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Solar Charger Roundup

9 April 2012 Leave a comment

This is a quick roundup of my favorite three solar chargers with their respective pros and cons.

Changers Starter Kit

Pros

  • Unique design
  • Social networking aspects
  • Detachable battery
  • Eco-conscious packaging
  • Micro-USB cable works well with the mophie battery pack
  • Standard USB port

Cons

  • Solar panel not very strong (needs excellent light source to work effectively)
  • Doesn’t always fully charge some devices

Details

 

JOOS Orange

Pros

  • Large battery
  • Large solar panels which charge at a decent rate
  • Strong, durable, and waterproof
  • myJOOS software available for both Windows and Mac
  • Adjustable legs
  • Works in hot conditions
  • iPad compatible

Cons

  • No lights blink if the device is full
  • myJOOS software needs work (still not compatible with Lion)
  • microUSB cable difficult to insert
  • Yet more adapters

Details

 

Solio BOLT

Pros

  • Fast Apple-charging mode
  • Portable
  • Standard USB port

Cons

  • Can take several days to charge the internal battery
  • Too easy to leave the power on

Details

Categories: Bolt, Changers, JOOS Orange, Solar, Solio

JOOS Orange Redux

8 April 2012 Leave a comment

One of the niceties of the JOOS Orange is its software companion, myJOOS.  Lately, the software wasn’t recognizing when my JOOS Orange was plugged into my computer (a MacBook Pro).  I then checked the System Profiler and saw that the JOOS Orange wasn’t even being recognized as a connected USB device.  Something was definitely wrong.  I contacted Solar Component’s customer service for assistance, and they requested that I return the defective unit to be either repaired or replaced.

I now have a new-to-me JOOS Orange, and I’m happy to report that it is working better than before.  It is being recognized by my computer and the myJOOS application.  Even better is that it now consistently charges older iOS devices, such as the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, where my previous JOOS Orange often had a difficult time being connected consistently to these devices.

In my earlier review, I spent a good portion of the article critiquing the myJOOS software.  I then later discovered that this software isn’t currently compatible with Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”, yet.  The myJOOS web page had further details:

*** WE ARE AWARE THAT THE MYJOOS APPLICATION DOES NOT WORK WITH MAC OSX LION (10.7). WE ARE WORKING ON A FIX TO THIS PROBLEM AND HOPE TO HAVE IT AVAILABLE FOR YOU SOON ***

*** The myJOOS application was actually designed so we could test and run quality control checks on the JOOS Orange in our factory before shipping them out to you. We thought it would be cool to offer the app to our customers so they could see the exact same data we were seeing in our tests. While we have made every attempt to make the application accurate and informative, it is important to note, it is only a beta version of what we plan to offer in the future.

I appreciate these details from the company, and that they recognize that a problem does exist.  This software has some interesting potential, which I hope to see fulfilled at some time in the future.

Categories: JOOS Orange, Solar

Efficiency

17 March 2012 Leave a comment

A recent Wired article reviewed four solar chargers, which included the JOOS Orange and the Solio BOLT.  One of the criticisms of the BOLT was that the smaller set of solar panels couldn’t compete well against the other products which featured larger solar panels.  Common sense would indicate that larger panels would be able to generate more energy.  Seems straightforward, right?  More panels = more power.  Well, yes — to a point.  However, the devilish details tend to make the facts a little fuzzy around the edges, which makes apple-to-apple comparisons difficult.

From what I’ve been told, the JOOS Orange has some of the best solar panels out there — it’s not just the size, but the quality and efficiency of the panels which allow them to generate so much power.  From my own experience, the larger panels and battery of the JOOS Orange have been distinct advantages over its competition.  Rarely have I been able to fully drain the JOOS Orange’s battery when charging up my devices.

WIRED’s article mentions that it took 9 hours to fill up the BOLT’S 7.4 Wh battery.  Now, what if the BOLT’s solar panels were so efficient that they could fully charge the battery in 2 hours, instead of 9?  Perhaps it is time to jump into the Delorean and set the course for the future.

What will solar chargers be like in 5, 10, or 20 years in the future?  If the nascent consumer solar charger market can make similar strides that computers have performed, then there is the possibility that solar chargers will be a common household appliance.  For that to occur, we’ll need to see great leaps in improvement in the efficiency of three areas: solar, batteries, and energy.

