Eton Rukus solar/speakerGoalZero 7W foldable, and Gomatic 10W Sunvolt

This year, the solar charging options have really improved for those who need to charge their iOS (or any) devices away from a wall outlet or car. The three products below are some of the more interesting we’ve seen.

The Eton Rukus Portable Bluetooth Solar Powered Wireless Speaker System with 1A USB Output
I originally received the Rukus as part of our Best Portable BluetoothSpeakers review roundup but honestly, the speakers on this guy aren’t anything to write home about. They sound good for some tunes around the pool but, especially for their size, you are much better off with the ‘best ofs’ review for sound. (TL;DR: Overall winnerBest ValueBest soundBest Portable/SoundApps/Updatesmore)

But the Rukus isn’t just a speaker, it is also a well-built portable solar panel/battery pack that can charge its 1500mAh battery in 6 hours according to Eton. In the New York summer reality, charging from empty will take closer to 8-10 hours if positioned right on a sunny day. That’s around the same amount of time you’ll get from the speakers on a medium volume setting, meaning you can just about break even on sound on a sunny day. The 1500mAh of battery will also give your iPhone a moderately full charge (and hold it in a convenient pocket on the back side), but you’ll save more battery by turning off the Bluetooth connection between the already tethered iPhone and use an Aux cable.

As far as for camping trips, big batteries like those from HyperJuice, are probably better for the week or two camping trip. Eton has a beautiful new bigger version that promises louder speakers and more solar power but loses some portability. They also have a more portable “rugged” version. Overall, this Rukus has a good set of features for the $130 price tag but it isn’t the best sounding speaker …or the best solar panel…

$120 GoalZero 7W portable solar charging case

The 1 lbs 6 oz Goal Zero Guide 10 Plus Small Adventure Kit is great, if not terribly quick at charging iOS devices. The idea is simple: you can keep a portable battery pack charged using the sun that in-turn charges your iOS devices when you need them. In practice, it takes awhile for the sun to charge the battery pack. Goalzero says it takes 3-4 hours to charge the battery pack but in the New York summer, I wasn’t able to completely charge the 4xAA kit completely in a full, slightly overcast day. I also wasn’t able to charge my iPhone directly from sunlight without the battery pack.

But once charged, it does come in handy for many use cases. For instance, it can sit in a sunny window and keep a set of 4 AA batteries charged that in-turn add a convenient USB plug to an area of the house or garage that doesn’t have an outlet. Also you can pop out the charged batteries for use anywhere AA batteries are accepted and even replace the GoalZero batteries with higher performance batteries like the Sanyo Enloop that Apple uses.

I suppose you could take this camping, especially longer trips, to keep an iPhone or iPod charged for a few hours a day…and it probably does wonders in third-world countries where access to power isn’t so great. Still, here, for shorter trips, I’d prefer the equivalent 1.5lbs of battery pack like the ones from Hyper or…

Gomatic 10W Sunvolt

The 10W Sunvolt, as you can see from the image at the top is much bigger than either of the other two options above. The solar panel is substantial and it is backed by a heavy layer which makes it feel like a pane of glass in weight. It also doesn’t fold like the GoalZero so the package is the size as the surface area of the panels. The enclosure allows you to point the panels at the sun which dramatically improve charging rates.

While it is certainly less portable than the other two options above, this is the only panel that was able to reliably charge devices without a battery pack buffer. In the New York summer, I wasn’t able to charge 2 devices at the same time like the accompanying literature suggests, but you at least know you’ve got enough juice to keep devices up to the size of an iPad charged. Even overcast days yield usable charge, though expectations should be realistic here. Also, expect charging rates to diminish pretty significantly in the late afternoon as well, though some repositioning of the panel will mitigate the loss.

Wrap up:

While solar is a fantastic and green way to get power just about anywhere, the reality is that much smaller battery packs are more useful in most day to day situations. Still, however, if you want to be able to pull power from the sun, the three options above each have plenty of utility. And there is something that feels great knowing you are getting your power directly from the sun.