June 12, 2008

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Free energy
Well, after you buy a thing
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Sun!

It’s not only a welcome friend after a persistent winter. It’s also a power source, loved by gadget nerds who also occasionally go outside. ‘Cuz really, if we can’t use our laptops in the park, we might not go to the park.

Portable solar panels offer a way to extend the life of our devices when there are no power outlets in sight. They also, of course, save energy. Whether or not they save money has always been debatable, since they require up-front investment and aren’t very useful around the home, where most charging happens overnight. But now, more and more panels are coming with their own built-in batteries that charge during the day and can supply power to your electronics whenever. That makes them not just useful when you’re on the go, but all the time.

The Solio Classic has been doing this for years. Designed to look kind of like a flower, it has three “petals” with solar panels and one 1.6Ah (amp-hour) lithium-ion battery. Their new model, the Hybrid 1000, is more conventional looking and has a 1Ah battery at about the same price, between $70 and $100. They both come with various tips for specific cell phones and iPods; if your model isn’t supported out of the box, you can probably buy a compatible tip separately.

SolarStyle.com has several small chargers at cheaper prices. One of them, the SC004 Power Bar, charges three AAA batteries that you can take out or leave in to charge your other electronics. It’s actually discontinued, so the company is clearing them out for $6.99 each — batteries not included. Because it’s so small, a full charge in the sun takes up to 18 hours. A few slightly beefier models integrate batteries between 600mAh and 800mAh and charge in 10 to 14 hours. They cost between $25 and $35 plus shipping. Most include a limited number of tips that can be supplemented with others sold separately. Some include mini USB connectors, which are useful for many phones as well as MP3 players and PDAs.

For the really serious — and muscular — there’s the Xantrex XPower Powerpack Solar. It’s more versatile and more powerful than any of the other chargers listed here, but that makes it large, heavy and expensive as well.

First its good points: a whopping 10Ah battery, a 5W detachable solar panel, a built-in inverter with two AC outlet, one 12V DC socket and one USB power connector. There are also AC and DC chargers included if you want a full charge on a rainy day. It all comes to a hefty 12.3 pounds and 4.5 inches thick — bigger than that laptop you might be powering with it. Still, most laptop batteries come in at less than 5Ah, so you’re pretty much tripling your runtime even without sunlight. It retails for about $130 online.

Three models of the just-now-being-released PowerDock are slightly heavier still at about 15 pounds. The 4.6Ah Basic model starts around $300, which pays for 15W solar panels for faster charging. 7Ah and 9.2Ah Executive and Elite versions up the price more with the same panels. They each provide two DC sockets.

If you want to use your existing AC adapters, the Xantrex is your best bet, but keep in mind that converting the direct current of the power pack to alternating current and then back again is less efficient than keeping it DC all the way. Other than that, the number and power draw of your devices can help you decide.