the use of pulse width modulation. Testing of the loader would check for a performance hit.
Lithium ion batteries technology is widespread in mobile phone and video production use, as it provides good power density (more power stored in a smaller space) and is immune to the “memory effect” that has given rechargeable nickel-cadmium batteries a negative reputation. Li-ion batteries can be drained fully, or partially and then recharged.
The Achilles heel of Li-ions is that they are one of the more electrically fragile battery types. If they are discharged too quickly, or are overcharged, they can become damaged. They are more demanding in terms of power management. To protect the Li-ion cells, the Boost Li-ion battery pack has a power management circuit board built in. The board provides protection both against overcharge and against excess current draw. Cross states that if more than 1.25 amps are drawn from the battery, the circuit will disconnect the battery, shutting down the hopper and protecting the Li-ion cells. After disconnecting the battery pack from power sources and the hopper for a minute, the circuit will automatically reset. During testing – even with intentional loader jams created using unlubricated Rufus Dawg T-Balls, the power draw was not enough to trip the protection circuit.
The charger includes with the Boost SPO VLocity is designed specifically for use 16 volt Li-Ion battery packs. It includes a battery monitoring charger circuit. After an initial recommended 8-hour charging session, expected charging times are 1 hour. During testing the battery did not get drained completely, and the longest recharge session experienced was approximately 20 minutes. The charger does require 110-volt AC power such as in a home electrical outlet, so using it in an automobile will require a DC to AC power inverter.
The Boost Hoppers web site refers to the power charging system as “Bluetooth,” though it does not rely on Bluetooth, or any other wireless technology. The analogy comes from making the hopper as trouble-free to charge as a mobile phone. The power adapter's charging circuit stops charging when the battery is full, but then monitors it adding a “trickle” or top off charge as needed to fight charge decay. The charger can simply be left plugged in, and the loader is ready to go when needed. According to the Boost Hoppers web site, typical charge life is feeding of about 12,000 paintballs – though that lifespan will definitely depend on how the hopper is configured (more on this to come.) That will likely prove too short for a day at an X-Ball tournament, but is well beyond what a typical player will need for a day of walk-on play.
Inside, the loader consisted of stock components – except for two. The tension spring inside the impeller assembly was softer than the stock VLocity spring, meaning that energy gets stored in the spring, providing a constant pressure on the paintball stack, even when the motor is not driving. This allows the loader to start the stack of paintballs moving even before the electronics kick the motor into action.
The other change is the inclusion of a Gangstar VLocity chip. The VLocity was the first paintball loader to be produced with a socketed microcontroller. ViewLoader engineers have recognized that not all markers have identical feed requirements, and that many customers will seek “upgrades” of one sort of another. The socketed microcontroller means that a new microcontroller with custom software, rather than having to replace an entire circuit board and all of its components. The hardware cost to a software “upgrade” is much less.
The Gangstar offers a significant number of user-adjustable features, all if which generally center around the trade-off between maximum loading speeds and battery longevity. The Gangstar is programmed by turning on the VLocity while holding down the power button. This results in the VLocity LED illuminating in orange, then turning off as the button is released – a moment later it will illuminate in red.
Pressing the power button briefly cycles the Gangstar chip through it's programming menu, with each option indicated by a color. Red for the feed mode, orange for the feed speed, green for the ball stack tension, and flashing red/green for the breakout mode. Changing any of these settings is achieved by selecting the appropriate color, then holding down the programming button for a second until the LED goes dark, then tapping the button the desired number of times for the new setting. The LED will then flash back the new setting value and return to the programming menu. Turning off the loader resets the chip from programming mode.
The feeding mode can be set to one of three settings. The default is zero-force (1.) In this setting the loader will only feed when the loader's infra-red eyes are not blocked. This mode provides for minimal power usage, and the only pre-load pressure it provides to the ball stack is what is stored in the impeller spring. Mode 2 is semi-force. The loader feeds when the eyes are not blocked, and then continues to provide pressure with the motor for three seconds, and then reduce the pressure levels a second at a time. In mode 3, the loader will still wait for the eyes to activate the motor, but then continue for five seconds before reducing pressure. For players who shoot mostly single shots or bursts of two or three, the first settings will be preferable, but for back players who lay down mostly strings of 100 shots at a time, the higher setting would be more applicable.
