Gadling Gear Review: SunVolt Solar Charger

Advances 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.

Fortunately, 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.