Thursday, August 11, 2016

Gear Closet: Solartab Portable Solar Charger

Now days it is not uncommon to travel into the backcountry with an array of electronic devices. Most of us will take a smartphone and sometimes even a tablet. We carry rechargeable headlamps, GoPro cameras, GPS devices, and a variety of other gear. The problem is, it isn't always easy to keep the batteries in all of those gadgets charged up, and without power they mostly become dead weight. But, thankfully there are some handy methods to carry extra power with us wherever we go, and improvements in the efficiency of solar panels has made them a viable option too. Which is why the Solartab portable charger was so intriguing to me as an option for backcountry power. Recently, I had the chance to put the device to the test, and came away fairly impressed.

At its core, the Solartab is a 5.5 watt solar panel that covers the front of the device. That panel is paired with a 13,000 mAh batter that can store the power collected from the sun for future use. That's a sizable battery in its own right, and enough to recharge an iPhone six times over, with power to spare, or fully recharge an iPad with enough juice for a smartphone too. When you pair that with the built-in solar panel, you have a  way to keep your gadgets running indefinitely, at least in theory.

The Solartab – which is roughly the size of a standard model iPad – also comes equipped with a custom made case that not only protects the solar panel, but also allows the user to adjust its angle to ensure that it is always drawing the most power possible from the sun. A handy light on the side of the device even tells you when it is actually generating energy, which is automatically stored in the battery pack.

Two 2.1 amp USB ports can then be used to transmit that power to any gadget capable of recharging via USB. That includes just about any small electronic device today, including headlamps, action cameras, GPS devices, UV water purifiers, and so on. A micro-USB port on the Solartab can be used to charge up the internal battery from AC wall outlet before you leave home, ensuring that you always have enough power on the go. Indicator lights on the side of the panel are a handy indicator to let you know just how much juice is in the Solartab at any given time.

The two USB ports are actually quite fast, although when a device is plugged into both ports you'll see a drop in speed. Still, an iPhone 6S can be powered up in about an hour and a half, and my iPad Mini was restored to full strength in under three hours. That's about on par with plugging those devices into the wall.

As with most small solar panels, the Solartab can be a bit of a mixed bag at times. In direct sunlight it can charge fairly quickly, and since you have the ability to turn it to face the sun, and shift the angle to get the most exposure, it works well on clear, sunny days. But, when the clouds come out its ability to draw a charge can be severely hampered. The designers of the device say that under the best of conditions it can take about 12 hours to fully recharge the device's battery, but don't expect those conditions to come around all that often.


Still, I was fairly impressed with how the Solartab performed in reference to similar devices from the competition. The issues with collecting power from the sun aren't an issue that this charger faces on its own, as pretty much every small solar panel that I've tested has performed similarly, with some not even doing as well as the Solartab. In other words, this is about par for the course for this type of solar panel, so set your expectations accordingly.

One area that the Solartab shines is build quality. Taking it out of the package I found myself pleasantly surprised with how well constructed this product is. The device is very durable, and feels substantial in your hand. Even the integrated case has a high quality feel to it, as does all of the included accessories, which range from a USB charging cable and AC adapter, to a soft cloth for keeping the solar panel clean.

All in all, the combination solar panel and battery pack is a nifty design, and comes in handy when traveling. But, the main problem I have with the Solartab is that it is a bit heavy to carry around, especially if you're someone who likes to travel light. The charger will definitely add some bulk to your pack, which makes deciding to take it with you a challenge sometimes. On the one hand, it is a handy product for when you want to stay charged on the road. On the other, it is heavier than I'd like.

Another issue to be aware of with the Solartab is that there is no easy way to affix it to a backpack for charging while you hike. This is somewhat common for a solar panel like the Goal Zero Nomad 7, but due to its size and bulk, it really isn't a possibility here. Instead, it is mean to be set up at your campsite to gather power all day, but if you're moving around a lot that isn't necessarily an option. This won't be a deal breaker for everyone of course, but it is something to be aware of.

When it was first released, the Solartab carried a price tag of $129, which I found pricey but still worth it for the right person. It is currently selling on the Solartab website for just $89, which makes it a lot easier to recommend. I've seen solar panel and large battery packs that cost that much on their own, so getting them integrated into one device is truly a bargain.

If you need portable power to keep your gadgets functioning on the go, the Solartab is a good option. It is sleek, well made, and efficient. Yes, it does add some weight to your pack, but if you can put up with that, you'll literally have a portable power station that you can take with you just about anywhere. That alone makes it a viable solution for those of us who are routinely on the go. I just hope in the next model they can find a way to cut some weight a bit and thin it down some. At that point, this would be a nearly perfect product.


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