Off-the-grid gadget chargers provide power in a pinch

We put several off-grid chargers through a series of informal, hands-on tests

Kodak KS-100 Solar Charger

kodak_solar_charger_ks100c2.html_585103_g1The US$30 Kodak KS-100 solar charger is the most straightforward, easiest to carry, and least expensive recharging device we tested. It's also the smallest, fitting into a jacket pocket, small camera bag, or purse.

You can prop up the Kodak charger on a fold-out stand to get the most of the light at an angle, or you can hang it from a hook. It comes with a USB-to-mini-USB connector, but Kodak doesn't provide any extra adapter cables. The unit's enclosed AA nickel metal-hydride batteries could theoretically pop into a compatible camera or other gadget, but you can't swap different batteries into the Kodak unit. Also missing from the Kodak package is an AC wall adapter, but you can give the Kodak model a head start by powering it via USB from a port on your computer.

You must set the device either to accept power or to provide power, by flipping a switch to In or Out--an extra step compared with the Brunton Freedom. Reaching the Kodak's embedded switch was impossible without a pen, a pin, or a twig. The Kodak LED shines red while charging and green when ready to go. You have to switch its power status from In to Out before plugging in a phone or other gadget for charging.

The KS-100 comes with no adapters, just a USB-to-miniUSB cable. The USB chargers that accompanied our test BlackBerry Bold, iPod Touch, and HTC Droid Incredible plugged into the Kodak unit, though the only phone that the KS-100 fully charged was the BlackBerry--and even then only after we left the charger outside for a couple of days. Overall, the Kodak charger seemed slower to accept a solar charge than the Freedom was. Most of the time, the KS-100 seemed to offer a just trickle of power. The company says that charging a device from the KS-100 should take no longer than charging it via USB from a computer.

It might be wise to stash the Kodak charger in a sunny location so that it will be fully loaded when the need arises. Though it doesn’t seem powerful enough for frequent usage, if left to marinate in the sun long enough to charge fully, the Kodak KS-100 could provide the energy boost you need for a handheld device.

nPower PEG

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The US$149 nPower PEG stands apart from other devices reviewed here as the first portable kinetic energy charger. The NPower PEG if sold online in five flavors: Apple, BlackBerry, HTC, LG, and Motorola, with additional adapters priced at between US$7.50 and US$15 each.

Its maker, Ohio-based Tremont Electric, sent PCWorld a prototype unit for testing. In that form, the nPower PEG resembles a squat, green baton, with only one button and a mini-USB port.

Notwithstanding its small size, the nPower PEG feels about as heavy as a full bottle of water--a deterrent if you want to travel light. It's too clumsy take along on a jog, unless you need an arm-toning weight. Also, it's best to store the nPower PEG upright, which can be tricky if the device is floating around in a bag, though a narrow pocket can work. Unlike the Hymini, the nPowerPEG advertises no optional mounting accesssories. A Velcro tape workaround isn't a great idea, since the necessary shaking loosens the tape.

The nPower PEG works on the Faraday principle, with a magnet within the device moving inside a coil. Our mini-USB cable tip stuck to the magnetic nPowerPEG, which should probably be quarantined from laptop screens, although the company says credit cards are safe.

The company sent us the prototype nPower PEG fully charged, and all five LEDs lit up when we pressed the single button. Connecting a BlackBerry Bold appeared to deliver a charge for several minutes. It's supposed to hold a charge for a year. But a couple of weeks later, none of the prototype nPower PEG's LEDs showed any sign of life. Shaking the sample unit vigorously by hand for 30 minutes made no difference, nor did walking around with it upright in a large purse for 40 minutes, including up and down several flights of stairs. When we pressed the nonresponsive button more firmly, one-third of the button broke off--and still no lights.

Hopefully, the final model of the nPower PEG that ships to customers will work. Something like this could be very useful in a pinch, especiallly as piezoelectric technology improves and can lead to smaller, lighter motion-generated charging.

Worthwhile for Work?

Owning a solar or wind charger won't solve the annoyance of having to pack a motley assortment of cables and adapters; in fact, it could add to the headaches--if you were to lose one of the minuscule cell phone adapter tips, for instance.

For professionals who don't want to bother with powering up a power supply, some off-grid chargers aren't worth the trouble. A laptop, a USB cable, and any necessary adapters can satisfactorily replenish handheld gadgets, as long as they're within reach. Hand-crank power packs that slip into a glove box or laptop bag are commonly sold at hardware stores and can give cell phones a short-term boost.

On the other hand, solar and wind chargers offer the added benefit of a longer life span, the freedom of tapping into power outdoors, and the option to connect to a wider variety of devices.

If you want to look green, busting out a tiny renewable-energy device may impress certain clients. But specific professions and work styles seem a better match for off-grid chargers than do most cubicle-dwelling jobs. An environmental engineer testing soil quality, for example, might like the Brunton Freedom as an emergency energy supply for a GPS device, camera, or smartphone. Even a globetrotting business traveler might find a solar charger useful when international wall adapters are unavailable.

More companies are trying to bring a wide range of portable solar, wind, fuel-cell, hand-crank, and even yo-yo-like charging devices to market. In the years to come, more electronics will likely integrate solar and other renewable forms of energy into their designs. Apple, for instance, could be plotting a solar-powered iPhone. When solar, wind, or motion power are baked into gadgets and accessories, the charging experience should become more seamless and convenient than it is with the available stand-alone chargers.

Tags powergreengreen IT

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Elsa Wenzel

PC World (US online)

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