Solar Efficiency

The most obvious of the three areas.  Most solar panels are only 10 – 15% efficient in converting solar energy into electricity.  Being able to generate more power with the same surface area is a key goal.  But even the most efficient of today’s solar panels only reach around 20%, a far cry from the level that we’d like to achieve.  Ideally, a solar charger would be able to collect and store more energy than a person could reasonably use.

Battery Efficiency

The battery industry has tremendous potential and hurtles to meet current and future demands at both the consumer and industrial level.

Two decades ago, the word “battery” would have elicited thoughts of Energizer or Duracell.  The need for powerful and efficient batteries has become ever more necessary in a world filled with mobile devices (laptops, phones, tablets, etc.).  The third generation iPad increased its battery size to 42.5 Wh (versus the iPad 2’s 25Wh battery) to maintain up to a 10 hour charge while being able to power the higher resolution display and LTE networking.  The latest mobile phones struggle to go through a full day without draining their batteries.  The need for solar chargers to contain more efficient batteries is no less.

Energy Efficiency

Long before one should venture into the costly realm of installing a solar array for their house, one can perform other measures to reduce the amount of electricity they consume by using more energy efficient appliances, disconnecting machines from the wall when not in use, and just using less in general.

The aforementioned iPad increased its battery storage to be able to support the new features.  Phones such as the EVO 4G bleed through its battery due to its many antennae (WiMAX, 3G, WiFi) searching for signals.  A compromise between both software and hardware is needed to improve the overall performance and efficiency of mobile devices.  With less power used should lead to needing to charge the phone fewer times, which lengthens the life of the battery, in addition to improving the user experience with fewer charges.

To be able to meet the demand of charging up several mobile devices, I make use of four solar chargers (JOOS Orange, Solio BOLT, Solio Classic-i, Changers).  Still, this is only a small step towards a brighter and more energy efficient future.

Categories: Bolt, JOOS Orange, Solar, Solio

JOOS Orange

21 August 2011 Leave a comment

Product Size

One of the most disappointing things about the state of many solar devices is that they more closely resemble a bizarre, hobbyist’s electronic project which was constructed in the basement on Saturday afternoon rather than a device intended for consumer use.  Fortunately, there are a couple of companies who are applying a proper level of aesthetic taste to their products which make them both useful and visually appealing.  Solio’s line of chargers were the first set of devices I noticed which embraced both form and function, but Solio’s devices certainly aren’t alone now.

Enter the JOOS Orange, by Solar Components, LLC, which has already been on the market for a year, which surprised me that it took so long to discover this brilliant device.

Construction

The JOOS Orange has similar size and weight to a Kindle, yet it has a very durable feel to it.  It’s compact enough to be easily carried in a backpack, but too large to be tucked into a pocket (like the Solio Classic or iGo Charge Anywhere).  This device is ideal for using at home, in a car, or on a backpacking trip.

It can continue charging when submerged in water and even survived getting shot.  I didn’t try shooting the Orange, but mine did get a little wet in a rain shower and has shown no problems.  One distinct advantage I’ve found with using the Orange is that it has a maximum operating temperature of 60 °C (140 °F), which is ideal for charging the device in a hot car.

The device has a decent sized hole which serves as a security hole, placed in a steel substrate.  I could imagine making use of the security hole by running a security cable through it and locking it to a porch so it doesn’t accidentally “walk away” while it is charging outside.

The two adjustable legs on the back are a welcome feature to be able to prop up the device without the need of a pencil or other object.

The microUSB port is covered by a rubber “foot”.  Unfortunately, this plastic feels like it will eventually bend, tear, crack, and eventually fall off.  I estimate that the rubber foot lasts about a year before it falls off.  I have also found trying to plug in the cable to the microUSB port can take a couple of attempts to insert properly.  If the Orange was very thin, then using a microUSB port might have made sense, but I imagine that a standard USB port could have also been used, which would have been ideal to use with cables which already can be powered over USB.  I also found that the cable connection could be somewhat tentative and could easily stop charging a device if the device or cable was nudged or bumped.

