In a modern world of hybrid cars and compact fluorescent light, consumers are constantly looking for new ways to make their energy consumption a little more “green”. Yet as ever more powerful mobile devices flood the market – tablets, smartphones, handheld game consoles, even subnotebooks like the Macbook Air and the Intel Ultrabook – our demand for power continues to grow. Hampered by limited battery lives, these devices require regular charging, both at home and in the wild.
Enter the solar charger: the perfect combination of green energy and modern technology, a lifesaver for mobile users on the go. Or so it would seem. Blast Magazine breaks down five popular entries in the solar charging market to see just how much sunshine bang you get for your hard-earned buck.
Available at: Amazon.com, Radio Shack, REI
Specs: 3.5” x 3.5”, 5.3 oz., 2,000 mAh lithium polymer battery
What They Say: Solio bills itself as being “at the intersection of growth in portable electronics and renewable energy”, prioritizing the device’s use with smartphone through strict adherence to the performance and safety requirements of most international wireless carriers. The Bolt is simultaneously a solar charger and a battery pack – a distinction that allows it to charge itself fully without requiring the mobile device to be exposed to the same outdoor conditions and direct sunlight. With an energy output equivalent to the standard wall charger, the Bolt can charge an iPhone in roughly half an hour, though it requires eight to ten hours of direct sunlight to fully charge its own battery – no mean feat.
What We Say: The Bolt is a tradeoff between accessibility and function. A modest price point and compact size and portability come at the cost of overall usability. When the average high-end smartphone battery size resides somewhere between 1,440mAh (iPhone 5) and 2,100mAh (Samsung Galaxy S III), even a fully charged Bolt can only do so much recharging out of the sunlight, and is all but useless to the even more power hungry tablets and subnotebooks. A slightly unwieldy product design requires you to keep a pencil or chopstick handy in order to prop the Bolt at the right angle for maximum sun exposure so it’s ideal for those who plan to spend a lot of time in one place. However, with the added capability of charging via USB and wall socket, as well as its sheer speed, the Solio Bolt nicely bridges the gap between traditional and solar power.
More information: www.solio.com
Voltaic Spark Tablet Case
Available at: Online and at green energy retailers
Specs: 13.5″ x 11″, 2.5 lbs, 10,600 mAh lithium polymer battery
What They Say: Voltaic promises “8 Watts of solar embedded into a streamlined case creates the perfect iPad solar charger”, capable of generating power on a 1-to-1 ratio – for every hour of solar charging, you’ll get one hour of video playback. Essentially an iPad holder with solar panels on the outside, Voltaic plays its “green” angle to the hilt – made from recycled plastic bottles, the case is waterproof, relatively lightweight and, amusingly enough, resistant to UV rays. Its unique folder design allows the charger to stand on its own or be propped open by the charging tablet or phone. The Spark shares some similarities to the Bolt, possessing optional USB and AC charging, as well as a roughly 10 hour charge time, though for a battery nearly five times the size of the Bolt’s.
What We Say: The Voltaic product line trades Solio’s “one size fits all” mentality for specialization – the right charger for the right device. Even those with only a smartphone would be wise to invest in the Spark – while more expensive than the 4-watt Amp model, its increased power and battery size guarantees that the charger will remain useful even as mobile devices continue to evolve. The panels are rugged, designed for use outdoors, but one should expect them to experience similar wear and tear to other outdoor tools. Though somewhat unwieldy, the Spark is a smart choice for any outdoorsy type with a lot of gadgets. While the most expensive charger on our list, the Spark combines raw power, versatility and the best overall union of form and function.
