Gadling Gear Review: SunVolt Solar Charger

SunVolt Solar ChargerAdvances in photovoltaic cell technology in recent years have helped to make solar chargers a viable option for travelers, particularly those visiting destinations that fall off the grid. Smaller, lighter and more efficient solar panels have made it possible for us to keep our favorite gadgets and tech gear charged while on the go. Despite those improvements, however, solar charging isn’t always as reliable as we’d like and there are still some challenges to overcome.

Gomadic, a company that specializes in unique charging solutions and other technology options for travelers, is hoping to take a step forward in this expanding market. Their new SunVolt solar charger promises improved charging times and more efficient use of the sun when compared to similar systems from competitors. In fact, if you believe the marketing hype, the SunVolt can deliver similar charging speeds to a standard wall outlet, quickly powering our electronic equipment using nothing more than clean energy from the sun.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and that seems to hold true with the SunVolt as well. The charging system was designed and built by Don Cayelli, who was looking for a way to charge his iPad while out on his boat. Cayelli found that most solar chargers incorporated a battery pack, and the suns rays are directed to energizing that battery, which then in turn charges our gadgets. Cayelli’s idea was to remove the battery pack and focus on making an efficient solar panel that is strong enough to charge our devices directly, without the need for any intervening technology.It is evident that a lot of thought went into the design of the SunVolt. For instance, the photovoltaic cells are built directly into a custom carrying case that makes it a breeze to carry the system and all of its included cables with you at all times. Inside the case is a rigid shell that not only protects the panels from harm but also holds it in place when it is ready to capture the light of the sun. The case also allows the panel to be set at a variety of angles to maximize the amount of light that the cells can capture. And when you’re ready to pack up and hit the road, you can collect the whole system in just a matter of seconds.

Like all solar chargers of this type, the SunVolt’s performance is a bit of a mixed bag. In direct sunlight it does indeed generate plenty of power and is capable of quickly and efficiently charging two devices at once. In fact, when it’s working at peak levels, the SunVolt just might be the fastest portable solar charger that I’ve come across. But throw in a little cloud cover, or anything less than direct sunlight, and suddenly charging times slow to a crawl. That is when you’ll wish you had that built-in battery pack, as it would store a charge for when it is most needed, allowing you to charge your gadgets even when there isn’t much sun at all.

SunVolt solar chargerFortunately, the SunVolt does have the ability to use a battery pack as an optional add-on and my test unit had one included. The high-capacity battery was a nice addition, allowing my charger to collect power all day long, then charge my smartphone or camera later in the day. Without the battery, you’ll need to leave your devices plugged into the SunVolt during the brightest part of the day, which may not always be the best time to be without them. The Solar Cache battery pack is an additional $40 expense, but it is well worth the investment for anyone considering the SunVolt as an option.

The SunVolt is clearly a high-quality product, and when it is working at full capacity it is an impressive solar charger to say the least. That said, there are still a few improvements that could be made to future versions. For instance, I would have preferred two built-in USB ports as opposed to the proprietary cable that adds those ports. Extra cables are easy to lose and add unnecessary complexity to a product that should be as simple and straight forward as possible. The SunVolt comes with a variety of other cables as well, including standard, mini and micro USB, plus a 30-pin iPhone/iPad cable. Owners of newer Apple devices will need to bring their own Lightning cable. All of those cables are nice to have on hand, but can start to add up after awhile. Fortunately the SunVolt’s case does make it easier to organize and store them.

The SunVolt is also a bit on the heavy side, which doesn’t exactly make it the best option for all types of travel. For instance, Don Cayelli designed the product for use while sailing and that seems like the perfect activity to carry one of these devices. Campers will find it useful as well and it would be great to have along on a trip to a mountain cabin or any other escape to a remote destination without power. But anyone who likes to travel light, such as backpackers or trekkers, will be disappointed by the weight and bulk of this charging system. For those types of travelers there are other lightweight options available, even if they aren’t as fast and efficient as the SunVolt.

The standard SunVolt model is capable of generating as much as 10w of power and carries a price tag of just $99.95. That’s actually an affordable price point for a product like this one, although as mentioned above the Solar Cache battery pack could add to the cost. A second model, the SunVolt MAX, can crank out an impressive 15w of energy and can actually charge three devices at once, including an iPad. It runs $129.95.

If you’re in the market for a portable and versatile solar charging system, the SunVolt is an excellent option. It is fast, efficient and powerful enough to charge multiple devices at once. It may be a bit on the bulky side, but for campers, sailors and similar types of travelers, it is the perfect way to stay powered up, even while off the grid.

A&K and Fairmont Earth Hour ideas will have tangible results

Earth Hour is on Saturday, March 28 at 8:30 PM. The hospitality and travel industry seems to have embraced this commitment to environmentalism. There are plenty of noteworthy initiatives out there intended to show support for a planet that could probably use our help. Of course, some are more interesting than others. I’m pretty interested in what’s going on at Abercrombie & Kent and Fairmont.

Upscale travel firm A&K is taking action at each of its 62 offices around the world. Outdoor signs will be turned off, and only emergency lighting will be used indoors. This will save 620 light-hours of electricity. And, they’re going to shut off the air conditioning for 90 minutes before the end of the work day, lowering power consumption for this period by 18 percent.

The company is also turning its corporate social responsibility gaze outward. Sanctuary Camps & Lodges are going to host stargazing parties, thanks to the dark skies. They are also planning to turn off generators and cut power consumption by 50 percent for Earth Hour (at 13 properties in Africa).

