Charging your portable gadgets and mobile computing devices with a portable solar power charger is a more eco-friendly and weightless solution, when you are on the road (with plenty of daylight at your disposal). The portable solar power market is really heating up (excuse the pun) and there are a variety of portable chargers to choose from. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet here for a single solar charger that powers everything. Most portable solar power devices must compromise power by sacrificing size. Solar panel efficiency is improving all the time, however, and we hope to see a break-through product in the near future.
In the meantime, here are of the best solar power chargers for frequent travellers that we have found on the market in terms of portability, power and longevity. Pay attention, though, to their primary use – some are better suited to occasionally emergency back-up power, whereas others make good daily power alternatives.
Scosche SolBAT II
Primary use: emergency, back-up power; not for frequent use.
This is a simple, no-fuss portable solar power charger that houses a 1500mAh Lithium-Ion battery – recharged by a single solar panel (or USB) – and provides a female USB connector for 5V 500mA power out (or for recharging itself via USB). The onus is on you to provide the right cable for your device but, frankly, given that most devices will ship with their own cable ending in a standard male USB – this isn’t a problem. It is also very competitively priced.
It comes with a handy plastic sleeve that can be attached to glass with sucker cups, so you can mount the unit easily to a car window, plus a carabiner clip to mount it to something else. Most people will probably throw it onto the car dashboard and let it recharge throughout the day, using its internal battery to back-up portable devices in a pinch. It is incredibly light and the flat form-factor makes it convenient to slip into a pocket.
iPhones won’t rapid charge with it but this isn’t the end of the world. Given that it only produces 500mA, it won’t charge your iPad. Still, it will support many other ‘less’ thirsty peripherals.
The bad news is that it will take a good 4-5 days for the single solar panel to fully charge the internal battery to full capacity (because it only has one panel). This makes it useful primarily as an emergency recharge device – not something you use on a daily basis.
Power Traveller powermonkey-eXplorer
Primary use: occasional alternative power
Like the Scosche, this is a portable battery and solar panel combined into a charger that can be charged by the sun or by USB power. Unlike the Scosche, it comes in several pieces – which makes it more flexible, or more fiddly (depending upon how you look at it). It also makes it easier to forget the right cables to interconnect all the pieces, which is a potential pitfall. However, it has two solar panels (as opposed to one on the Scosche) and can, therefore, recharge the solar nut in a single day, so it will be more useful on a daily basis. However, the solar nut won’t completely recharge an iPhone 4 battery to one full cycle… so, again, it may be more useful to you as a top-up device, than as a daily charger.
Also, sadly, it cannot recharge itself via the sun AND your device at the same time. This is a huge design flaw, in our opinion (the Scosche can do both simultaneously). For example, you couldn’t place the solar panel in your car windshield and hope to juice up your iPhone while recharging the solar nut battery simultaneously. Instead, you need to do one or the other, which means that it’s not unusual to find your solar nut dead when you need it most.
For those of you wondering what the difference is between the powermonkey + solarnut combo and the powermonkey+eXplorer… it’s basically in the solarnut component. The original solar nut battery doesn’t have an LCD status panel to check battery levels, whereas this one (eXplorer) does. Also, the eXpolorer is water-resistant.
Primary use: daily alternative power
We have mixed feelings about this solar power recharger. First, the good news is that it has 3 solar panels to support and charge an internal 1650mAh Li-ion battery, which it can fully recharge in 9 hours (if there is plenty of UV). This makes it a good daily charging device. The bad news is it uses proprietary cables and connectors, which are easy to lose. Why it didn’t opt to supply a standard female USB input connector escapes us, although it may be to enable it to make more money through peripherals.
Also, it’s a bit less user friendly than the powermonkey. For example, pressing the solar nut button on the powermonkey will display the amount of power left with a battery indicator on the built-in LCD panel. Pressing the Solio’s power button results in flashing lights. Each flash tells you how much charge is left in its battery. But, if you don’t use the device every day, it’s not hard to forget what the flashing lights stand for. Is five successive flashes good or bad? (Answer: Good; it means you have a full charge).
It has a whole in the centre of the pivot point for the panels, so you can put a pencil through and aim it directly at the sunlight. This is cute… but, please, why not design the unit so it can stand on its own somehow? I don’t always have a pencil to hand. Most of my pencils go where my pens go… missing…
Also, it is very bulky compared to the others. It feels like you’re holding a fat mobile phone from 10 years ago.
Powertraveller Solar Gorilla
Primary Use: daily alternative power/power substitute
Okay, this is a powerful pair of solar panels. This is your everyday recharge device. Ideally, you would connect this to a battery (like the mini-Gorilla) and use the power brick to recharge your iPhone, iPad, or even laptop computer. However, these solar panels are so strong that you can plug them directly into an iPhone and charge it – if there are sufficient UV rays. Impressively, it provides plenty of juice when directly connected to many different portable devices. It has a female USB connector (like the Scosche), so connecting it to a variety of devices is very easy.
Power comes at a price, however, and in this case the compromise is size. These solar panels are large and a little heavy. They feel like you are carrying around a thick A4 notepad of paper. But if you are travelling for extended periods in the outdoors, then this is your best bet. Best to buy a battery, too, and use it to recharge the battery for maximum flexibility.
It’s also worth noting that Powertraveller offers adapters for their portable batteries that support the iPad and digital camera battery recharging (cameranut). This makes the Solar Gorilla + mini-Gorilla + iPad/Cameranut combo a very powerful piece of kit for journalists and others who travel with SLRs and portable computing devices.
Here’s a look at the Kensington iPhone recharger, the Powermonkey-eXplorer and the Solar Gorilla for size comparisons:
Portable Solar Bazaar:
2 Piece 640mA USB Portable Solar Panel Battery Charger for GPS PDA iphone Ipod Cell Phone MP3 MP4 CA
Output: 6V, 320mA. Working Temp: -20 to 80 degrees. Size: 280x130x5mm. Weight: 130g.
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