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(Ralph Lauren)
(Ralph Lauren)

Review

Designer solar backpack does the trick... when there's sun Add to ...

It’s hard to review a sun-powered product when the sun won’t play ball.

Polo Ralph Lauren loaned me its new RLX solar panel backpack for six days. Unfortunately, those six days happened to fall during one of the most overcast weeks of the year. Direct sunlight existed for only a handful of hours.

The obvious moral of the story is that if you’re planning on powering your life via the sun, expect some blackouts.

Still, there are plenty of times when the sun co-operates and makes it possible to safely jump off the grid. If you’d like to take advantage of these moments – and have $800 U.S. to spare – this high-fashion-meets-high-tech rucksack can help you harness the power of our nearest star.

Designed and manufactured in Italy in partnership with exclusive sports product maker O-Range, the RLX comes in two colours: orange and black. I was provided the orange model for my evaluation. It’s made of a seamless, lightweight, laser-cut, water-resistant, and durable-feeling fabric composed of polyamide, polyester, and elastane. Think wetsuit material and you won’t be far off.

It has just two pouches, a large one with a zipper entrance and an adjustable buckle closure located on the pack’s top flap, and a smaller side pocket on the back that conveniently fits the bag’s removable solar panel.

The bigger pocket is surprisingly spacious – big enough to accommodate a 17-inch notebook. However, the RLX is not intended to hold such bulky, weighty items. That’s because the pack is ridiculously thin. Empty and viewed from the side, it has all the depth of a mobile phone. I’m not exaggerating. Consequently, it hasn’t the structure or padding to safely and comfortably contain larger, more delicate items.

I used it in place of my regular bag on jaunts around town. The shoulder straps, made from that same thin, durable fabric, are wide and comfy. Plus, its extraordinarily slim profile made for a refreshing change on the subway; I didn’t feel the need to remove it while standing in crowded cars or even when sitting down. On occasions when I did take it off, a handle built into its right edge let me carry it by my side, though the straps dangled and dragged on the floor.

It’s worth adding that the pack’s remarkable slenderness combined with its bright orange colouring sometimes made me feel like I was wearing an emergency worker’s bib – albeit an unusually stylish one. I imagine this impression would have been lessened considerably had I tested the black model.

In case I wasn’t clear before, let me repeat that this is not a bag designed to carry bulky gear. I lugged a small 12-inch laptop in it for a day and could feel its exact position on my back the whole time – this despite a bit of harder material that plates the pack’s backside wall. I was also worried that my computer would be damaged if I accidentally bumped into a door frame or leaned back against it.

Rather than a commuter tote, I’d recommend using the RLX during sports activities that might require you to carry a change of clothes, packed meals, and small gadgets like a GPS or media player. Perhaps cycling or short hikes. What’s more, these sorts of activities are just the kind that will afford an opportunity to make use of what many will see as the RLX’s primary draw: Its solar panel.

The panel is a thin, square plate with four long solar strips. It can be detached from the pack and stored when not needed. It has a standard USB output, which connects to a power adapter that doubles as a 2200mAh battery unit, meaning you can charge up whenever you have the chance then use the stored juice when needed. Several device connectors, including a standard USB jack and an Apple connector, come in the box. A solar-powered safety LED that connects to the front shoulder strap is included as well.

As mentioned, perpetually cloudy skies kept me from effectively testing the pack’s solar charging capability. I know it works – I witnessed it briefly charge my phone for about 20 minutes one afternoon until the skies darkened again – but I can’t verify its speed.

That said, I was told that it generates 3.45 watts under good conditions. With constant, direct sunlight, it should charge most mobile phones in about two or three hours. If this is true, there’s every reason to believe the RLX to be an effective means of powering small devices during sporty excursions.

Still, that stratospheric price tag means that only a niche group of athletic, affluent, style-conscious consumers will even consider it. Solar backpacks aren’t as rare or expensive as they once were. Plenty of manufacturers, including Voltaic Systems, Eclipse, and even Samsonite, offer bags that harness the sun’s energy at prices not much more than that of a regular, good quality pack. Granted, Ralph Lauren’s strikingly designed offering is a sure-fire conversation starter, but it’s tough to make an argument that any such conversation is worth $800.

Follow on Twitter: @chadsapieha

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