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December 11, 2007

Voltaic Converter Solar Backpack

Green is good, no question. It's even fashionable. So does wearing a backpack brandishing three large solar panels make you cool or a tool? That's a call you have to make for yourself. I like the look of Voltaic's Converter in tan with green rimmed panels. It's less toolish than the same pack in Darth Vader black, blends better with outdoor environments, and is a bit cooler in the sun. If you are carrying a tuna sandwich in there, heat matters.

A few basic specs: The pack is made from recycled soda bottles, has a comfy breathable mesh padded back, wire-channels throughout for easy cabling, and has a fully padded compartment that can hold up to a 17-inch laptop. Unfortunately the solar panels cannot generate enough power to charge your laptop. You may be able to rig up a trickle charging setup but it isn't supported by Voltaic so proceed at your own risk.

The panels produce a respectable 4-watts so charging is noticeably faster than some other solar packs on the market. Fit and finish is excellent inside and out, with top-shelf zippers, fasteners, and fabrics. The inside is intelligently laid out with pockets right where they should be. You can carry a surprising amount of stuff for such a slim pack, but if it's not enough for you Voltaic offers several larger sizes in their line. You can also clip the Converter to the outside of another pack using the supplied connectors.

The Converter makes a fine pack for bicyclists and motorcyclists, with comfortable shoulder straps and clips for easy attachment to a rack or fuel tank. The straps can easily be arrayed to work as a messenger-style sling, if you prefer.

Charging through your day
Assuming you dig the Converter's aesthetic and you are able to part with $169-$199 bucks to own one, how does such a pack work in daily life? Depends on how often you go outside and what devices you carry around. All Voltaic packs include an ample array of eleven connectors to fit most devices. If all else fails, you can use the generic 5-volt USB adapter and charge using the cable that came with your device. And if you don't have USB charging as an option on your device, you can use the included 12-volt vehicle port to adapt any device that has a car charger adapter. There is no included iPod connector so you'll have to use the USB cable that came with your iPod. I'd recommend buying a spare to thread into the pack permanently.

Let's say you, like me, carry an iPod, a mobile phone, a compact digital camera, and occasionally a compact iPod amp/speaker system. If you commute on public transport to an office, you can grab some rays en route. But unless your commute is hours long, your devices will likely make the trip just fine on a charge from home, so a solar backpack is not really needed. If you spend your day wandering around a campus, listening to lectures and music on your iPod and yakking/texting on your mobile all day, then the solar panels start to make sense. You can grab some rays many times throughout your day, storing the juice in the Converter's 2800 milliamp-hour lithium-ion battery pack. The pack allows you to connect two devices simultaneously: one from the battery and one directly to the panels. Even heavy iPod and mobile phone users will always be topped up and ready to rock.

The digital camera situation is a bit trickier since there are few direct-rechargeable cameras. You would need to pack along a dedicated camera battery charger than has a 12-volt vehicle adapter -- a fiddly and heavy proposition unless you shoot all day long or you are on an extended camping trip with no access to AC power.

Rockin' 'round the campfire
My iPod amp/speaker has a rechargeable battery which I was able to power from the Voltaic's battery. Under ideal weather conditions, you could go camping and have a portable music system for your campfire parties. Sure, you could do this with an iPod boombox that used disposable alkaline D cells, but burning through six or eight cells a day is expensive and about as un-green as you can get. And those batteries are heavy to pack in and heavier to pack out -- can't just toss 'em into the campfire with the eggshells and paper plates, mate!

You won't find greener, better made, or more thoughtfully designed solar backpacks than the Voltaic line. If you are a heavy user of personal tech devices, your life takes you outside a lot, and you are down with the green-geek look of solar panels on your back, you can't do better than this. Voltaic Systems
~David MacNeill

Posted by dtm at December 11, 2007 09:20 PM