Last weekend I had the luxury of a trip up to a friend's lakeside cottage for some sun and relaxation. Sitting on the dock in the sun all day was great, and also a perfect oportunity to try out Goal Zero's Nomad 7 solar panel USB charger to see if I could keep powered up while away from an outlet. Out of the box, the panel comes with an adapter for 12V car charger plugs, a USB port, instructions and a single carabiner for affixing the panel to your day pack or hiking gear. The panel itself consists of two solar cells in a rugged flexible canvas casing, which folds for easy packing, and includes several small rope loops for potentially rigging the device to hiking or backpacking gear.
Specs (from the manufacturer):
- Charges handheld devices directly from a USB or 12 Volt charging port
- 30% smaller than comparable panels and 14 times more powerful than closest competitor
- Charges most cell phones in 1-3 hours and most smartphones, GPS and USB cameras in just 2-4 hours
- Foldable, rugged design weighs just 0.8 lbs and is weather resistant making it ideal for hiking and backpacking
In my case, I spent the day by the water, swimming and kayaking, so I decided to test the panel by laying it out on the dock. For testing, I had my Samsung smartphone (which charges using a micro USB cable), which started out at about 23% charge. The standard USB port makes the panel very easy to set up and use, and the case offers a velcro secured slot for storing your phone while charging (the slot easily fit my Samsung Captivate, and an iPhone).
I must admit my expectations were fairly low, and I was actually a bit surprised when I plugged in my phone and it instantly started drawing a charge. Solar charging is an exciting prospect, but from past experiences, I didn't expect my phone to charge fast enough to really make it useful (since using your phone while it's charging is less than ideal).
Right on the front of the box, Goal Zero claims an hour to charge a phone (doesn't specify smart phone or otherwise). Unfortunately, in my casual testing I never really saw anything near that. In general the phone gained around 10-15% per hour. That said, clearly the efficacy of the devices is subject to a lot of varying factors; the angle of the sun at a given time of day, the device being charged, and of course shade and cloud cover clearly have an effect. In my case, I had mostly direct sun, between 1:00pm and 5:00pm, with the panel laying on the deck, and got fairly acceptable results, though my phone never fully charged in the 4 hours I spent outside, creeping up to around 67%.
Aside from the slightly longer than advertised charging time (mind you, on their website they specify that a smart phone might take 2-4 hours to charge), the charger generally still performed well enough to be useful. Obviously, there are some ideal conditions and use cases for optimal performance, and in my casual testing of the product I felt the panel generally did a good job of charging my device (and to a certain extent, did better than I expected). As a side note, it's also pretty satisfying to use nothing more than the sunlight to keep my device running all day.
Overall the device construction was quite good, rugged enough to be tossed in a backpack, and clearly built with outdoor enthusiasts in mind. As someone who owns a few different pack options for travel, camping, and biking, I appreciated the extra loops built into the panels for rigging (though I wished they had provide more than just one carabiner).
Goal Zero has clearly focused on using high quality materials for their design, and it shows. I felt like my phone was secure inside the provided pouch (though the black material did let my phone get a bit too hot sitting in the sun) and I generally believe the device would hold up well in more serious backwoods camping.
Pros: Well built and clearly made for tactical rigging, the design of the panel clearly targets the right audience. The panel works well enough to keep your USB devices charged on the go, and the satisfaction of using the sun to charge up is definitely a big selling point.
Cons: Unfortunately, the panel doesn't quite live up to its on the box claims. My experience in the past with solar tech meant my expectations were pretty low, and so had the claim not been as specific I might have actually been more impressed by the panel's capabilities. Also, throwing in enough carabiners to properly rig the device would have been nice, especially in place of the car charging plug, which I couldn't see myself using (alongside the convinience of USB).
Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. This specific product was provided by Goal Zero for testing and review purposes.
(Images: Sean Rioux)