If you're looking for a convenient way to charge mobile devices on the go, this handy notebook-sized charger and battery pack is a great choice.
After using and reviewing a lot of solar chargers and external battery packs, I've found that while there plenty of options on the market right now, many of them fall short of the mark, either in the size of the solar panel itself or in the size of the battery (or the lack of one). Some of these shortcomings can be overcome, such as by buying a battery pack for convenience (in order to charge the battery during the day, and to then use the battery pack to charge other devices at night), but some of the weak points can make the products an almost complete waste of money, such as ones with a solar panel or cells that are too small to be practical for everything except adding a little boost to a device's battery (which, to be fair, can be very useful indeed if your device's battery is completely flat).
One new solar charger that actually rises above the flood of cheap and weak solar chargers on the market is the Solartab, a tablet-sized 5.5W charger with an integrated 13,000 mAh battery. I recently got to spend some time with it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it lived up to its hype, especially when considering the relatively low cost of the device.Solartab was initially launched with a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, which ended up raising more than $60,000 USD (double the initial goal) in pre-orders and pledges, with the first units being shipped to backers in 2015. Here's the crowdfunding pitch video:
The Solartab measures 9.7" x 7.6" x 0.35" (246mm x 193mm x 9mm), or about the size of a small notebook (the paper kind, not the computer kind), and weighs in at 2.6 lb (1.17 kg). It's got a 5.5W solar panel on the top, a 13,000 mAh battery, and dual USB-out ports (2.1A) for charging devices. A micro-USB port also allows for the battery to be charged via a wall outlet with the included charger. In my experience, it took a full 8 hours to charge the battery with just the solar panel, but considering the capacity of the battery, that's not unreasonable to me.
The battery charge status is indicated by four small lights on the side of the unit, each one of which corresponds to 1/4 of the battery's capacity, so you can get a quick overview of the state of the battery. I have to say that I find this kind of vague battery status indicator, while generally helpful, is one of my least favorite elements of solar chargers and battery packs, because unless you know what percentage of the battery will be used to charge your other devices, it's at most just a general indicator. A single LED light on the side of the Solartab shows whether or not it is actually charging, but it's not very useful either - either the light is on and it's charging, or it's off and it's not charging. I'm still waiting for companies to start building chargers/batteries with a low-power LCD screen that can show the exact state of charge to users, as well as possibly showing how optimal the solar panel is operating at any given moment (so the angle to the sun can be adjusted or the panels cleaned or possibly to find out if the unit is operating within specs).
The outer cover of the Solartab, which not only protects the unit, but also serves as an adjustable stand for angling it directly toward the sun, works well but is nothing to write home about (the specs say it's made from "High grade polyurethane") and the units only come in black (described as "Charcoal Grey" but it looks black to me). The cover does have an elastic band integrated into it, which can be used to hold the cover in place over the panel while not in use, but other than that and the built-in angling notches, it's a fairly standard protective cover. Having said that, the cover does make the Solartab look like a book or notebook, so if you're looking to match your solar charger with your Moleskine for fashion's sake, this might fit the bill.
Here's my quick video overview of the Solartab:
The one standout feature of the Solartab, other than the fact that it seems to be a sturdy and well-designed charger, is the internal battery storage. Without a battery, a solar charger is only as useful as the time you put into sitting there while your device charges (which is a deal-breaker for many of us who don't want to, or can't, sit for a few hours so it can charge), but with a battery, the solar charger can store the electricity for when we need it most (which is often at the end of the day when the sun is going down). The large capacity of the Solartab's lithium-ion battery makes it a perfect fit for handling multiple mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, which seem to increase their battery capacity with each new model, and the fact that the Solartab can provide multiple device charges with its battery is a huge plus for me. And with dual USB-out ports, you can plug in two devices and are not limited to charging a single gadget at a time, and are instead only limited by the capacity of the battery.
Note: Solartab is extending a special offer to TreeHugger readers. Enter the coupon SOLTAB35 during checkout to receive $35 off, at either Amazon.com or Mysolartab.com.
[Disclosure: I received a Solartab review unit from the company, but all opinions and/or errors in this post are mine alone]