Out of all the Kickstarter products that were recently introduced into the consumer market, the Solarade has got to be our favorite new gadget that sadly didn't receive the recognition it deserved. Designed by a small independent design studio and manufactured in Korea using U.S-made components, the Solarade bills itself as the world's smallest solar charger that is capable of charging virtually any USB-powered device out at a remote location as fast as you can charge at home. It's the slimmest, most lightweight and minimally designed solar panel charger we've seen so far that's as functional as that white USB power adapter you use to charge your iPhone with.
And yes, if you can't live without your technology outdoors you can use the Solarade to individually charge your tablet, your phone, camera, flashlight and pretty much anything else that can be charged over a USB connection. That's because the Solarade claims that it's the most compact portable solar panel charger on the market that's capable of delivering true 1A (5V) output current through its USB charging port using a powerfully efficient 5Watt solar panel. Meaning it's as quick of a natural energy source charger as a typical USB wall charger, and that is without a doubt an impressive feature to have when it comes to portable solar energy. More solar charging goodness awaits you in the full review down below.
The Solarade comes packed inside decent sleeve-wrapped styrofoam packaging, which really isn't bad for a Kickstarter product. Inside you won't find any included cables, protective sleeve or instructions save for the Solarade in all its glory. Basic user instructions and tech specs are printed on the back though. It's also nice to see that the exterior packaging branding print is color matched to either one of the two available Solarade color options, which in case you didn't know is available in white or black. And thanks to our good friends over at TekCases, we have both colors to show. Not to pick favorites, but I do like the svelte white color scheme a lot.
Whether you think you'll need it or not, a compact solar charger is always a good piece of gear to have around in your car or when you set out on a remote trip. Renewable energy is one of the more important power sources you can have as part of an emergency preparedness kit. Over the years there have been many types of solar-powered battery charging gadgets, which more often than not called for huge and cumbersome solar panels in order to produce the necessary power to charge external devices in a decent amount of time, while other highly portable variants produced slow charging power. What's great about the Solarade is that it's the size of an iPad Air so it fits effortlessly into any gear bag without taking up valuable storage space, yet it's still powerful enough to quickly charge an iPhone 5s or a GoPro Hero 3 camera in under two hours. And that's an insanely fast figure considering solar panels are an underpowered source of energy unless you are working with a sizable panel under sunny weather conditions.
Goal Zero comes to mind when mentioning solar charging accessories as they are one of the more prominent brands in the solar charging marketplace. But while their least expensive and best selling $80 Nomad 7 V2 portable solar charger is as powerful as the Solarade and is also designed to directly charge devices through USB, it's also considerably larger and its foldable magazine-style design requires it to be unfolded in order to work – while not having any built-in system to optimally position the two panel flaps at various angles for more efficient energy absorption. It's takes up more space than the Solarade to accomplish the same level of charging performance, and to us that means that the Solarade is clearly the better solar charger for an additional $20.
Speaking of pricing, the Solarade will cost you $100 and that's not exactly cheap considering it doesn't have a built-in or come with a rechargeable battery bank like many of its rivals. For that kind of money you can purchase a high-capacity portable backup battery charger like Anker's 20,000mAhAstro Pro2 and have enough power to keep all of your tech including a smartphone, tablet, camera, flashlight and speakers for at least two days straight when fully charged. Another disadvantage that many solar panel chargers have including the Solarade is that they can only charge a single device at a time, while an external backup battery like the Astro Pro2 can simultaneously charge three devices over USB. Something to consider when looking for a backup power solution.
As we mentioned earlier, the Solarade features a 1A USB charging output for universal portable device charging in a reasonable amount of time. And you may be thinking that 1A is obviously not as fast as 2A and higher, and that the logical thing to do would be to carry an ultra-portable battery like Just mobile'sTopGum or Gum++ which features a 6,000mAh rechargeable backup battery capacity and a super-fast 2.5A USB charging output port for less than $100. Or better yet something like the id America L.E.D light and battery charger. But the problem is that unlike the Solarade, these batteries don't offer renewable energy. They last you a full day as long as you don't fully charge something as power hungry as a tablet for example, but what then? At all comes down to where you need power and how long will you be without access to a power outlet.
But if you know anything about solar chargers it's that the Solarade certainly isn't the smallest of its kind. There are countless smartphone-sized solar panel chargers on the market with built-in rechargeable backup batteries, but what they all lack is the Solarade's direct solar energy drive and 5Watt monocrystalline solar panel – which is capable of charging your device straight from the source millions of miles away.
My initial first impressions of the Solarade were unexpectedly positive. Because WOW is this thing impressive. It measures 9x6.5-inches, is 0.7-inches thick at its thickest point and weighs only 6.4oz (180g). This has got to be the most amazing solar panel charger we've ever gotten our hands on. And not only because it's impressively designed and made, but mostly because it's highly responsive and quick to make viable energy. It pretty much looks like an ultra-thin tablet form factor from the future. Or better described as a thin solar panel attached to a sleek battery-looking rod with a single USB outlet on the side.
As soon as the Solarade is introduced to sunlight, it instantly begins charging your device (using your own USB charging cable of course). And probably what impressed me the most was the fact that there's a little red LED on the front if the unit that gradually increases it's brightness when it the solar panel is introduced to brighter light so that you always know when the Solarade is producing peak power, which is pretty much always as long as it is facing the sun.
That being said, we found that this could also be misleading. Meaning that even if you are outside but in the shade, the red LED light will illuminate brightly making you think that the Solarade has enough energy to start charger when in fact it does not. Even when indoors strong indoor lighting will make the Solarade's activity light illuminate as if it had all the necessary power to charge a smartphone, when in fact it will do nothing to charge or even have enough power to bring up that charging symbol on your smartphone. It simply does not work unless subjected to highs amounts of energy - the sun. So in that regard, we think that the Solarade's power status LED is hugely flawed and should be fixed.
