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.

Book Review: “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner

Add another page to the “Why Didn’t I Think of That?” file.

The concept is so elegantly simple: take what is arguably the top two human aspirations – happiness and travel – combine them, then flesh out a book proposal. I bet that book deal was inked on the strength of the overview alone.

Thusly inspired, I’m already 2,000 words into my latest book proposal about Lamborghinis and orgasms, but I digress…

“The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Twelve), a memoir/travelogue by Eric Weiner, beautifully blends the timeless search for happiness with an amusing on-the-ground examination of the dispositions of people in 10 of the most (and least) contented countries on Earth.

A confessed “mope”, Weiner (coincidentally pronounced ‘whiner’ – ki ki ki!) admits straight off that he’s a hard sell on happiness. You’d be too after two decades working as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, reporting on wars, disasters and the ancillary misery. Untold years of introspection, therapy and a metric ton of self-help books have yielded little progress and having recently entered the Heart Attack Years, he confesses that his happiness attainment optimism is flagging.

Stick around after the review to see how you can get your hands on a copy of the book for free, just in time for Christmas!

His epic quest for bliss starts in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where Weiner plunders an encyclopedic database of worldwide happiness levels, maintained by noted happiness researcher Professor Ruut Veenhoven. Conveniently, the Dutch make a good showing on the happiness index, what with their cycling, prostituting, soft drugging ways, so Weiner starts his research immediately by making a beeline for the nearest hash bar.

Though it was good hash (the Moroccan), it fell short of being the key to his happiness. So Weiner dons his journalist tights and cape and sets out on months of travel to happy places (Iceland, Switzerland, Bhutan, Thailand) and a few unhappy places (Moldova, Slough [U.K.]), where he conducts interviews to uncover what makes these people so happy/unhappy.

Weiner does an enviable job of balancing his travelogue with what must have been painstaking research, while maintaining a light and humorous tone. Two decades of jet setting journalism has put a finish on his writing style that is at once worldly and polished without becoming tedious or snobbish. His insight, careful consideration and occasional epiphanies show that while he may not have achieved everlasting happiness (yet), his exhaustive pursuit of it has made him extremely well-versed in the theory.

Does he find the key to bliss? Well, you’re gonna have to buy the book. But I will offer that while reading this book, not only did I get a good read on my own happiness (which was unexpectedly high), but I also gleaned a rather surprising number of tips to making myself even more happy. Though I can tell you from personal experience that gleaning tips and utilizing tips are two very different things.

“The Geography of Bliss” is due out in hardcover in January of ’08, exquisitely timed for when everyone’s post-holiday letdown starts taking hold. Pre-order it for your favorite grumpy travel enthusiast now.

Want to win a copy? It’s easy. Here’s how:

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  • The comment must be left before Friday, December 7, 2007 at 5:00 PM Eastern Time.
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  • 5 winners will receive The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner (valued at $29.95).
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.

Let’s Travel Safe out there

My name is Leif and I’m a serial battery killer. When I travel for work, I carry the following battery-powered items:

• Laptop
Blackberry Curve
• Palm Pilot Tungsten T5
• Digital camera
Wireless laser keyboard
• MP3 player
• Mobile alarms (2)
• Shaver

Over the years, I have reached a zen-like state with my battery-powered items. Indeed, I’m a battery whisperer. I can coax out the full reliability and power capacity of all batteries that I come into contact with. Sadly, not everyone can be one with their gadgets. The US Department of Transportation knows this all too well, so when they started an awareness campaign about traveling safely with batteries and other potentially hazardous materials, they came to yours truly to help spread the word.

In addition to several prudent tips about traveling with loose batteries and battery-powered gadgets, the Safe Travel web site provides rules and recommendations about traveling with other potentially hazardous items such as aerosols, ammunition, lighters/matches/lighter fluid and fireworks (I’ll save you some reading time, no fireworks allowed on airplanes, ever).

Admittedly, many of these good-intentioned tips sound like they were compiled by Dr. Obvious MD. Some of the less earth-shattering kernels of knowledge they have to offer include “avoid dropping laptop computers or other devices”, and “NEVER attempt to recharge a battery unless you know it is rechargeable.”

Yes, but what if I drop my laptop while I’m recharging a non-rechargeable battery? Is that coo?

As you read some of these items resist the urge to click away, thinking that only the recently lobotomized are going to attain battery enlightenment with these no-brainer guidelines. What’s obvious to a battery whisperer isn’t necessarily going to occur to people with lesser battery-driven lifestyles, like your mamma and your mamma’s mamma, to name a few. And you can never know too much about safely transporting things that go ‘boom’ as far as I’m concerned.

