Review: Better Energy Systems Solio Solar Powered Charger
Pros: The iPod’s first solar-powered charger, beautifully designed and easy enough to use, with the ability to expand into a PDA/cell phone charger with additional cables. Environmentally friendly, with practical ability to charge from wall.
Cons: Charging from the sun is unpredictable and time-consuming, even in good weather; same price could buy batteries with two or three full days worth of extra iPod power.
If solar power were a 100% reliable form of energy production, every house, car, and office building in the world would be covered in distinctive crystalline ray-catching panels. For that matter, like certain tiny calculators, every iPod would have a little solar rectangle (or Applesque rounded rectangle), and you’d never need a wall charger.
Unfortunately, there are fairly annoying things called “clouds” and “seasons” that conspire to prevent continuous gathering of solar power. And of course, there’s a big problem called “night.”
Limitations aside, conservationists and technologists alike have respectfully pushed solar power as a complement to - rather than replacement for - other energy sources. Combining a pragmatic conservationist philosophy with the latest technologies, U.K.-based Better Energy Systems Ltd. is now offering Solio ($99.99), the world’s first iPod-matching solar powered charger. An iPod-specific cable is included, but using alternate cables ($19.99 per set), Solio also works with other mobile devices, including popular brands of cellular phones and PDAs.
There is plenty to like about Solio’s design: its small size, generally white glossy plastic aesthetic, and light 5.8 oz. weight are just right for environmentally conscious iPod owners. Better Energy designed Solio as a collapsible set of three solar panels that unfold from a 4.7” x 2.6” x 1.3” package in a fan-like fashion. Blue and indigo crystalline solar panels are exposed in each of the Solio fan’s blades, with translucent plastic front housings and glossy white plastic backs. A battery pack is hidden inside the unit’s thick rear blade, storing the sun’s power for whenever you’re ready to use it.
The three blades are connected by an indigo central hub with a hole that fits any standard pencil, but relatively few pens. Better Energy decided not to package a mount with Solio, and asks that you use a pencil to prop it up on an angle to catch the sun’s rays. It’s a simple enough request, and easily fulfilled, but an interesting pack-in omission nonetheless. Of course, the conservationist angel inside us asks, “what of the poor trees that died to make that pencil?”, but doesn’t dwell on the point.
Solio’s rear blade casing includes a single multicolored LED indicator light integrated into the unit’s only button, as well as two clear plastic-covered ports (power input and output), and an attractive Solio nameplate on the bottom. When pressed, the LED flashes green to tell you the battery’s charge level: one green flash is 25%, while four green flashes is 100%. For reasons mentioned below, Better Energy also includes a standard AC adapter with every Solio unit to permit easy wall recharging of the internal battery. The LED indicator glows red to show that the battery is charging from the sun or AC power.
Overall, we love Solio’s physical design with only two small reservations. Viewed from the back, it matches full-sized iPods beautifully, and its blue/indigo/translucent front panels work well on a visual level, too. When unfolded, it practically defines “cool solar energy device.” Folded up, it is a perfect match for the iPod.
The only issues are that its clear plastic power port cover is a bit tricky to keep properly closed, and its single rear indicator light - while admittedly very simple - doesn’t afford you any sense of charging progress unless you unplug it from the wall or flip the unit around when in the sun. While you can see the red light on the rear in direct sunlight if you look carefully, it’s not necessarily easy or conveniently placed there. Yes, there are certainly good reasons to design in the way Better Energy did, but there are equally good (if not better) reasons to use more than one light - perhaps in more than one location on the unit. We’d call both of these reservations very small in the overall picture of Solio’s design.
Context is extremely important in understanding our evaluation of Solio: as iPod charging accessories go, a $99.99 price tag is not uncommon for a certain level of charging performance, and we tend to expect a fair amount at that price. In recent months, we’ve seen a high-water mark at that dollar amount (BTI’s iPod Battery, iLounge rating: A), a more compatible but smaller and less powerful alternative (BTI’s iPod Battery ii, iLounge rating: A-), and a far smaller and more attractive but dramatically less powerful product (Belkin’s TunePower, iLounge rating: B-). There have also been a handful of AA-powered battery packs available at a lower price point, each offering 8-10 hours of extra power in a relatively small enclosure.
