Gadling Gear Review: BirkSun Atlas Solar Powered Backpack

As a gear reviewer for Gadling I see a lot of different products come and go across my desk. Everything from high-tech gadgets to travel apparel and footwear are sent my way for evaluation. After awhile, much of that gear can start to look alike and while I seldom come across an item that is completely without merit, it is also rare to find an item that surprises you with how well it performs. That happens to be the case with the new BirkSun Atlas, a backpack whose main selling point is its ability to charge your small electronics via a built in solar panel. But to focus too much on that one feature alone runs the risk of dismissing everything else this high quality pack brings to the table.

When I first took the Atlas out of the box it was shipped to me in, I was immediately struck by the high quality materials that it is made from. It uses soft, yet durable, fabrics that are resistant to the wear and tear that comes along with travel. In fact, after using this bag as a daily commuter pack for several weeks, it hasn’t shown a hint of fraying, abrasions or any other typical blemishes that you would normally expect to come with regular use. Those same materials provide a level of water resistance as well, helping to protect the important items you carry inside. The entire package feels solid, well built and more than ready to hit the road.

Speaking of the interior of the pack, it is absolutely cavernous. BirkSun has designed this bag to allow you to carry all of your important equipment with you wherever you go. It includes a large laptop sleeve capable of safely holding up to a 17-inch notebook, while still giving you plenty of room in the main pocket for an iPad or other tablet, not to mention any other miscellaneous items that you want to bring along such as a camera, book, snacks and so on. A smaller secondary pocket houses the Atlas’ battery pack (more on that later) and some organizational sub-pockets that come in handy for keeping track of smaller items like pens and business cards. An elastic water bottle holder along one side is a welcome touch too.Taking a few cues from messenger bags, the Atlas features a large flap that seals the interior with both heavy-duty Velcro and a pair of very solid plastic clasps. The back panel is thickly padded and works in conjunction with a pair of thin shoulder straps to make this a very comfortable bag to wear, even when it is loaded down with gear. A strategically placed handle on the top of the Atlas makes it easy to grab and go when you’re in a hurry as well.

All of these nice little touches add up to a very impressive pack in its own right and that is before we even get to the Atlas’ ability to keep your gadgets charged while on the road. As mentioned, this pack has a solar panel embedded into the flap that efficiently collects power from the sun and stores it in an included battery pack. The battery sits nestled in its own pocket and features a proprietary cable that can be fitted with a variety of plugs to cover nearly every type of smartphone or other small gadget. BirkSun includes both micro- and mini-USB adapters as well as plugs for Apple’s 30-pin and Lightning ports. Those four options will cover just about anything you could ask for including Android phones, iPhones, iPods and a variety of other small gadgets.

Using my iPhone 4S as a test, I was able to get two full charges out of the battery before depleting it fully. As is typical with a solar charger, the length of time that it takes to recharge the battery pack depends on the amount of direct sunlight the solar panel is exposed to. When placed directly into the bright sun, it takes just a couple of hours to restore the battery, but on cloudier days it will be much slower. If you need to juice it up quickly it can be recharged via USB on a laptop or wall outlet, which takes no time at all. This is useful when you’re heading out the door and you want to make sure you’re at full power before you ever leave home. No matter how you charge it, however, you can set out secure in the knowledge that if your smartphone battery begins to dwindle, you’ll always have a charger close at hand ready to help restore it to full power.

BirkSun is a relatively new company but their first foray into the backpack arena shows that they have a keen eye for detail. For instance, the pocket that holds the battery has a small window on the outside of the pack that allows the user to quickly check the level of the charge it holds without ever having to remove it from the bag. I thought that was a nice touch and although it seems simple, it isn’t the kind of thing that the competition would necessarily think to incorporate into their packs too. They’ve even included a nice little carrying pouch to store the various adapters for the charging system, helping to keep them organized and preventing them from getting lost. I also appreciated the strategically placed zipper on the side of the pack that grants access to your smartphone without having to open up the entire bag.

As you can probably tell, I am highly impressed with the BirkSun Atlas. It serves as a great pack for travel or for daily commutes to the office, carrying everything you would need without a hitch. The built-in solar charger and battery pack would make it easy to dismiss this pack as just a gimmick but quite frankly that would be selling it short. This is a product that does an excellent job of doing its primary job, which is to carry all of our gear comfortably and securely. It just so happens to have a nice portable charging station built into it as well. The combination of all of those things make it easy to recommend and with a price tag of $160 it is more than competitively priced. This is a great piece of gear that will keep you – and your smartphone – happy for a long time to come.

