Sometimes, an item shows up in my mailbox for review that I REALLY want to work well. Maybe the description of the item just sounded so cool that I hope it lives up to the hype. Other times I’m rooting for the product because I believe in their mission and am rooting for the company to succeed. But in the end, the product has to actually work for us here at GearDiary to recommend it to you, oh gentle reader.
The Solio Solar Charger from CREDO Mobile is exactly this kind of gadget.
Right off the bat, in the interest of fair disclosure I should inform you that I went to college with one of the principals of CREDO mobile’s parent company, Working Assets. They are a company that seeks to encourage consumers to make a difference in the world by donating a portion of their communications bills to various charities that support progressive causes. Every time a customer uses the Working Assets credit card or makes a call on CREDO Long Distance or CREDO Mobile, the company donates 1% of the phone bill or $.10 per transaction to non-profit organizations that are nominated by their customers, such as the ACLU, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders, etc. For a full list of their affiliated charities, go here.
Working Assets’ subsidiary, CREDO Mobile, has a cell phone network that essentially rides on the Sprint/Nextel backbone. Their prices and coverage seem competitive with most plans, with the added benefit of offering the opportunity to support these charities as a part of your normal everyday expenses. As a matter of fact, my old college buddy has been on my back to switch my service for years. But I demand performance in addition just the promise of making me feel self-righteously good about myself.
Whether or not these sorts of charities fit within your own personal political spectrum, I think most people would agree that a solar charger for your gadgets is probably a good idea. The fact that CREDO throws one in free with the purchase of one of their phones and their mobile service makes perfect sense.
But does it work? I had heard rumblings that the Solio charger was not worth the plastic it was constructed out of, so I opened the package with a skeptical eyebrow raised. I was immediately encouraged by the form factor of the device. The compact oval shaped charger weighs in at just under six ounces. The kit includes a set of multiple tips for charging most Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Apple (iPod and iPhone), USB and mini-USB devices. Unfortunately, the adapter for my Treo was not included in my review unit, so my tests were conducted on iPods and an iPhone. The folks at CREDO have promised to send the Treo tip and I’ll give you an update when I get to test that as well.
The charger pod opens up into three sections like the blades of a fan. There is a hole in the middle which the manufacturers suggest you place a pencil (not included) through as a stand to prop the array up while charging in the sun. This worked pretty well, but I would like to have seen a more flexible way to orient the panels toward the sun, since it turned out to be very important to align the charger as directly as possible. The included window suction cup did not help much since the sun is rarely shining at a 90 degree angle to any windows except at sunrise and sunset.
Unlike other solar chargers I have tried in the past, a big advantage of the Solio is the fact that it has an internal battery which can be charged either by the sun or via a wall socket. This allows you to carry the equivalent of an extra battery with you with the option of how you want to keep it juiced. I can see using this device as a way to get some extra viewing time out of my iPhone on a long flight. There’s nothing worse than your battery crapping out on you in the middle of an episode of “Lost” with another hour left in the flight. I can only do the same sudoku in the flight magazine so many times…
In practice I’ll admit that I had low expectations for the solar charger. I charged the battery the first few times using a 110 volt outlet and it did a fine job charging my iPod Nano and 3G iPod Video. As a matter of factt, I was able to give both devices a full charge from the Solio which exceeded the promises of their website. They claim 40 minutes of MP3 play or 15 minutes of cell phone talk time for every hour of solar charging, but the fully charged battery gave me a combined 12+ hours of iPod enjoyment. However, finally the time had come to harness the power of Apollo the sun god.
First of all, the manual says that the Solio requires direct exposure to the sun. They’re not kidding. Despite all those warnings you hear about getting sunburned on a partly cloudy day at the beach, you can pretty much forget about much power if the sun isn’t shining strongly on the charger. It also helps if you can take the opportunity to adjust the alignment of the charger as the sun makes its daily journey across the equinox. A full eight hours of charging required me to change the angle of the charger 3-4 times during the day to get the best charge. I found it was easiest to balance the Solio on top of a shrub and move it to follow the sun. Convenient? Maybe not. But it was a Saturday during the NCAA basketball tourney, so what else did I have to do to get me off the couch? OK, what else other than getting another beer and getting rid of another beer?
According to the internal monitor on the Solio, eight hours of sun only gave me approximately ¾ of a full charge, but this was plenty to charge a fully discharged iPod or iPhone. I’m still looking forward to trying it out on my Treo. Personally, I can’t imagine using the Solio as my primary charger, but it would make great sense to carry along as a spare battery with the option on either using the sun or an outlet to keep the device charged. If I were still a camper, I think it would be a great way to keep in touch with civilization if you didn’t have a five mile long extension cord. Since I turned forty I don’t like to sleep on the ground anymore. I kinda like to have something underneath me when I sleep. Like three floors of a Marriott.
As a final test, I tried something which I didn’t think would work at all, but which I thought might be a nice use of the Solio. Rather than go through the effort to track the sun all day like a row of Tuscan sunflowers, I just threw the charger (gently, of course) in the deck behind the back seat of my new Camry Hybrid. Yeah, I admit it. I bought a hybrid. It’s part trying to go green and part not being able to pay for $3.50 a gallon gas in my guzzler of a Tahoe.
So anyway, I just let the charger sit there with no particular regard for how sunny it was or which way the Solio was oriented. According to the power monitor, it didn’t look like it got much of a charge over the course of a week. But darned if it didn’t have enough juice to give my Nano ¾ of a full battery. Depending on how that works for my phone, I think that may be the best usage overall for this device. Even through the tinted glass of my rear window, I believe that the Solio would be a serviceable emergency power source.
With the option of charging it via A/C, I think the CREDO Solio would be a fine alternative to traditional travel chargers. Coupled with the fact that it can recharge an electronic device even when you don’t have access to an outlet, (think midway through a long airplane flight) the Solio surprised me with its effectiveness. Will I switch to CREDO Mobile because of it? Probably not yet. It’ll still take a few more free beers from my old college buddy to make me give up my Treo or my iPhone. But they do make it a little bit easier to be green…
The CREDO Mobile Solio Solar Charger
What I liked: Attractive stylish design. Battery holds extra charge even days after being charged. Makes me feel good about myself as I put off a huge carbon footprint with all my other electronic gadgets.
What Needs Improvement: Needs better stand to point at sun. Unwieldy to adjust alignment as sun changes position.
Price: $99.00 or free when you buy the LG 150 flip phone from CREDO Mobile.
Where to Purchase: Available from the CREDO webite.
Product photos courtesy of CREDO Mobile