by Jerry Jackson
Voltaic Systems jumped onto the notebook bag scene in 2004 and their bags have received glowing reviews by everyone from CNN and Wired to Vanity Fair and Playboy. The press seems to love Voltaic bags, due in no small part to their use of recycled materials and solar panels to charge your electronic devices while traveling. That’s right, Voltaic bags have built-in solar panels and a battery designed to give you a charge without need for an AC outlet.
We took a close look at the Voltaic Converter, one of the company’s most popular bags to see if these solar-powered companions live up to the hype. Is this bag a must-have accessory for your "green" Christmas wish list, or a half-baked treehugger fantasy?
The Voltaic Converter ($199) is a small light weight day bag designed to fit notebooks up to the size of the 17" MacBook Pro and features a compartment for a water bladder (an accessory priced at $19), so it is ideal for biking, hiking, or general day-to-day use.
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Multiple attachment straps, clips, and loops allow the Converter to work as a pannier on a bicycle, a tank bag on a motorcycle, a saddle pack, or a day bag attached to a lager rucksack. Wire channels throughout the bag and shoulder straps allow you to route headphone wires and bladder tubes to keep cables and straps out of the way.
The fully padded internal notebook compartment is designed to protect laptops and fits up to a 17" Mac Powerbook (15.5" x 10.5" x 2" or 39cm x 26cm x 5cm). The only minor issue we noticed about the notebook compartment is that there is no retention strap/clip to hold a notebook in place … so if you forget to close the zipper you risk the laptop falling out of the bag.
An overview of the interior, you can see the extra padding on the back of the solar cells above. (view large image)
A view of an Asus Eee PC out of the storage compartment and resting next to the Voltaic Battery Pack. (view large image)
Features and Specifications
- Fabric: 600D shell made from recycled PET (soda bottles), UV resistant PU, and sandwich mesh back, inside pockets use PET mesh
- Weight: 2.9 lbs including battery and solar panels
- Dimensions: 18" high x 11-12"wide x 3-4" deep (46cm x 27-30cm x 7-10cm)
- Volume: 600 cubic inches (10 liters)
- 4 Watts of Solar Power: From three tough, light weight, waterproof solar panels
- Battery Included: 4,400mAh at 3.6 volts Li-Ion battery pack with 3 voltage settings to store solar power
- When not in the sun, the battery can be charged using the AC travel charger or DC car charger making it just as useful on the grid as off
- Includes 11 standard adaptors for easy connections to common cell phones and universal plugs
- Includes AC power outlet adapters for the US, UK, and Europe
The most important item of note in the specifications is that the solar cells and/or battery have a maximum output of four watts. This means the Voltaic Converter isn’t designed to charge laptops. The Converter will charge cell phones, PDAs, GPS units, iPods, cameras and many other handheld electronics … but it just doesn’t put out enough juice for laptops.
The Converter generates power via three self-contained solar panels. All three panels are waterproof and provide an extra layer of protection for your notebook. At first glance, the panels appear fragile, but upon closer examination they are quite rugged. On the off chance that you manage to destroy one of the solar panels you can purchase replacement solar panels direct from the Voltaic website for $30 each.
One of the biggest concerns I had was that I wouldn’t be able to figure out when the solar cells had enough light to generate a charge. Thankfully, the Converter has an indicator light which glows when the solar cells have enough light. No light means no charge, it’s really quite simple.
An indicator light inside the logo shows when the solar panels are generating a charge. (view large image)
My second concern was that the solar cells might have to spend a day or more in the sun to charge a cell phone. Much to my surprise, the Converter managed to charge most accessories in less than six hours. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that the Converter can charge my Motorola Q smartphone … which is notorious for holding a charge for less than 24 hours. The Converter managed to charge the Motorola Q from a completely dead battery to a complete charge in about five and a half hours.
Approximate Charging Times
|Item||Hours in Direct Sunlight|
|Voltaic Battery Pack||8-10|
Charge times may be increased in cloudy weather, high temperatures, or where panels are not angled towards the sun … so these figures are only rough estimates. Of course, in low light situations you can always charge the Voltaic Battery Pack using the included AC adapter or DC car charger … but that sort of defeats the purpose of a solar-powered backpack.
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Phone / MP3 Pouch
An adjustable pouch ($8) is an available accessory for the Voltaic bags and can be mounted either on the shoulder strap, inside the back pocket of the bag, or on a belt.
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This design allows the pouch to be adjusted to accommodate a range of devices from small cell phones to an iPod. I found the Phone/MP3 pouch to be a must-have accessory for the Converter bag. Although there is plenty of room inside the bag to hold a cell phone or MP3 player the accessory pouch is the only "convenient" way to store your phone or iPod where you can easily reach it.
Overall, the Voltaic Converter lives up to the hype. The Converter is an impressive notebook backpack with excellent build quality, innovative features, and a few minor disappointments. We would have liked to see a Velcro strap or retention clip to securely hold notebooks in place even when the bag isn’t zipped close. Also, it’s a shame that consumers have to buy the phone/MP3 accessory pouch in order to have a convenient place to store a cell phone or iPod. However, the biggest let down is the fact the solar cells and battery pack cannot charge a laptop.
To their credit, Voltaic Systems makes it very clear on their website that the solar-powered notebook bags cannot charge a laptop. I realize the huge wattage requirements for charging notebooks make it impractical for small solar-powered bags to generate sufficient power for a notebook … but I’m certain many potential customers will be disappointed by this.
Bottom line, the Voltaic Converter is a technological marvel and an outstanding compact notebook backpack. The Converter is the perfect solution for travelers who often find themselves away from power outlets but still need to charge a cell phone, camera, or an iPod.
- Solar cells provide additional power for cell phones and other small electronics
- Nice and compact, yet still has plenty of storage space
- Made from durable recycled materials
- You can charge the battery from a car or wall outlet if sunshine isn’t available
- Comfortable padding on back and shoulder strap
- Cannot charge a notebook!
- No retention strap/clip to hold notebooks in place