I’ve used a number of solar panel products – enough to know what I want, and that they’re not all made the same. My Gomadic SunVolt is fantastic except that it’s not convenient to pack. Enter the replacement for my outdoor adventure gear: the Suntactics sCharger-12 solar panel.
It’s as slim as three nickels and only slightly longer than a sheet of college-rule paper. But does it charge? Oh yes.
There’s nothing fancy about the look of the Suntactics sCharger-12 solar panel. You open it up like a book and can see the connected circuit of high-powered solar cells, which are mounted on a very durable, non-plastic board and covered with a high-quality laminate. Hex screws firmly attach the dual USB ports to the top back. That’s it.
The sCharger-12 is built to withstand non-extreme outdoor use. There’s nothing dainty about it despite its thin, ultra-light form. I checked every inch of the product to see if I could find a way to peel the laminate back, but it’s perfectly smooth and seamless. The laminate also acts as a hinge between the two pieces, but unless you get totally crazy with it, there’s little chance for it to tear.
Though I’m confident about how well it’s constructed, I still take care when packing the sCharger-12 in my Maxpedition Sitka. I set it back-to-back with my Grid-It Organizer to make sure it won’t accidentally take hits from movement or drops.
The sCharger-12 doesn’t cover its solar cells with thick glass or plastic. The thin laminate helps to maximize the collection of sunlight, which improves charging performance. Unlike plastic, the laminate naturally resists scratches from abrasion and, unlike glass, the laminate is lightweight. The Suntactics sCharger-12 is also water- and dirt-resistant.
A solar panel can have a whole slew of nifty features, but it doesn’t matter if the charging performance is poor. I was lucky to have a variety of weather during all of my testing to see how the sCharger-12 handled a range of conditions from full sun to cloudy skies.
I was especially curious about the sCharger-12′s auto-retry technology, which re-starts charging after a few minutes of having the sun blocked by passing clouds or shade.
Though I didn’t sit there and watch the charging LEDs go on and off, I was able to collect solar energy on the cloudy and shady days I tested. Proof positive.
My backyard has a few spots that get full unobstructed sun for most of the day. I set the solar panel where it full-faces the sun (critical for best performance) with a good angle of inclination (also critical). I went back every two hours to re-face the sCharger-12 at the sun again. I used an 11,000mAh Lenmar Helix to collect the solar energy, and then charged up a Samsung Galaxy S II many times with its 1800mAh battery.
Since I used an external battery to charge the smartphone instead of plugging it directly into the solar panel, I also took the 70% efficiency of the Lenmar Helix into consideration when determining the approximate amount of charge collected straight from the solar panel’s USB faucet.
Here’s what I found: After spending seven hours in full, unblocked sun, the sCharger-12 filled the Lenmar Helix with approximately 9488mAh of energy, which in turn was able to deliver 6642mAh worth of charge to the Galaxy S II battery. That 6642mAh is sufficient to charge an iPhone 5 more than four times, or a Galaxy Note II twice.
Spending four hours in full sun, followed by 3.5 hours of light overcast cloud-cover, the sCharger-12 filled the Lenmar Helix with approximately 5760mAh of energy, which in turn was able to deliver 4032mAh worth of charge to the Galaxy S II battery. That would allow one to charge an iPhone 5 almost three times or a Galaxy Note II once (with a bit more leftover).
Spending 2.5 hours under a completely cloudy/overcast sky (no shadow under the solar panel), the sCharger-12 filled the Lenmar Helix with approximately 2802mAh of energy, which in turn was able to deliver 1962mAh worth of charge to the Galaxy S2 battery. That’s good enough to charge an iPhone 5 one and a third times or a Galaxy Note II two-thirds the way full.
I’m sure your results will vary, depending on weather, angle, and facing. However, these values were pretty consistent and I believe they give a reasonable expectation of performance.
When I go to the beach for a day or camping for a week, energy is a big deal. I have my smartphone for photos, video, music, games, reading, and notes. But our camp also has speakers, battery-operated devices, and other people’s smartphones and digital cameras. Nobody wants to sit in a vehicle and run it to work a power inverter just to charge stuff. That’s stupid.
On a bad/cloudy day, the sCharger-12 can add some additional critical battery power to the stuff I have. On a good day, practically everything can stay topped off. I am completely satisfied with the performance of the Suntactics sCharger-12, especially for how light it is.
I also own a Gomadic SunVolt solar panel for my emergency/disaster gear, which is comparable in output power. The Gomadic panel is heavy duty and the case is rugged, but the weight and size make it more ideal for a base-camp and less of something you can grab and go.
The Suntactics sCharger-12, while not fancy, is better suited for those who want a serious solar panel that’s light and occupies little space. Minimalists and backpackers, pay attention: The sCharger-12 easily slips into bags, backpacks, even school binders. It’s that portable. I also like how it’s a pure panel with USB ports. You can charge your device or any battery pack you own.
It takes constant, proper facing and angling to achieve the best results from solar charging. One could get a simple, inexpensive tablet stand to use with the Suntactics sCharger-12, or simply prop it up with the external battery like I do.
Since the battery is shaded, it stays cool and free from potential heat damage.
High-powered solar cells make all the difference. Most solar panels available on the market use older, weaker solar cells. You’ll find them in all sorts of sizes, but beware that the compact and portable ones won’t do much for you unless you have full, unobstructed sun for at least seven hours. The Suntactics sCharger-12 works under clouds and shade, making all the weak solar cell products look like cheap toys when you compare performance.
Sure, this American-made solar panel comes at a cost, but it’s a fair price considering the trifecta of outlet-like charging speeds, slim design, and feather-light weight. With a product like this, you’ll only really need one (tell your friends to get their own!)