The feed speed is simply the speed to which the loader's motor is driven, and is adjustable on a scale of 1 to 10, it is set by default at 8, and corresponds to the rate of fire a player is likely to be shooting.
The ball stack tension setting is how much tension is provided to the ball stack by the motor when the eyes do not detect feeding. It is adjustable from 1 to 10, with a default setting of 5. This has a direct relation to not only the direct force applied, but how much energy gets stored as constant pressure provided by the impeller spring once the motor has stopped.
The breakout mode is an unusual feature for a hopper. In tournament play especially, players will often do their fastest continuous shooting in the first few seconds of a game, and then only shoot shorter bursts after that. The breakout mode drives the hopper for 30 seconds at its highest power levels, so that it can feed as fast as possible, and then reverts to whatever settings have been programmed to provide better battery efficiency for the rest of the game. With settings from 1 to 5, what is adjustable for the breakout mode is not how long it lasts, but when it starts. At a setting of 1 (the default,) breakout mode is not used. At a setting of 2, it starts the moment the hopper is turned on. In this setting a player would switch their hopper on a moment before game start. In a setting of 3, the breakout mode activates after the fifth paintball is fired, so a player can switch the loader on at their leisure, and the loader will kick up to the maximum speed as they start into their break. Settings of 4 and 5 kick in the break out after 10 and 15 shots respectively.
In addition to the mode selections, the Gangstar offers two more control functions while the loader is in use. Pressing and holding the programming button forces the loader to feed, even if the eyes become fouled with broken paint. Tapping the button kicks in a manual anti-jam causing the motor to spin the impeller in reverse for approximately one rotation.
In use with the default Gangstar settings the loader performed much as a typical VLocity, the battery charging system proved very convenient, as it was simply plug-and-go. A bi-color LED on the charger indicates when it has completed its task, glowing green to indicate full, and red for charging. Running the loader through multiple discharge cycles, including intentional drains running the loader empty and recharging it when partially charged seemed to have no ill effect on the system.
To test its performance on gun, the Boost SPO VLocity was put through standardized WARPIG Ballistic Labs 10-shot burst testing. Mounted on a Matrix LCD receiver, the loader was cycled through 10 round bursts at specific computer controlled rates of fire. The paintballs were discharged into a ball catcher, where they could be counted to verify how many shots out of the 10 shot burst were fed properly. It should be noted that this test does not determine the maximum rate of fire a loader is capable of reaching – but rather how many shots out of 10 the loader will feed at a specific rate, when starting from “standing still.” At each rate of fire, the loader was tested three times. If all 10 shots were fed properly on at least two of the three trials, it was tested again at the next highest speed.
The loader was tested when set with all of its settings at their lowest, all at their highest, and in the breakout mode. For breakout testing the no-delay setting was chosen, and the loader was turned on approximately 5 seconds before each 10-shot burst was fired, so that the breakout mode was in effect during the shot string.
At the lowest settings, the loader missed a shot at 13 bps, and only met the test criteria up to 14 bps, which is one higher than the stock VLocity achieved under the same test at its lowest tension setting.
At the highest settings, the loader fed without flaw through 16 bps, and missed a ball at its highest successful speed, 17 bps. This was 2 bps higher than the stock VLocity achieved at its highest tension setting.
In the breakout mode, the loader went even further, skipping one ball out of its three bursts at 19 bps, and doing the same at 20 before failing the test criteria at 21. This performance peak was a full five balls per second faster than the custom loader's stock counterpart achieved.
For full test data, click HERE.
Measurably, the Boost SPO VLocity was able to outperform a stock VLocity, and it is more adjustable, with the Gangstar programming modes. Its smoothly integrated no-fuss charging system proved to be both convenient and trouble-free. Being custom built, it does come with a custom price tag. Technically skilled and budget-minded players seeking similar performance and features may also undertake most of the upgrade features themselves, as SPO Bodies, the Gangstar chip and Li-Ion charging system are all available separately from Boost Hoppers.
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