Drawing usable power from the Sun sounds cool, but avoid a heated experience by keeping expectations in check.
Forget about Qi or Powermat. One of the original methods of wireless charging is a technology that has been around for a while: Solar Power. With light-sensitive panels and circuitry getting smaller and cheaper, the ability to charge an internal battery using only sunlight is a feature that continues to appear in all sorts of new gadgets. Some watches will use a solar panel as a clock face while portable batteries of all sizes are commonly paired with some form of solar panel attachment. During my time with the Stunning Gadgets ES500, the initial gimmicky feeling of solar charging transformed into real curiosity and excitement for the technology. Well, after a few days of trial and error, that is.
The ES500 is equipped with two USB ports for charging output, a USB Micro port for traditional charging input, a single LED that acts as a tiny flashlight, and of course a 200mA solar panel. The casing is available in several colors and also comes with a small carabiner so the unit can easily hook onto a backpack or other piece of luggage.
A battery like this is designed for an active lifestyle, so accidents are inevitable. Because of this, the manufacturer has done a fair job at increasing the sturdiness of this unit versus a traditional portable battery by including rubber bumpers on the sides to help with the occasional drop. As far as drops go, the entire unit seems to handle a typical six-foot drop with little damage. After a week of use (and drop testing), the small bindings on the internal battery loosened which now cause a slight rattle to be heard if the unit is shaken, but charging performance has not been impacted. The unit is also granted a “rain-resistant” feature set by the inclusion of a snap-seal casing around the battery and circuit board and rubber plug covers. I commend the forethought used when designing the unit in this manner, but the rubber pieces are somewhat loose and each of the plug covers eventually grow looser over time which will only lessen the effectiveness of any moisture prevention measures.
The manufacturer claims on the device fact sheet that two devices can be charged at the same time. While this is technically true, I should warn readers that the max power output by the device is 2.1A so attempting to charge a modern tablet and smartphone will likely be asking too much of the modest hardware. However, the available 2.1A will allow for a newer smartphone to draw a “quick-charge” charging speed if it is the only device connected to the unit.
About that battery…it’s only 5000mAh. Frequent readers of MacSources will notice that many of the other portable batteries reviewed on this site are at least double the ES500’s capacity. This portable battery should be taken in a camping bag to be used as a fallback for a mobile phone and/or hiking GPS with perhaps an additional charge cycle for a smartwatch of some kind. 5000mAh will likely get a single full charge for most modern smartphones, and then it’s time to recharge. In a bit of annoying design, each of the status LEDs are extremely bright and bleed through the plastic into the next status indicator area. I’m certain that these LEDs do not draw very much power, but I would have thought that any amount of power conservation would have helped with overall performance of the unit.
Speaking of recharging, it is time for some real talk about the ES500 solar performance. To be blunt, most users are likely going to be disappointed if this unit is purchased blind as a first experience to solar charging. The manufacturer keeps things honest and admits that the solar panel has a difficult time charging the included battery. In perfect weather conditions, they estimate about 8 hours for an “emergency charge” meaning the available battery level will likely charge a smartphone to 50% or 60% before more sun is needed. Personal experience leads me to estimate 12-16 hours are going to be needed for the portable battery to be fully charged, and this is where the expectations need to be set in reality. 12-16 hours of perfect bright sunlight are likely impossible in most of the world, and even getting 8 hours will be a challenge. Thus, this battery is better handled by leaving it in a passive area of the campsite or just letting it dangle in the sunlight during a hike.
A final note on recharging: I was excited by the manufacturer’s claim that with enough sunlight, this unit could trickle charge a smartphone even if the internal battery was not charged. Unfortunately, I was not able to reproduce this. Perhaps I need more of a tropical full-blast environment, but I was disappointed all the same.
So, is the ES500 worth its asking price (about $40 as of this writing)? I think the most honest answer would be “No, unless the device will be used as it was designed.” An end user that takes a routine trip to Starbucks while leaving the office for the day would not be an active enough user since this unit’s key feature is only going to work in continual sunlight. I suppose the device might also be used as a low-price entry point into playing with solar charging hardware, but outdoor extracurricular activities will really allow this device will shine.
I am already wishing for a “v2” model of this unit with at least double battery capacity, a larger fold-out panel for increase solar charge performance, and higher charge output when charging multiple devices. Well, maybe next year.
For more information, visit http://stunninggadgets.com/sport-solar-panel-charger.