Gadling Gear Review: Solar Chargers For Travel

Solio Classic 2 Solar ChargerKeeping all of our electronic gadgets charged while traveling can be a real challenge, particularly if you’re visiting a remote part of the world where electricity is at a premium. But just as the gizmos we carry with us have gotten more sophisticated so have the options for keeping them powered. One of those options is taking a solar charger with us when we hit the road. A solar cell provides clean, efficient and, in theory, limitless power for our tech toys.

Here are two distinctly different solar chargers aimed at very different types of travelers. Both are excellent for what they do, and while they each use light from the sun to create electricity, their similarity pretty much ends there.

Solio Classic2
The Classic2 is Solio’s second-generation, travel solar charger, replacing their older Classic model, which was one of the earliest compact chargers on the market. The Classic2 improves on its predecessor in some key areas making it a much more efficient option to have in your pack when you travel. Those improvements include doubling the battery capacity and adding a full-size USB port integrated into the device. The previous version came with a number of special adapters, which were incredibly inconvenient to carry along on a trip. Since most devices, including smartphones and cameras, now charge via USB, this was an evolutionary, but very welcome, change.

The Classic2 features three small solar cells, each embedded in its own arm. When collapsed the device is small, lightweight and compact. It weighs just 10.1 ounces and easily slips into a backpack, carry-on bag or luggage. When ready to collect energy from the sun, it opens up like a flower, exposing all three cells for maximum efficiency. The energy is then stored in a 3200-mAh internal battery, which in turn is used to charge our devices via the built-in USB port.Solio says that it should take 8-10 hours to charge the Classic2’s internal battery from the sun, but in my testing it was definitely closer to the high side of that estimate, if not longer. Cloudy days and the amount of exposure to direct sunlight can impact that charging time dramatically. Fortunately, the internal battery can also be topped off from a wall socket or from a USB port on a computer. In both cases, it takes roughly six hours to charge the battery.

The built-in USB port on this charger provides up to 1 Amp of power, which puts it on par with a typical wall charger. That means it can charge a smartphone or MP3 player in fairly short order. Solio claims charging an iPhone takes about 90 minutes, although again I found it took a bit longer. It was closer to 2 hours in my testing, although the internal battery did provide nearly three full recharges on an iPhone 4S. It should be noted that the Classic2 is also capable of charging an iPad, although it is a slow process and it will drain the entire charge.

The Solio Classic2 is perfect for travelers who enjoy traveling light and may need to juice up their gadgets a few times while on the road. It’s compact, easy to pack and works as advertised. I’d recommend using it for cellphones, GPS units, MP3 players and point-and-shoot cameras. Anything more than that is likely to provide results that are a bit more frustrating.

Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit
Goal Zero's Guide 10 Adventure KitLarger and more powerful than Solio’s offering, the Guide 10 Plus Adventure Kit from Goal Zero is designed for the adventure traveler that intends to be in the backcountry for an extended period of time. It features twin 9-inch solar panels that are capable of generating up to 7 Watts of power, charging up the included battery pack in as little as 3-4 hours. Like the Solio Classic2, this kit features a built-in USB port capable of putting out a 1 Amp charge but it also includes 4 AA batteries, a rechargeable flashlight and cables that help round out the package, providing everything you need to keep your gadgets charged while living off the grid.

Putting Goal Zero’s solar charger to the test, I found that it wasn’t necessarily faster at charging up my devices than Solio’s much smaller device. That’s in part because they both share that same 1 Amp USB charging port, which made charging times on smartphones and cameras roughly the same. Where the Guide 10 Plus shines is that it can charge its battery pack much more quickly and consistently than the Solio Classic2. Collecting power from the sun is a more viable option with the Guide 10 Plus kit, and while with Solio’s offering it, it was a more uneven experience.

The Guide 10 is considerably larger than the Classic2, although it does fold up into a rather compact form for transport. The solar cells are designed to connect to a backpack so that they can collect the suns rays while hiking throughout the day. That means by the time you make camp in the evening, you’ll have gathered plenty of power to charge your gadgets overnight.

It should be noted that like the Solio Classic2, the Guide 10 kit is more than capable of charging your iPad using nothing but solar power. No matter which device you use, it can be a slow process, particularly with the higher capacity batteries of the iPad 3. The larger solar cells make this a more efficient process on Goal Zero’s offering, however, and that is the option I’d recommend if you absolutely need to keep your tablet powered while in the field.

Both the Classic2 and Guide 10 are viable options for using solar power and I think they are both good at what they do, provided you understand their strengths and limitations ahead of time. The Classic2 is small, compact and easy to carry everywhere. Its battery pack is good for 3-4 recharges of various devices, although it is slow to refill using the sun. On the other hand, the Guide 10 can charge much more quickly and reliably, but it is larger and bulkier to carry with you.

Most travelers will find the $99 Solio Classic2 will fit their needs quite nicely, while backpackers, mountaineers and long distance trekkers will appreciate what Goal Zero’s Guide 10 Adventure Kit delivers. That $159 solution has everything they need to stay powered up for extended journeys and its more rugged construction is designed to stand up to punishment on those kinds of excursions.

It’s great that we’re finally to the point where solar power is a true option for gathering power while traveling.