A&K’s Sun Boat III and Sun Boat IV will turn off their generators, as well, operating only with emergency lighting. Guests will be able to enjoy the bright stars – because of the desert air – in Upper Egypt. Eclipse in the Galapagos will host a presentation on the Sun Deck and reduce the use of power by 30 percent.And, the company hopes that Earth Hour goodwill is contagious. Employees have pledged to save 2,960 light-hours, and A&K’s suppliers, including restaurants and hotels, have been encouraged to support Earth Hour, with hundreds agreeing to do so.

I’m also pretty impressed with what Fairmont is doing for Earth Hour (which you can track via Twitter). This company’s made it a habit to stay out in front of the market when it comes to corporate social responsibility, and it’s ready to play from Dallas to Dubai – at all 56 properties. In addition to its usual environmentally sound initiatives, some Fairmont properties are taking specific, unique action.

At the Fairmont St. Andrews, guests can choose at check-in the power they want to use: nuclear, solar or wind. They’ll also receive compact fluorescent light bulbs. But, this is just the beginning. If you decide to sweat it out in the gym’s spin class, the energy you create will be converted to kilowatt hours to show just how much power you produce. The class is sponsored to provide a cash donation to the World Wildlife Fund. Kids will be able to plant their own saplings. The initiatives at the St. Andrews property are designed to have lasting results.

In Alberta, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise will light up its side of the lake with ice luminaries. Guests will be invited to gather around a fire and enjoy some old-fashioned storytelling under the stars. This hotel is committed to Earth Hour year-round, with 50 percent of its power coming from a mix of wind and run-of-river electricity generation.

Over in Kenya, at the Fairmont Mara Safari Club, the lantern-lit Boma will be a place for guests to gather and listen to a local naturalist discuss conservation and the environment – the “Maasai” way. It won’t be just lectures, though, as Maasai dancers will provide entertainment.

The Fairmont Zanzibar, Tanzania will celebrate Earth Hour for the entire day. Guests will be invited to sail on historical dhows on clear Indian Ocean waters. Chef Ric and his team will use charcoal grills to prepare seafood on the beach, delighting palates without disrupting the environment.

Are you doing anything for Earth Hour? Let me know at tom.johansmeyer [at] weblogsinc.com or http://twitter.com/tjohansmeyer.

Product review – Solio Magnesium edition hybrid battery charger

We’ve covered Solio before here on Gadling, so when they announced their most advanced charger ever, I just had to take it for a spin.

The new Solio Magnesium edition hybrid charger features a 3-panel solar charger. AC charging option and the ability to charge USB powered devices as well as any device covered by one of the thousands of options offered by the addition of iGo power tips.

The package comes very complete – the charger, an AC adapter with an assortment of international plugs, a female USB charging cable, an iGo charging cable, a bag full of iGo tips, a hemp carrying bag, and a pencil (more on the pencil later).

Before using the Solio, you bring its battery to 100% using the AC adapter, then when you are off the beaten path, and away from good old AC power, you give it a clear view of the sun, and it recharges itself. To charge your gadgets, you simply plug them into the miniUSB port on the side, using the female USB cable, or one of the included iGo tips. If none of the included tips fit your device, you can order the correct one from iGo.com.

So, how well does it work? I decided to use the Solio to keep my phone powered for a week, and it really did perform quite well.

On Sunday, I topped it up to 100% using the AC charger, and every night I’d charge my phone. In the morning, I placed it outside on a table. It was at that point I finally discovered what the pencil is for – it lifts the charger up to the right angle. Of course, had I actually sat down to read the manual, I would have known this all along.

Each night, I pressed the power button, and most nights, the green LED light would flash 5 times, an indication that the battery was back to 100%. Thanks to the power of the sun, I was keeping my phone going without any need for AC power.

The Solio magnesium edition is not cheap – at $169.95 I’d even say it is pretty expensive. But if you travel places where regular and reliable AC power is a luxury, it may be worth the money. The kit is very complete and once inside its carrying case, the entire package weighs just 9oz (265 grams), which is extremely light when you consider that includes the AC charger and an assortment of international plugs and power tips.

There are a couple of downsides to the Solio Magnesium Edition – to charge it, you need a lot of sun. The 2 times I had a cloudy day meant that the charger did not reach 100%, this isn’t a big issue if you travel to a nice sunny location, but don’t expect to generate a lot of power in places with less than decent weather.

Also, the device sometimes had a hard time powering my more hungry gadgets – an iPod or iPhone is just fine, but when I tried to top off my backup battery pack, nothing happened. The amount of power you can suck out of the Solio Magnesium edition is about 1800mAh, which is about enough for a 100% charge of an iPhone. If you completely drain the Solio, you’ll need at least 2-3 full sunny days to get it back to 100%.

The Solio Magnesium edition is available directly from Solio, or one of their retail partners.

Daily deal – Soldius 1 universal solar battery charger for $14.99

My daily deal for today is for the Soldius 1 universal solar powered battery charger. This pocket sized solar charger comes with an assortment of universal power “tips” for charging many commonly used devices like the iPod, Blackberry smartphones and most Nokia, Motorola, SonyEricsson, Samsung and Siemens phones.

Included in the package is also a female USB power tip, so you can use almost any power cable that has a regular USB plug.

The device is currently on sale for just $14.99, but supplies are limited. The Soldius solar charger comes in black or white, but you don’t get to pick the color you are shipped.

To get a full charge for your device, you’ll need to be in direct sunlight, and it may take several hours to reach 100%, but at $15 you really do get a great little charger, and you won’t have to worry about charging it. Buy.com will even ship it for free.