Solio’s unique design does not permit an apples-to-apples comparison against any of these other products, but it does shame some of them. At the $99.99 price point, Solio includes both the solar panels and an internal rechargeable battery pack that can hold 8-10 hours of iPod juice. Under the worst circumstances, you use Solio like any other iPod battery pack, plugging it into the wall and recharging it for four or five hours. Better yet, you can change power output cords and plug in your cellular phone or PDA - assuming of course that you buy the extra cables. It takes less juice - a half Solio charge - to power a non-iPod device, assuming you want to do this.
Under the best circumstances, you leave Solio out in the sun, it gathers solar power, and you don’t need to plug it in at all. You do your bit for the environment, recharge your iPod, and everyone’s happy. It’s actually a time-consuming two-step process, however; you charge your Solio’s battery, and then use your Solio’s battery to charge your iPod; you don’t leave the Solio and iPod in the sun together or expect realtime solar panel to iPod charging.
The only problem with Solio’s solar charging is the one first mentioned in this review: the sun. Since the sun is such an unpredictable source of energy in many regions of the world, even Better Energy’s representatives admit that you wouldn’t want to use it in, say, the notoriously cloudy U.K. much of the time, and at the time of this writing, people suffering winters across the United States are only dreaming of warm sunshine - not seeing it.
Thankfully, iLounge’s reviews are mostly conducted in Southern California, a part of the country that benefits from extended periods of sunlight and thus an almost optimal testing environment for Solio’s capabilities. Thus we tested and re-tested Solio over the course of several days, giving the device sustained morning to afternoon bursts of direct light, even adjusting its position as the sun moved. Each night, we had to stop, and we couldn’t totally account for the impact of infrequent passing clouds, but Solio had plenty of time in the sun.
On our first day of testing, the sun was out all day. But inexplicably, Solio showed only a single green LED flash when the day was done: a 25% charge. After two days, the device showed a 50% charge with two flashes. Better Energy says that Solio needs 8 to 10 hours of sustained sunlight to top off its internal battery - the latter number a challenge in this season, even in Southern California - but we gave it a fair bit more than that, and it was only around half-full.
When we repeated the test another time on another set of sunny days, the results were better. On the first day, after five hours of time in the sun, the Solio showed a 50% charge. The second day, Solio was topped off at 100%.
Fully charged, Solio is capable of fully recharging an iPod’s battery: our fourth-generation iPod showed a complete charge and ran for over 13 hours each time the Solio was plugged in. The same was the case whether Solio was charged from the sun or a wall outlet, though wall outlet charging was considerably faster.
As a travel charger for people planning on hiking in the Southwestern United States or other desert climates, Solio isn’t just potentially useful - it could spare you a trip to an outlet or create a real savings on disposable batteries, depending on the length of your trip. Similarly, if you’re either a big fan of beaches with plenty of lotion, or a hard-core environmentalist with plenty of free time between iPod charges, you may be willing to leave the Solio out for the requisite period to recharge its battery.
But practically speaking, Solio must be compared against products such as BTI’s $99 batteries on one hand, which on a single wall recharge can offer over 72 hours of continuous playtime, and Belkin’s $99 TunePower on the other, which got only 11 hours, 34 minutes when used with a 4G iPod. Except as measured purely in thinness, Solio’s a better product than the TunePower for the dollar, but unless you feel strongly that alternative power sources are worth a significant temporal inconvenience, the BTI batteries are a smarter purchase overall. One brief charge off the wall gives BTI users 5 times the runtime of the Solio off a full solar charge.
Some people will say that such a conclusion misses Solio’s point - solar charging, rather than wall charging, is its main selling point. But the promise of solar energy as a replacement for other forms of energy is as yet unfulfilled, and by design, solar power merely complements wall power as a means to charge Solio’s internal battery. Many people will find the solar capability far more limited than we did in light of - no pun intended - their local weather and time commitments.
Regardless, Better Energy deserves commendation for the Solio, which offers an attractive and intriguing alternative way to charge your iPod - and potentially other devices - wherever you go. More than a great effort, Solio is a product that realizes both its own limitations and potential benefits, and Better Energy gives you the option to work around or capitalize upon them as you desire. We recommend Solio particularly to people in sun-drenched areas, and those who may be interested in saving the world, even just a little bit of natural energy at a time.
Note: Solio also makes attractive recycled rubber iTread cases for the Solio and iPod, which we hope to review in the near future.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.