I've had a prototype Voltaic Solar Backpack for the better part of two months now and I'm ready to call it an only slightly-qualified success. It's not going to be for everyone, simply because not everyone has the need to drop $230+ on a backpack. That being said, if you've got a hankering for gadgets and find yourself roaming around outside at all (or even lingering near a window for too long) then you'll definitely want to get this bag a shot.
Get two months worth of hands-on testing inside.
Up front, while the bag I had was a prototype (one of just five, I was proud to tell disinterested cab drivers), most of the minor changes made to the production bags and mine weren't major—where the changes were notable, though, I'll be sure to mention it.
The bag is nice looking, if a bit plain. I was worried before I had gotten my hands on it that the solar panels would make it just too awkward to wear in public, but it's actually quite a chameleon, with the three separate panels accenting the overall look instead of detracting from it. The little orange stripe on the bottom is nice, too, although I wish Voltaic offered color options here. Perhaps in future revisions we'll get a choice beyond basic black and orange.
It's not just pleasing to look at, though, but just a solid backpack all around, from a design perspective. There is always a fear with a unique convergence product that each of the halves will suffer in pursuit of a new whole, but that's not the case here. The only complaint I had was a felt-like lining on the back of the bag, making it entirely too warm. I've been told that's been replaced in the production bag with a less sweaty material, so no worries there. It wasn't quite as comfortable as my most ergonomic bag, a Gravis backpack of similar design, but as my primary backpack of the last two months it's seen plenty of sorties into Manhattan and back and stayed plenty comfortable. It did have a tendency to make my shirts ride up over my gut, a problem I at first attributed to the bag, but later realized it was because I had a gut.
Part of the design ethic of the Voltaic is made clear in the little hidden wires routed through the seams of the bag, bringing power from the outside pouch (where the battery pack and solar panels live) to the top MP3-player pouch—there's even a power out on the front right strap that runs right up into a little pouch just begging to have a cellphone put in it.
It's when you first start configuring the Voltaic that you might first be a little daunted—and maybe a little disappointed. I was markedly bummed when I discovered that the Voltaic was only designed to charge a single device at a time. It makes sense, I suppose, but I was hoping to be able to hook up all my gear in their individual mesh pockets and have them all topped off all the time. There's actually a few reasons why that isn't practical, but I spoke to Voltaic about the option and they agreed it might be worth investigating. The downside would be that each gadget connected would leech power from the others if they didn't have the proper circuitry to prevent it, not to mention the increased charging time for each individual gadget. So anyway, think one at a time, for the most part.
The power comes of the solar panels (10 volts at 4 watts) into a direct out car charger or into the supplied battery pack. Both are necessary to guarantee you can use all your gear with the Voltaic, and it's nice to know you'll be able to use a car charger for something if Voltaic doesn't supply a universal tip that matches your gear (although they offer a ton of options for phones, cameras, and other gear). But my Nokia phone, for instance, didn't accept any of the three settings (5V, 6V, or 7.2Volts) from the output on the battery, forcing me to use a car charger for my Nokia. Most phones aren't so picky, but that goes to show why the car out is useful.
The battery is one of the best features of the Voltaic, though, so you'll want to use that whenever you can. If you're like me, when you get your hands on some solar panels the first thing you'll realize is that you're really hungry and could use a burger. But then you'll realize how relatively un-awesome our otherwise majestic and terrible sun is at powering up gear. Solar is slow. On the other hand, the sun is on for at least half of the day, and with a built-in battery the Voltaic can slurp up power all the time which you can use to charge up whatever you need to. It's a great touch that makes the Voltaic more than just occasionally useful—having a topped-off battery that can charge any of your gear is a potential lifesaver.
Before Autumn crept in and ashed out the sun, I would drop the Voltaic in a window during the day and top off its battery. When the battery was full (it has a built-in meter that shows three levels of charge) I'd switch it over to something that needed a little juice. Conveniently, an LED is integrated into the Voltaic logo on the side that shows if the bag is getting enough sunlight to provide a charge. It's a downside of solar, but on overcast days you might not get enough sunlight to provoke a charge. At least with the LED, you know where you stand.
The panels themselves are plenty sturdy, and while it wouldn't be a good idea to stratch them, I was never really worried about breaking them. At first I treated the whole thing gingerly, always being careful of how I set it down (which isn't a bad idea since you always want to set it towards sunlight) but soon I was tossing it around like anything else. Voltaic says the bag will continue to function even if you destroy one of the panels, albeit at a lower efficiency. Replacement panels will be offered for a cost online.
Voltaic also has plans for a line of accessories, the first of which is an LED flashlight that can be connected to one of the universal plugs (usually the front one) that will come out late this month. There are also tons of power-related accessories, including plug packs and replacements, if you need them. The one I would recommend would be the $15 AC adapter. I don't have one—they weren't an option with the prototype—but it seems like it would be a handy thing to have if you already have the Voltaic. Sure, it's a little goofy to plug a solar-powered bag into a wall, but if you've already gotten all the connections to turn your Voltaic into a portable charging center, you might as well use the battery pack plugged into the wall as a universal adapter. The idea is to always have power, right?
All in all, I'm really ecstatic about it, and I hope to pick up a production model soon. I'll be taking the prototype with me to Japan and am really looking forward to being able to keep all my electronics in one connected place. It's even got a padded bag that fits my Powerbook that clips to two hooks on the inside, keeping it off the ground at all times. If it had a little more cargo room inside the rear pocket where laptops go, I might even be able to get most of my clothes inside. I took it to Boston for a weekend and was barely able to get clothes for that jaunt inside—this is definitely a day bag, not a hike bag.
My only reservation is the price. With shipping and a couple of accessories, the bag easily crests the $250 price point, which is a lot of money for something that's secondary function can be replaced with another bag that costs $50. Overall, though, I'd say it's worth it. There is at least one other cheaper solar-powered backpack out there (in fact, it's in a box waiting for me to review it), but a lot of what makes the Voltaic so useful isn't just the solar panels, but also the battery and integrated cabling.
If you're the type that carries a lot of different gear—or even just one piece of equipment that you always need charged—the Voltaic is indispensable.
Product Page [VoltaicSystems]