The JOOS Orange comes with a bevy of adapter tips — 6 in all.  I ended up purchasing another tip to be able to charge up a Nintendo DS.  However, for my needs, I have only used the adapters for the Nintendo DS and for the iPhone/iPad.  I appreciate the number of tips they offer by default, but it does mean I have yet more tips laying around the house.  Perhaps if Solar Components had gone with making use of the iGo adapter tips, I could have conserved on the number of cables and tips I owned.  Also included in the packaging is a plastic pouch to keep all of your cables and adapter tips neatly stored.

I found that when the JOOS Orange was connected to either an iPhone 3GS or iPhone 4, the connection could be intermittent, often connecting and disconnecting on its own.  However, I have not encountered this problem when connected to an iPhone 4S.

Since this is a green-minded product, even the packaging of the box has been constructed from recycled paper.  Brownie points earned for that nice touch.

Battery

With a 5400 mAh battery, it can easily charge up the entire battery of my iPhone 3GS, with plenty of power to spare.  After charging my iPhone from 10% to 100%, it drained the Orange from full to around half (3 green blinks).   Ideally, the Orange should be able to charge up an iPhone several times (depending on how old your phone’s battery is).

Due to the larger set of solar panels and decent sized battery, I have not been able to completely drain the Orange in the several weeks I’ve had it.  The battery is of a sufficient size that it can charge up a phone with plenty of power left over, which then allows the Orange enough time to recharge itself.

One major advantage of the JOOS Orange is that it can provide sufficient power to be able to charge up an iPad, which has been a shortcoming of many other chargers due to the higher power requirements demanded by the iPad.

While the device is charging, a green light will occasionally flicker to indicate how full the battery is.  This works if the device is charging, but it does not provide a very effective way to determine the battery’s charge without using the companion myJOOS software.  A more ideal method to determine the battery’s charge would be a button which can be pressed that will then display a row of LED lights to indicate the battery’s state (i.e. the battery on a Mac laptop).  The most befuddling thing about displaying the battery’s charge is that it will not blink when the Orange is full.  My Orange had been charging in a car, and when I took it out, none of the lights were blinking, which concerned me that either the heat of the car had caused the Orange to either shut down, or even worst, die.  Fortunately, the device had charged in the hot car just fine and was full.

Software

An April 2010 Wired review remarked that the myJOOS software was not originally available for the Mac, but the good news for those Apple-loving users is that myJOOS has been brought to the Mac.  Plug the JOOS Orange into your computer and start up the myJOOS Dashboard, which will give extra information, such as how full the battery is, or how much solar energy the device is currently producing.  This last feature isn’t too ideal unless you have the Orange sitting in the sun while connected to a computer the same time.

Now for the not-so-good news.  I make my bread and butter as a Mac and iOS developer, so I can be quite picky about software.  When I try out a new piece of software, I like to poke around and see if it has that expected look and feel of a proper Mac application.  Perhaps some of the details I will point out may not be important to everyone, but I feel that this software requires a lot more polish so it can properly compliment its hardware sibling.  As I mentioned, I write software for a living, so some of my opinions might be quite critical.

Installer

Installers are rarely seen for Mac programs these days, unless the program needs to install a set of necessary files in specific locations (such as support files or drivers).  If the installer is needed, it might be better to just compress and archive the installer package as a Zip file, instead of packaging it into a disk image (DMG).

Whenever I do see a installer, I hesitate, unless an uninstaller has been provided, as well.  I wanted to know what files are being installed on my system, so with the installer program running, I went to  the Files > Show Files menu.  The first thing I see in the list of files is ./Dashboard.app.  This made me nervous, since every Mac with Mac OS 10.4 or later already has an application called Dashboard in the main Applications folder.  As a precaution, I backed up the original Dashboard before continuing with the myJOOS Dashboard install.

I continued through the remainder of the installation procedure.  When it was complete, I was initially a little lost at what got installed and where it was located, so I looked through the Applications folder.  The original Dashboard had not been affected, so that was good.  I didn’t see anything under myJOOS, either.  After a little further searching, I found the Solar Components folder, which contained the myJOOS Dashboard folder, which ultimately contained Dahsboard.app and a host of other folders and files.  Ideally, a Mac application should be be encapsulated as a single application bundle which is placed into the Applications folder.  The nested folders architecture works well for Windows, but it feels out of place on the Mac.  If there are support files that are needed by the application, then they should be either located within the application bundle or placed into an appropriate location such as the ~/Library/Application Support/ directory.

