Our phones, cameras, laptops, media players, handheld gaming consoles, GPS navigators, and plenty of other mobile devices need power to function. Sadly, we still haven't figured out how to transmit electricity wirelessly over significant distances -- well, at least not without cooking whatever's between transmitter and receiver.
That means the world is ripe for some non-traditional power solutions. Indeed, there are plenty of companies and engineers out there trying to figure out new and innovative ways to keep the juice flowing (you might remember the electromagnetic induction technologies introduced last year that charged your phone when you placed it on a pad).
I've been testing three new methods to power my portable gear over the last couple of weeks: a pair of solar solutions plus a pricey but diminutive power adapter that charges multiple devices simultaneously. Here's what I liked and disliked about each.
Novothink Solar Surge ($79.99 U.S.)
The first -- and currently only -- Apple-certified sun-powered charging case, Novothink's Solar Surge slides onto the back of your iPhone (an iPod edition exists as well), roughly doubling its girth. Its thin sides rest flush with the device's face, leaving free access to the screen and keeping the iPhone's appearance more or less unchanged when viewed from the front.
Expose the pair of shiny black solar panels on its back to direct sunlight for two hours and you'll earn about 30 minutes of talk time on a 3G network. Charge it completely, which would take a full day of direct sunlight, and you'll get up to four hours of talk time.
Novothink offers a free power calculator program through the app store called Solar Planner that lets users adjust sliders with labels including "minutes talking" and "minutes internet" while switching between sunny and overcast modes to figure out how long the battery needs to be charged to meet various usage demands.
It works pretty much as advertised. I kept it attached to my phone for several days, made an effort to keep it near a window whenever possible, and found that I never ran out of power -- though, admittedly, I'm not a heavy mobile phone user. I liked that it provides a USB connector to let me sync up with a PC without popping it out of the case, and that an LED indicator let me know whether and how well it was charging in different lighting conditions.
That said, I do have a few niggling complaints. For starters, remembering to always take my phone out of my pocket and place it in direct sunlight when not in use to keep up a good charge is a bit of a chore. Also, while there is an eyelet for a strap or carabiner clip so you can attach it to a bag and keep it outside and in the sun, I was afraid to use it; there's nothing holding the phone in place in the case save a snug fit, making it feel like a recipe for a disaster. And while the edges of the bezel are cut to allow access to physical controls, I still found it a little tricky to comfortably reach the iPhone's volume rocker.
Still, it's a pretty good green power solution for your iPhone.
Scosche solBAT II ($29.99 U.S.)
Whereas the Solar Surge is designed specifically for your iPhone and iPod Touch, Scosche's sun-fuelled device is an all-purpose battery that can be used with just about any USB-powered gadget, be it an iPhone, Blackberry, camera, GPS navigator, or handheld game console. And with a 1500mA lithium ion battery, the solBAT II can store enough juice to fully charge a cell phone and have a little left over to give your PSP a boost, too.
The problem, unfortunately, is that it takes up to five days to fully charge, which just won't do for heavy gadget users who need daily power refills. You can always charge it up quickly via a USB cable, but then all you've really got is an average battery-and a bit of a bulky one at that.
That said, there are some scenarios in which the solBAT II might turn out to be quite handy.
You could use it as a backup battery stored in your office or car. The included suction cup mount lets users attach the solBAT II to a sun-facing window, ensuring that it's always soaking up energy. It might just come in handy should you realize that your phone is dead just as you're about to dash out the door.
Or you could use the carabiner clip to attach it to your backpack on a camping or canoeing trip. It may not fully charge during your journey, but it should provide ample juice to make emergency phone calls, snap a few pictures, or even pump some power into your heated sleeping bag.
And, who knows? Maybe you use your gadgets infrequently enough that four or five days between charges actually works for you. If that's the case, the solBAT II has the potential to permanently remove your phone from the power grid. Not bad for a one-time investment of just 30 bucks.
Targus Premium Laptop Charger ($169.99)
If you use a laptop on the go you understand that there's no getting away from hauling a cable and power adapter along with you. But do these things have to be so bloody bulky?
Targus says no.
The peripheral and accessories manufacturer's new Premium Laptop Charger is designed to be a replacement for your existing laptop brick and cable. The adapter is a thin, glossy black rectangle that might be mistaken for a smartphone at a glance. Its rotating plug folds in when not in use while a svelte and highly flexible cable keeps a low profile when wound up. It's still a bit weighty-about 0.8kg-but likely no heavier than your existing adapter.
The charger works with laptops from HP, Compaq, Dell, Acer, Toshiba, Gateway, IBM, Lenovo, Asus, Sony, Panasonic, and Fujitsu, thanks to a bevy of swappable power tips in the box. I tried it with three notebooks I happened to have on hand -- made by Sony, HP, and Gateway -- and experienced no issues establishing a power connection. If the power tip you need isn't in the box you can probably order it for free via the Tips from Targus program. The upshot: you'll not only be able to use this adapter with your current laptop, but future notebooks as well.
Another draw for this fancy adapter is that its cord splits in two, creating an extra tip to charge a second device. Power tips for iPhones, iPods, and Blackberries (i.e. mini-USB) come in the box, but, again, you can order others for free from Targus.
And there's no need to worry about all of these bits and bobs becoming too unruly; a tip clip attached to the cable provides storage for a pair of extra tips, bringing the total number of power nubs attached to the adapter while travelling to four.
Granted, $170 is a lot pay for an adapter-even one as small and with as many uses as the Premium Laptop Charger-but it might be worth it for heavy users with multiple devices who are in dire need of cutting down the size of their loads.