If you’ve ever found yourself working at a coffee shop or other locale when your laptop battery is nearing its end—only to find that every outlet in the place has already been hogged—it would seem that you have no choice but to head home. The Voltaic Generator laptop bag ($499) offers the option to plug your notebook right into its solar-charged battery for few more hours of juice. The Generator is the only notebook bag capable of providing a charge to a laptop (other solar and wind chargers to date haven’t been powerful enough); we just wished it worked with more laptops and wasn’t as cumbersome to carry around.
The Voltaic Generator Laptop Bag doesn’t look like your typical messenger-style notebook case and isn’t going to win any style awards (even if going green is hip). Measuring 17.0 x 12.0 x 3.5 inches (large enough to hold the 16-inch Gateway MC Series), one side of the bag is covered with nine octagonal solar panels accented in silver. Customers can order the bag with orange, green, black, and white accents. The rest of the bag is a water-resistant black fabric made from recycled materials.
We liked the exterior design of Voltaic Generator, but it does suffer from poor ergonomics. While the strap was comfortable on our shoulder, the solar panels added too much weight to one side; when we set it down, the bag kept tipping over on the paneled side. Two small metal clasps on the bottom of the Generator fold out to help prop the bag up, but they didn’t work at all times. Having to pick up the side-heavy bag off the floor while traveling got tedious. We could also wear the bag as a backpack by stringing the shoulder strap through the top of the bag, but this was even more uncomfortable and looked ridiculous.
Battery Pack Inside
Inside the Voltaic Generator is a removable 9-ounce, four-cell lithium ion battery pack that measures 4.3 x 2.8 x 1.3 inches. It can be recharged via the included AC adapter or by connecting it to the bag’s solar panels via a cord inside the bag. Five hours of sunlight is supposed to recharge the four-cell battery completely. A small indicator light on its handle shows when the Generator is getting juice from the sun, and a charge indicator light on the pack shows the levels of charging; it turns red when charging and green when it’s full.
You can switch among four voltage settings for a range of gadgets, from cell phones to notebooks, by pressing the voltage selector on the battery. While Voltaic told us that Apple, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Panasonic notebooks typically work, we didn’t have any luck with the Lenovo IdeaPad Y530 or the Toshiba Portégé R500. We did have success with an HP Pavilion dv3510nr, Lenovo ThinkPad X200, and Dell Latitude XT. The Voltaic Generator also worked with an Apple MacBook, but its adapter comes separately on the company’s site for $20. Voltaic assured us that it’s helping customers identify the right notebooks at the point of sale, and the company plans to post a list of compatible notebooks on its Web site.
Charging and Usage
Indoors, like a cat trying to find a warm place to sleep, we had to chase the sun from window to window to get the bag’s battery to charge. Aiming the bag’s panels at our office’s overhead fluorescent light worked only in some cases and provided only enough juice to charge a cell phone. The best charging results came from leaving the bag out in the Florida sun while we sat by a pool. It also worked outdoors on an overcast day in New York.
Setting up the Generator with a notebook or cell phone was a breeze. We found the correct adapter (the bag comes with 18 for various laptops and cell phones) and plugged the bag into the AC port of a HP Pavilion dv3510nr. The Generator doesn’t refill your notebook’s battery, but instead acts as a backup battery. Voltaic claims that one hour in the sun will provide the Generator’s battery with enough juice to power your notebook for 20 to 45 minutes; that translates to about 1.5 to 3.5 hours of runtime on a full charge. After draining the battery on the dv3510nr, we plugged it into the bag, and it lasted for 1 hour and 45 minutes while running the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). When we ran the same test just using the laptop’s battery, our notebook ran for 3 hours and 41 minutes.
The Generator works more consistently with cell phones. Our BlackBerry Curve was fully recharged after we plugged it into the bag for 2.5 hours in 5-volt mode. Similarly, we were able to charge an iPhone 3G using the standard Apple charging cord by plugging it into the USB port on the battery pack (Voltaic plans to package the bag with an iPod and iPhone 3G adapter for a smoother experience); our almost dead iPhone 3G was recharged to full capacity in less than 45 minutes. In direct sunlight, the bag could last longer, since it would be charging while providing energy to your notebook at the same time.
We like that the Voltaic Generator provides an alternative energy solution and saves on electricity. However, the large, inflexible solar panel on the side of the notebook bag makes for an awkward design, and we wish it worked with more notebooks. It’s an ideal product for someone without access to an outlet—and with access to plenty of sunlight. But if you’re not keen on spending $499 for an extra two hours of notebook endurance or a full cell phone charge, a spare or extra-capacity battery might be a better investment.