Considering that this software works with external hardware, I assumed that the installer was necessary to install an appropriate driver to communicate with the JOOS Orange.  After looking through the list of installed files and checking the list of running kernel extensions, I could not find any proof that a another driver was used to communicate between the hardware and software.

Unless there is something specific to be installed, my recommendation would be to wrap the myJOOS Dashboard software into a single application bundle and distribute as a disk image, and do away with the use of an installer.

Icon

For whatever bizarre reason, the application’s icon has been limited to a highly pixelated 32×32 image.  The icon file needs to be properly formatted for various resolutions (512×512, 256×256, 128×128, 32×32, 16×16) for a proper visual experience.  This is one of those little issues that is easy to fix to provide for a cleaner look.

Main interface

The interface is pretty simple, which shows how full the Orange’s battery is, and it can also display how much power the device is generating at that time.  In my tests, I’ve noticed the battery charge meter fluctuate, depending on the current voltage.  At times, this produces erratic results on determining the state of the Orange’s battery.  Overall, it does give a decent estimate ofthe charge of the battery.  There are several fields indicating the number of Watt-hours uploaded.  Since this program doesn’t come with a Help system, I wasn’t able to get any further information from this besides what little was mentioned within the EULA.

Menu system

myJOOS Dashboard contains the traditional application menu, but the About Dashboard and Preferences menus are non-functional.  Instead, most of the functionality is in the single Program menu, which contains two menus: About and Exit.  Exit works as expected, but on a Mac application, it should be named “Quit”.  Fortunately, the Quit Dashboard menu under the application menu is present and functional.  The About menu (which should also be linked to the About Dashboard menu under the application menu) displays an About screen.  On the About Dashboard window is an Installation Details button, which gives a lot of nitty-gritty details about the installation, which really is not even necessary.  How many users would really care about seeing the Installation Details?  Probably not many.  This is an option best left out.

Java

If all of the org.eclipse references and non-traditional menu system didn’t already tip me off that myJOOS Dashboard was developed in Java, there was one more test to prove it.  Run myJOOS Dashboard under a fresh copy of the newly released Mac OS X 10.7 “Lion”.

On the Mac, Java has always been a second-rate citizen — at least, until recently.  With the recent release of Lion, Java has been even further demoted since the Java runtime is not part of the initial Lion install.  To run the myJOOS software under Lion, the Java runtime will need to be installed first.  Another mark against Java is that any application developed with a deprecated technology (such as Java) will not be accepted into the Mac App Store.

This process of the Java runtime being an optional component is reminiscent of what Apple did with Rosetta in Mac OS X 10.6 “Snow Leopard”.  Now with Lion, the PowerPC-emulation capabilities provided by Rosetta have been removed all together.  Might we see something similar happen with Java in the future?  I hope not, but don’t bet against Apple to not do such a thing.  Apple has become notorious for discarding what it has deemed old technologies (even when those technologies might still be used frequently).  While I can understand that Java might have been used to provide for a cross-platform solution for myJOOS Dashboard, it might be in the best interest of the future of the Mac version of myJOOS to be ported to a native Cocoa-based application.  (And did I mention that I’m a Mac and iOS developer?  Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

Update [ 3 December 2011 ]

The JOOS Orange website current makes note that the Dashboard software does not currently run on Mac OS 10.7.  I tested this and was greeted with the following error message:

Error Message

 

I contacted the company and they let me know that they are working on a fix.

After all of that nit-picking, do I like anything about this software?  As a long-time Mac user and software developer, I greatly appreciate that a Mac version was created.  It is very heartening to me to see that Apple has returned to a stage where it is worthwhile for third parties to write software for Apple’s hardware.  The JOOS Orange is an excellent device, and I would like the companion software to reflect that same level of quality.

One further note about software: the myJOOS website mentions an iOS app is also in the works and should be available by the end of 2011.

Pros

  • Large battery
  • Large solar panels which produce a decent charge rate
  • Strong, durable, and waterproof
  • myJOOS software available for both Windows and Mac
  • Adjustable legs
  • Works in hot conditions
  • iPad compatible

Cons

  • No lights blinking if device is full
  • myJOOS software needs work
  • microUSB difficult to insert
  • Loose cable connection to iPhone3GS and iPhone 4 (iPhone 4S works fine)
  • Yet more adapters

Details

Categories: JOOS Orange, Solar, Solio