The fact is that people still try to bring hazardous material onto flights each day and are genuinely surprised to learn that their prized machete collection can’t be stored in carry-on luggage. Take a minute to run down the list. If you learn nothing, then you’re already an expert traveler and you should treat yourself to some brand new, properly packaged, carefully stored rechargeable batteries.

Elite Green Car – and other unusual word combinations

Here’s a Super-Duper Secret Leif Pettersen Tip to Hilarious Writing (SDSLPTHW): when you’re hurting for a joke, just throw in unexpected word combinations.

Examples: “muscular fart”, “righteous taco”, “likeable president”

Accordingly, when I tried to write the first paragraph of this post and had to arrange the words ‘luxury’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘chauffer’, ‘Lexus’, ‘hybrid’ and ‘Atlanta’ in an interesting way, it was unexpectedly funny. Not ha-ha funny, but you know…

Elite Green Car is the cause of today’s wordsmith oddity. Launched this month, the company offers eco-friendly chauffeured transportation in the Atlanta area via their fleet of luxury full-size Lexus RX 400 hybrid cars. (See what I mean? Tee hee!)

All kidding aside, there’s a certain inexplicable thrill to tooling around in a swanky, Super Ultra-Low Emission Lexus that boasts “maximum fuel efficiency along with capturing lost energy from braking and deceleration as electric power to recharge the battery”, currently rated as the most energy efficient car on the market.

Elite Green Car is the brainchild of entrepreneur Mike Kersten, a certified pilot, avid outdoorsman and father of two. Concerned about Atlanta’s notorious environmental stresses, Kersten resolved to “fuel” his passion for the planet by launching the Elite Green Car service in his adopted home town.

So, you’re traveling in style with a minimal carbon footprint, what else do you get for your money? Elite’s vehicles are equipped with XM NavTraffic, GPS Tracking (“ensuring that the fuel-efficient ride travels the most efficient routes, minimizing toxic emissions”), WiFi services, Sirius Satellite Radio, DVD, CD, surround sound capabilities and DriveCam’s behavior-based risk mitigation solution. Is technology great or what?

Elite’s primary services include airport transportation, corporate travel, VIP/Executive transportation and special events and occasions. Though, I don’t think they’d be opposed to (unexpected word combination warning) “environmentally responsible gnarly joy ride, dude” (SDSLPTHW: that’s called a “throw back joke”).

Kersten is planning on expanding to Nashville, Charleston, Birmingham and, the eco-friendly center of the universe, San Francisco in 2008.

Indie travel guides – pipe dream or way of the future?

With all due respect to my generous client Lonely Planet, without whom I’d still be an obscure, broke, moonshine junkie in a forlorn corner of Romania, guidebook authors wallowing below the Sushi Line are increasingly probing new “Screw the Man” applications for their hard-won expertise – namely their very own online travel guides.

There’s certainly something to be said for a trusted brand name guidebook, but equally independently produced, digital travel guides allow authors to toss in all kinds of wacky content in addition to the usual sights/eating/sleeping content, uncorrupted by editors, guidelines, house styles and meddling lawyers.

A 2,000 word, absurdly detailed walking guide to Tijuana? Why not? A sidebar entitled “Top Ten Curse Words You Should Know Before Attending an Italian Football (Soccer) Match”? Bring it on! Why [insert your least favorite German city] sucks? I’m all ears.

This developing genre was recently augmented by the completion of Robert Reid’s online guide to Vietnam. As Reid rightly points out, the advantages of an independent online travel guide are numerous:

• It’s free – Guidebooks cost $25. Why pay?
• It’s fresher. Unlike a guidebook, turn-around time is immediate.
• You can customize it. The most common complaint guidebook users have is having to tote around 400 pages they’ll never use.
• It’s more direct, personalized. With my site I can ‘tell it like it is’.
• Anyone can talk with the author. [Just] hit ‘contact’.

In addition to this excellent resource, other free sites serving the online travel community include Croatia Traveller, Kabul Caravan, Turkey Travel Planner, Broke-Ass Stewart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco, and (cough), the Romania and Moldova Travel Guide (now with extra moonshine).

For the time being, these independent travel guides are usually not money-making ventures (and boy do they take a lot of time to put together!), thus the current scarcity. However, as print media gasps to its inevitable conclusion – one decade, mark my words – the online stage is set for authors to leverage their expertise and provide autonomous, interactive, up-to-the-minute travel information for anyone with an internet connection.