Since CycleFar is first and foremost intended to be an informative site, and also to alleviate the stress on my readership caused by the intense anticipation of the answer to the title question, I’m going to provide my answer plainly here at the beginning: personal solar chargers are definitely not just gimmicky gadgets, in my opinion they’re very useful devices indeed – now that bombshell is behind us we can go into a little detail.
The solar charger I have been using for the last three years is Solio’s ‘classic’ model, although when I bought it, it was simply a Solio. The Solio classic resembles a smooth pebble that fans out to expose three solar panels on each of it’s arms. I always liked this design; it’s functional because a sucker (provided) can be placed through the hole in the centre allowing the Solio to be stuck onto windows and the same hole allows rope or bungee cord to be threaded through and with the help of a carabiner the Solio can be attached to just about anything.
The ability to fold the Solio’s arms in protects at least two of the Solar panels whilst in transit and there are Solio cases available for more complete protection. The device when folded is compact and the whole device is aesthetically pleasing, at least to me. But the pivoting arms do create a weak spot and the hinge on my Solio has been loose and broken for over a year now.
Aside from design details the electrical performance of the Solio has been good; a full days cycle touring where my Solio has been in sunlight for the majority of the day, but not always at an optimum angle sitting on the back of my bike, produces enough energy to charge my phone to half capacity. My phone at the time was a Sony Ericsson c902 that used a 930mAh battery.
The fact is the Solio has been an invaluable tool that has kept my phone and iPod running without the need for plug sockets or travel adaptors and I will probably always travel with a personal solar charger in the future. But, the time has come to upgrade from my Solio as the hinge is broken and its power output is too low to charge my current phone, an iPhone (of which I have mixed feelings about).
Solo haven’t produced any products with a higher capacity than their Solio Classic and that lead me to look at alternatives. One very impressive brand I have become aware of is PowerTraveler, they’re the company responsible for the ‘powermonkey-eXplorer’ a great solar charger that in some ways outperforms even the Solio, but the most exiting offer is coming in Q1 2011 with the arrival of the ‘powermonkey-eXtreme’ which is an upgraded version of the eXplorer. The eXtreme “houses a massive 9000mAh lithium polymer battery and . . . is capable of recharging most 5V devices, including an iPhone up to 6 times” (https://powertraveller.com)
There is a good chance I’ll buy the ‘powermonkey-eXtreme’ for my summer 2011 tour, that way I may also have enough power to charge other peoples devices and listen to some audio books too. One last thing about weight and practicality: if you enjoy reading when travelling as I do, consider the weight of a handful of books compared to a solar charger and an iPod with potentially hundreds of audio-books and music, although I admit I still take books as I’m attracted to their simplicity and enjoy reading at my own pace often pausing for thought, etc. which is harder with audio. Perhaps a Kindle would solve this problem?