The unit is basically always on so long as it is being subjected to light as there is no power switch or any button for that matter anywhere on this thing. To charge your device, all you have to do is plug in a charging cable into the side facing USB port, make sure it's not night outside, and you've got yourself a self-powered battery charger on your hands that will always keep providing you with clean and free energy as long as the sun shines. A small and compact form factor is important, but the real question is just how quick and efficient is the Solarade in charging up a device.
The people behind the Solarade claim that it can charge an iPhone 5 from 0% to 50% under one hour of sunlight exposure, or two hours to fully charge the device. And in our own testing we used an iPhone 5s, which features a slightly larger battery capacity, to charge it using the Solarade under direct sunlight and we were pleasantly surprised to find that our iPhone 5s was back up to a 67% charge in exactly one hour and 20 minutes. Which means that the Solarade performs as advertised and will indeed charge your handheld device as quick as a 1A USB wall charger. The great thing about the Solarade's sensitive solar panel is that it doesn't necessarily need to be under direct bright sunlight. It'll also work perfectly fine in overcast days without any eye-blinding sun rays hitting the solar panel.
It's important to mention that during our testing we found that while charging under direct sunlight, quickly overshadowing the solar panel will cause the Solarade to stop charging an iOS device simply because it will lose power and a message will pop up saying that "this accessory may not be supported", which will make the device stop charging until you plug it back in again. But if you're charging other gadgets like an Android smartphone, camera, external battery or a flashlight then this type of setback will not likely occur by someone passing by casting a shadow over the solar panel. Just something to bare in mind, albeit not anything to worry to much about as any other Solar charger without a built-in battery to compensate for temporary loss of solar energy during charging won't also mirror.
We can also confirm the fact that you can use the Solarade to charge all sorts of devices other than your typical smartphone like an iPad Air, iPad mini, portable speakers, small cameras, wireless headphones, GPS devices, flashlights, most tablets and e-readers, and even external backup battery chargers which you can use to store the power that the Solarade produces during the day for later use at night. You gotta love renewable energy on the go.
Despite looking like it has a very slim and long battery module at the bottom, the Solarade does not feature a built-in rechargeable battery to harness some of the solar energy it produces for later backup charging use. Instead, the Solarade just works passively in charging any USB connected device when put under sunlight. Unlike other portable solar chargers such as the JoosOrange and others like it, the Solarade is capable of delivering a fast charge directly from the sun and straight into your device instead of first having to wait for it to charge its internal battery and later use it to transfer the battery reserve to your device. By not having these extra roadblocks, the Solarade is a snappy solar charger that just works when it's needed. Well, as long as it can be put under sunlight.
Unlike many flexible solar panels, the Solarade is made from what seems to be a rigid fiber glass composite material which supports the solar panel, making is very durable and stiff all around.
The panel itself also feature a resilient orange-peel textured surface (or what's called a golf ball pattern) said to be more scratch-resistant than other slick solar panels. It definitely does feel like a better made panel than what we have previously reviewed, which were mostly plastic covered panels that were easy to scratch or glass ones that were not as durable. That being said, the glossy plastic bits around the solar panel aren't as rugged and do seem more delicate. There's very little plastic around the panel itself which is what makes the Solarade highly compelling, albeit we wouldn't mind it being replaced with a more solid material like a machined aluminum unibody construction. All that's missing is some protective rubberization and the Solarade would have felt a little more rugged around corners.
The built-in angle adjustment system is also cleverly integrated into the sleek and low-profile design of the Solarade in the form of a lightweight C-shaped hard plastic tube that's unobtrusively hidden away during transport, and when needed, it slides off the top edge to form a sturdy angle-adjustable kickstand for the solar panel to absorb the most out of the orientation of the sun.
There's a rubber-lined hole at one corner where you slide in the tube to form a kickstand, which works flawlessly. There's enough tension for the Solarade to move up or down and remain secured at every angle degree. You can also use the same ring with a carabiner should you want to hook it to the back of your backpack.
Another neat feature that naturally comes with the Solarade's kickstand bar is that it also works as a sundial-like adjustment that will cast a shadow over the solar panel when it isn't facing the sun's direction so that you can position the angle perfectly so that the panel will be angled perpendicularly towards the sunlight for maximum energy exposure.
Out of all the portable solar chargers you can throw your money at, the Solarade deserves to be the first on your great outdoors shopping list. It's the best performing solar charger that we used so far, and we can recommend it to anyone looking for a portable solar charging solution. This time Kickstarter did not disappoint us. The Solarade is an extremely lightweight, compact and well put together piece of kit that's also beautifully designed. Not to mention it charges pretty much every device that charges over a USB connection as quick as a regular USB wall charger. $100 is a little pricey for what it is though. It doesn't come with any accessories like charging cables or adapters, isn't made from premium materials and it's not competitively priced compared to existing portable solar chargers and high-capacity backup batteries.
Although it's a solid performer under the right conditions, the Solarade does also have a few first-generation caveats including the fact that it lacks weather protection, a USB port protector, and it could use a more accurate charging power status instead of the very sensitive red power LED that's currently used to display the solar power activity. And a built-in battery would also make charging iOS devices like the iPhone less of a hassle during spotty sunlight exposure condition due to how iOS handles its accessory compatibility message prompts, which under certain circumstances can interrupt charging whenever the Solarade's loses some of its power when casting a shadow over its solar panel during the charging process. Admittedly it's a quirk that can be dealt with using an external backup battery bank, which will always continue charging even if you do block the sun's path over the Solarade's solar panel for just a brief moment.
Tekcases.com – currently the only authorized Solarade online retailer