Gadling Gear Review: Goal Zero Sherpa 50 Solar Charging Kit

Let’s face it; in the modern era of travel most of us rarely hit the road without a slew of gadgets in tow. Smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and a host of other devices have all made travel simpler and more enjoyable than ever before. But keeping the batteries on all of those items fully charged can be a real challenge, especially when traveling through remote locations. Fortunately, there have been some excellent advances in solar charging, which have made gathering energy from the sun a more viable way to power our devices while on the go. The most impressive of those options that I’ve seen so far is the new Sherpa 50 charging kit from Goal Zero, a system that is so powerful that it can even charge your laptop.

At the heart of this kit is Goal Zero’s excellent Nomad 13 solar panel, so named for its ability to generate up to 13 watts of power, and the Sherpa 50 Recharger pack. The two work in tandem to provide an excellent on-the-go charging system for just about any device you could possibly carry with you on your travels. Both are durable, compact and lightweight, so they won’t take up too much room in your pack either. Together they tip the scales at just 2.7 pounds, which isn’t much when you consider how useful this kit can be.

The Nomad 13 solar panel folds open to collect as much of the sun’s rays as possible and can either directly charge a device from its built-in USB port or store energy in the Sherpa 50’s internal battery, which is capable of holding up to 50 watt hours. Charging times depend greatly on the amount of available sunlight but one of the strengths of the panel is that it is capable of drawing power even on overcast days. In bright sunlight the Nomad 13 can fully charge the Sherpa 50 in as little as five hours, but in the real world, however, it only operates that quickly under the most optimal of conditions. It is more realistic to expect a seven to eight hour charge time under normal circumstances, and on cloudy days it could take as much as 12 hours or more. The Sherpa 50 can also be charged in as little as three hours via a wall outlet, which is convenient for having it ready to go before you ever leave home.Once its internal battery is charged, the Sherpa 50 becomes a portable generator that provides plenty of power for all of your gadgets. It features multiple built-in ports for plugging in all manner of devices, including both a USB port and two 12V ports similar to what you find in a car. Goal Zero also offers an AC inverter for the Sherpa 50 that actually adds a standard wall outlet to the mix. The inverter was included in the test unit I was provided, although it is an additional $50 add-on if you purchase the Sherpa 50 as an individual component and not as part of a kit. It is well worth the extra cost, however, as it greatly extends the usefulness of the battery pack. With the inverter included with the Sherpa 50 you can quite literally charge or operate just about anything powered by electricity.

A fully charged Sherpa 50 is capable of recharging most smartphones seven to eight times and a tablet such as an iPad twice. It will even fully recharge a laptop via the AC inverter or a special 12V adapter one time before needing to be topped off by the sun once again. When plugged into the inverter, my MacBook Air charged quickly and efficiently and the Sherpa 50 still had a little juice left in the tank when it was done. I found that to be pretty impressive, as it meant I could still power up a couple of other devices before needing to recharge the Sherpa itself.

Goal Zero has created an efficient, easy to use solar charging kit that a lot of people are going to really like. Backpackers, campers, mountaineers, sailors and other outdoor adventurers will definitely want to add the Sherpa 50 kit to their mandatory gear list before heading out to explore the world. The system is perfect for keeping satellite phones, GPS devices, rechargeable headlamps, camera equipment and other items running even when you are hundreds of miles from the closest power source. And if you want to shed a little weight, both the Nomad 13 and the Sherpa 50 are perfectly capable of providing useful services on their own, although the battery pack could become dead weight without a way to keep it charged.

As much as I like this kit there are a few improvements I wouldn’t mind seeing being made to future iterations. For instance, I was annoyed that the Sherpa 50 only had one USB port built in, as there are a lot of items that I carry with me that charge via USB and it would have been nice to charge two of them at a time. I got around this limitation by adding a USB 12V adapter to the mix, but that was just another small item that I needed to keep track of while on the road. Additionally, the USB port that is built into the Nomad 13 solar panel only puts out 1 amp of power, which is fine for many devices but isn’t enough for an iPad or even an iPhone 5. It would be nice if you could simply plug those devices directly into the solar panel itself, but they just won’t charge directly, even if the Nomad is in bright sunlight. The problem isn’t with the panel but the low powered USB port, so hopefully future models will be able to correct this issue.