Soladec All-in-One Charger
Available at: Amazon.com
Specs: 7.4” x 4.4”, 12.8 oz., 4,000mAh lithium polymer battery
What They Say: The golden child of the solar charger marker, the Soladec routinely tops lists of the best solar charger for your money, due to its marked strengths: efficient design, powerful battery, and relative frugality. Unlike the Spark, this device is a truly flexible, proclaiming its ability to charge over 3500 different mobile devices, everything from an iPod to a Kindle to a Galaxy Tab. Furthermore, the Soladec features an ultra bright LED light – an added boon for hikers and campers – as well as an smart charging system (powered by an 8-bit microprocessor) that prevents the battery for overfilling, thus ideally extending its lifespan. Consistent with its challengers’ offerings, the Soladec can also charge via USB and AC power, making it another sturdy addition to the solar hybrid charger market.
What We Say: While its competitors prove lopsided – excelling in one area while failing miserably in another – the Soladec All-in-One is roundly, consistently…okay. Among the bulkier of the compact charger options, the Soladec possesses neither the intelligent tech of the Adventurer, the large battery size of the Orange or Spark, nor the lightweight size advantage of the Bolt. The low wattage solar panels draw power at a slower rate, requiring upwards of 11 hours to fully charge, far longer than others on this list. Additionally, the Soladec cannot be turned off so, like a laptop set to “sleep”, the battery slowly drains while not in use. Still, the $99 price point is nothing to scoff at, and a device this routinely well-reviewed must be pretty good in the field.
Powertraveller Solarmonkey Adventurer
Price: £87 (about $137)
Available at: REI, Eastern Mountain Sports, Think Geek
Specs: 6.7” x 3.8”, 9.3 oz., 2,500mAh lithium polymer battery
What They Say: A fairly ordinary solar charger by the standards presented here, the Solarmonkey Adventurer combines the compact design of the Soladec and Bolt with the rugged sturdiness and outdoorsy angle of the Spark. Powertraveller, long established in the portable power market, has taken their first stab at an all-in-one device – no removable (or replaceable) battery – with this product. Utilizing the same maximum power point tracking (MPPT) found in large-scale solar power projects, the Adventurer has a hidden talent: “auto-load, self-sensing, charge optimization technology” – essentially, the ability to charge in low or variable light, at night, and to maintain a consistent power level within the charged device as it does so.
What We Say: Unlike its competitors, the Adventurer seems solely designed for the use in the outdoors, emphasizing durability and portability over battery power or versatility. While the Adventurer is resistant to shock, water and extreme temperatures, these positive traits are vastly outweighed by a device that, with a 2,500mAh battery, can admittedly only charge an iPad to roughly 25%. Smartphones and other mobile consoles will fair little better. While the MPPT technology is impressive stuff, the Adventurer comes across as almost too specialized, particularly as the only device on this list to not come with an AC power adaptor included, allowing it to function as a multipurpose charger.
Solar Joos Orange
Available at: Solar Joos online store and Amazon.com
Specs: 3.5” x 3.5”, 24 oz., 5,400 mAh lithium polymer battery
What They Say: Fast, powerful, and generally well liked – the Orange has a lot going for it. With both a rapid charging (1 amp output) ability as well as a battery capacity that surpasses its compact brethren, this charger offers the most charge per square inch of any on this list. Solar Joos promises that the Orange “charges at least 3.5x faster than any other portable solar charger at the same price”, as well as a 1 to 2 ratio of hours charging to hours of low-energy phone usage. Perhaps its most notable characteristic is the option to replace the battery – a feature not found in other all-in-one chargers – that might make the $149 price point a little more palatable. This characteristic, paired with a proprietary MPPT algorithm designed to lengthen battery life, makes the Orange an attractive investment for someone looking to get the most out of a solar charger.
What We Say: The Orange epitomizes what people like about green technology: clean, simple design, hardy, resilient construction, and expensive enough to make you feel like your making an impact. Clocking in at almost two pounds, the Orange lacks the lightweight convenience of the Bolt or Adventurer, despite an attractive look and helpful kickstand that allows it to stand on its own. Though the Orange possesses the ability to charge in low light – a feat beyond some of the lesser chargers on this list – the energy consumption is so diminished by this that it almost isn’t worth it. There are other chargers on this list that won’t put such a large dent in your wallet, but if you’re looking for fast charging and a sleek look, the Orange is the solar charger for you.