Freeloader portable solar energy charger
One thing to fuel them all...
Review The temperamental English weather makes testing a portable solar charger like the Freeloader a tad difficult. Luckily, we were able to grab a day or two of glorious sunshine before the heavens opened and the onslaught of April showers began... in May. Yup, it's all change up there in the atmosphere and as the world warms up, you may be grateful for little devices like this one. Or not, of course...
The Freeloader measures 12.3 x 6.2 x 1.7cm and weighs in at 185g. But unlike most other devices of its kind, the Freeloader itself charges up to become a separate battery ready to plug in and recharge a mobile phone, PDA or MP3 player.
The advantage of this approach is clear: the Freeloader can be left outside somewhere safe and bathed in sunlight while you go off and do your daily routine. Once charged, it's ready for use whatever the weather.
The Freeloader has two solar panels, initially placed face-to-face to keep the delicate photovoltaic cells safe. To charge the device, pull them off, separate them, then click them back onto the main body, one on either side of it. When the device is facing the sun, two LEDs located on the side light up green.
The unit can also be charged from a computer's USB port, for which a cable is supplied. Hooking up a phone or music player is quite simply a matter of connecting one of the many bundled adaptors to the Freeloader.
Formats supported with adapter plugs include: the LG Chocolate series; Motorola V66 series and V3 series; all Nokia and current N series; Samsung A288 and D800 current series and the Sony Ericsson T28 and K750 series. In addition, a USB 2.0 female cable is supplied allowing most brands of MP3 players - including iPods - smart phones, handheld games consoles, satnav device, digital cameras and Bluetooth headsets to be charged.
The device itself feels durable, is compact in size and looks stylish in its aluminium silver finish. Because the panels can clip on either end of the body, whether opened to receive sunlight or packed together for safe-keeping, there's always two panel-connectors left exposed. Some sort of simple, always-attached plastic cover similar to the USB port covers found on some mobile phones and digital cameras would protect these ports - even though they are quite securely in place and unlikely to be damaged - and make the Freeloader a little neater around the edges.
The manufacturer also boasts that the Freeloader is pretty durable. It is, but after a few days of day-to-day bumping about in a bag, something started to rattle in one of the solar panels. To this day, we're not sure exactly what came loose, but whatever it was it didn't seem to affect performance - when the weather permitted a return to testing, that is.
The time taken to power a plugged-in device from the Freeloader depends very much on what it is you're actually charging. The manufacturer claims the internal battery can power an iPod for 18 hours, a mobile phone for 44 hours, a PSP for 2.5 hours and a PDA for 22 hours, and that it will hold its battery charge for up to three months if not used. Granted, we haven't let it sit fully-charged but unused for three months, so we can't honestly comment on that last claim, but once we'd actually had enough sunlight to charge it fully - again, weather conditions will very much affect how long it takes to charge the Freeloader using solar energy - the other claims weren't a million miles away from the results we obtained.
Our iPod Nano charge lasted around 15 to 16 hours. The mobile phone we used was a superannuated, but sentimental Nokia 6170 and that seemed to last for a standard charge time of about 38 hours. The PSP lasted a little under two hours - granted we were playing quite a lot on this - and the PDA equivalent we used was a Samsung SGH-i600 Ultra Edition smart phone, which spluttered and died after a respectable 25 hours.
The Freeloader looks great, can take a not-too-hard knock or two and is a nice concept. But the solar panels themselves feel extremely fragile and any of the little adapters could very easily be lost, should your choice of hardware accessories require you to carry a few of them around. It could be something to put in the holiday box for when you travel overseas to your place in the sun. Otherwise, if you're looking to save on your electricity bill... just charge your stuff at work, it's a lot easier, though it won't help you go green...