Product review: Solio Hybrid solar charger

How green is the Solio® Hybrid 1000?

The Solio is so green you could toss it in with some lettuce, croutons and parmesan cheese, drizzle Caesar dressing over everything and eat it raw (right before a big helping of ‘tofurkey’, obviously).

This beautifully crafted bundle of eco-feel-good bliss makes the necessary evil of killing batteries a little less disagreeable. Using the glorious power of the sun, it recharges a multitude of devices such as mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, PDAs, MP3 players, handheld gaming systems, digital cameras, GPS units and more.

Slim and compact (it’s 198 x 68 x 18mm or 7.7 x 2.7 x 0.7 inches and weighs about 0.5 kilos or 1.1 lbs.), the Solio is surprisingly rugged, complete with an integrated carabiner clip so you can affix it to just about anything.

Showers forecasted for the next week on the Appalachian Trail? Give your Solio a base charge before you leave by plugging it into your laptop. Not as eco-friendly, but hey, your mobile phone won’t judge you when its batteries are dead.

Genius idea, brilliant design, but does it really work? People, it works like a charm – though not quite up to the extents alluded to on the box.

Here’s the lowdown: the Solio is not a concurrent charging solution. It’s a two step process. First the Solio’s own internal storage battery needs to be charged up (“cue the sun”), then you can plug in your device which charges itself off the Solio’s battery. This is actually a good thing, because once the Solio is charged, you can charge your device day or night, rain or shine. Furthermore, once charged, the Solio will hold its charge for up to one year.

Now for the downside: while the Solio’s Quick Start Guide gives the impression that you can just clip the Solio to your backpack and it’ll quietly do its thing while you hike the day away, this is not necessarily true. Lengthy testing on my Solio revealed that not only does the Solio need to be pointing more or less directly at the sun to charge (a given, really), but it must be under clear sunlight (i.e. even slight overcast conditions means no charging occurs). So, even if you leave it stationary on a log all day, it needs a little babysitting. As the sun moves, you will need to adjust the Solio. Unfortunately, this means if wanna do that chic clip-it-to-your-backpack arrangement, unless you walk with your back to the sun all day, the Solio will only charge itself in fits and starts.

Which brings us to charging time… The Solio’s alleged charging time is a little ambiguous. The guide states that it will charge from zero to full in 10-12 hours under direct sunlight and 12-48 hours under cloudy conditions. My testing usually required about 16-20 hours to charge under direct sunlight and I was never able to get the Solio to charge under cloudy/overcast conditions. To be fair, I must confess that most of my testing occurred in downtown Minneapolis, in the dwindling sunlight months of October and November. Perhaps under ideal conditions the Solio will perform better.

The Quick Start Guide (printed on recycled paper!), consisting mostly of wordless diagrams, is clever in theory. I loved that they saved reams of paper by not printing full directions in five languages, but equally I spent much longer than I would have liked puzzling over the somewhat non-intuitive drawings.

That said, once you decipher the directions, the Solio is easy to use. The Solio simply has one button and two LED lights, maximizing its juice to power your device. The short learning curve needed to memorize the array of solid and flashing light indicators is a small price to pay for its durability and minimum wasted energy.

It’s important to note that the Solio isn’t compatible with all handheld items. It comes with three output attachments, that plug straight into many devices/manufacturers (Blackberry, Motorola, Nokia, iPod, iPhone), but its compatibility starts to get fuzzy when you get into PDAs, digital cameras, etc. Before you get your heart set on the magic of a Solio, check that your desired device is compatible.

A final minor disappointment is the Solio’s water resistance, in that it isn’t. Admittedly, most devices you’d be charging with your Solio aren’t going to be water resistant either, but the outdoorsy allure drops exponentially when you have to start worrying about keeping your Solio clear of lake/river splash and rain.

Performance and limitations aside, again, this thing is awesome. As a rule, what with its somewhat lengthy charge time, it’s best to only rely on the Solio for one, or maybe two oft used devices. It simply doesn’t have the capacity to keep more things running.