The other element of the kit that I would like to see improved is more design related. While its weight is only 2.7 pounds, that can still be a significant amount to add to your pack when you’re wanting to travel light. Hopefully future versions of the Sherpa 50 kit can find ways to reduce the weight further, while still managing to keep performance high. This is less of a criticism than it is wishful thinking though, as it wasn’t all that long ago that we would have thought it impossible to have this kind of solar charging option in such a compact package.

As someone who has really come to appreciate having good travel gadgets with rechargeable batteries, I find the Sherpa 50 to be an amazing product. It works well, is simple to set up and it delivers on Goal Zero’s promise of free energy from the sun. I liked this kit so much, in fact, that when I had to return the review unit after I was finished testing it I immediately went shopping for one for myself. I don’t want to get caught without one the next time I head out on a big adventure, as I think it is going to make life much easier.

[Photo Credits: Goal Zero]

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.

Gadling Gear Review: Solar Chargers For Travel

Keeping 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
Larger 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.

Gadling gear review: Brunton Restore solar charger

Lets face it. When we travel today, we tend to bring more gadgets along then ever before. Depending on where we’re going, and what we’re doing, it is not uncommon to bring iPods, cell phones, digital cameras, e-book readers, laptops, and more. And while all those gadgets often make travel more convenient and enjoyable, they also require plenty of power to keep them running. That’s not much of a problem when you have easy access to power outlets to charge your gear, but when you’re off the beaten path, it can be a bit of a drag when you run out of juice.

That’s where the Restore solar charger from Brunton comes in handy. The device integrates two solar panels, and a lithium polymer battery, into a small, lightweight body that allows you to keep your gadgets charged no matter where you go. This simple, yet versatile, system has the potential to become a favorite with travelers who visit remote destinations or need power while on the run.

The first thing I noticed when I took the Restore out of the box was how solid and rugged it feels. Its tough, rubberized shell not only gives you the impression that it can take plenty of punishment, it also helps to make the Restore water resistant as well. Two USB ports, one standard 2.0 and one micro-USB, are integrated into either side of the device, while an included charging cable lines one end of the body, always available when you need it.The Restore’s built in battery stores power for you until you’re ready to charge one of your indispensable gadgets. There are multiple ways to build that initial charge before you set out on a trip however, including via a USB port on your computer or with an included DC car adapter. The dual solar panels are also an option of course, and Brunton sells an AC wall adapter separately as well. Using either the USB port or the car adapter took a little more than an hour to fully charge the Restore in my tests, but using the sun was a bit less predictable. The small solar panels took about ten hours to charge the device under good, bright conditions. Cloud cover can, and will, impact the charging time however, so some planning and patience may be required to get the most out of the device.

Once the Restore is fully charged however, it’s ready to pass that energy back to your other devices. To do that, you simply plug your gadgets into one of the built-in USB ports, and turn the Restore on. After that, it’s all automatic, as your iPod, cell phone, or digital camera will begin charging, only stopping once its battery is full. When its done, the Restore will automatically shut itself off, conserving its power for later.

While testing the Restore, I charged multiple devices, including an iPod Nano, iPhone, and a rechargeable headlamp. The process was simple and straight forward, and all of the devices charged without a hitch. It took about two hours to charge the iPod, and I was able to get nearly three full charges out of the Restore without refreshing its internal charge as well. Both the iPhone and headlamp took longer to power up, and consequently couldn’t be recharged as often. Also, in case you’re wondering, the Restore will charge an iPad as well, although it is a very slow process and it is debatable whether or not it is an efficient way to use the precious power.

It is clear that Brunton put a lot of thought into the design of the Restore as well. The device has a flip-top lid that when closed, serves to protect both solar panels from harm, but when opened, provides maximum exposure to the sun. Handles on either end of the device allow it to be fastened to the outside of a backpack, so it can recharge all day long, while four LED-lights display the level of charge currently available on the Restore’s battery. Over all, it is a simple, well built, device that makes on the go charging a breeze.

Other than the slow charging time via the solar panels, the only other knock I have on the Restore isn’t with the device itself, but the included instruction manual. It is scant on the details to say the least, and it was only through trial and error that I figured out that the included charging cable needed to be unplugged from both ports on the device before you can begin charging your gadgets. While the Restore is a simple device to use, a bit more direction for the first time user would be welcome. That said, once you have used it once or twice, the simplicity of it shines through, and you won’t need to look at the manual again anyway.

As someone who travels light and regularly visits remote places, the best recommendation I can give to any piece of gear is that it will accompany me on future adventures. The Brunton Restore meets that criteria without a doubt, and I envision it earning a permanent place in my pack. (MSRP: $120)