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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Chargers > BioLite SolarPanel 5 > Test Report by Jamie DeBenedetto

Initial Report
September 12th, 2016


Reviewer's Information

Name Jamie J. DeBenedetto

Me and the Saguaro

Age and Gender Female, 43 years old

Height 5' 11" (180 cm)

Weight 175 lb (79 kg)

Email JamieD1005-at-gmail-dot-com

Background/Experience

I spent many hours of my youth fishing, rafting, creeking, and dayhiking in the wild places of Arizona. I caught the backpacking bug in high school. Presently I work as an exPAWdition leader so I'm in the field, usually with a pack of dogs, at least sixteen times a month. Primarily I'm a dayhiker with the occasional family camping trip mixed in throughout the year.
I prefer hammocks over ground sleeping and I gravitate toward multifunctional gear that enhances my comfort level with minimal fuss and weight. My total pack weight is typically less than 25 lbs (11 kg).


Location Phoenix, Arizona - The Grand Canyon State - USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Product Information Back to contents

Manufacturer URL www.bioliteenergy.com
Year of Manufacture Presumed 2016
Made in China
MSRP $59.99 US
Weight 12 oz (340 g)
Dimensions
10.12 x 8.19 x 0.94 inches
(257 x 208 x 24 mm)
Watts per hour 5 at peak sun
Cell Type Monocrystalline
Power Transfer Port USB, output only; Cord not included
Weather Resistant Yes
Auto-Reconnect Yes
Warranty Limited one year

(Above: Taken from the Manufacturer's Website or Packaging)

(Below: Observed by Tester as Received)

Weight (taken with a digital office scale) 11.6 oz (329 g)
Dimensions 9.84 x 8.23 x 0.94 inches (250 x 209 x 24 mm)

 

Product Description Back to contents

The BioLite SolarPanel 5 is a portable energy source designed to convert sunlight into usable power for a variety of electronic devices. It does this directly, without a power storage option, so if the sun isn't shining, it isn't charging. The panel is lightweight and thinner than your typical tablet. Despite its slender profile, it's rigid and doesn't feel at all flimsy. To aid in capturing the maximum amount of sunlight the panel comes with a small analog sundial and a metal kickstand that rotates 360 degrees. There are also two grommet type holes on both bottom corners providing more mounting or even hanging options. The lone USB port located on the back of the panel on the bottom of the orange charging strip has a cover to keep the elements out. Directly opposite the USB port on top of the orange charging strip is a little blue blinking light. This is the Charge Strength Indicator. The blink speeds up when the charge is highest. If charging happens to stop due to obstructed sunlight, the "Auto-Reconnect" feature will restart the charge as soon as sufficient light reappears. Lastly, BioLite claims the whole unit is weather-resistant, stating, "it can handle a surprise storm".

Arrival Condition and Informational Material Back to contents

The SolarPanel 5 arrived undamaged and appears to be in perfect working order. The box I received contained one SolarPanel 5 and a very rudimentary Quick Start Guide, no USB cord. I was expecting the cord because the webpage has one listed as part of the items included "In the Box". Conversely, the product packaging only lists the panel and the instruction sheet as being included. Not really a huge deal since every device I own comes with its own USB cable. One other inconsistency I noticed between the product display box and the website is the spelling of monocrystalline, the silicone material the panel is made from. It is misspelled twice on the box but correct on the website. Obviously not an issue for the customer but thought BioLite might want to know.

The customer info provided in the Quick Start Guide, which caters to twelve different languages, shows in simplistic picture form how to 1. Setup the panel for optimum light exposure, 2. Align the sundial correctly, and 3. Charge your chosen device. There is also a page dedicated to labeling the various components of the panel. For folks interested in more comprehensive information there is a webpage link to the full instruction manual, tutorial videos and more - BioLiteEnergy.com/Instructions
I personally found the Quick Start Guide sufficient to get me on my way to free-energy charging. Having said that, there were some important nuggets of information in the downloadable manual too. Most notably expanded cautions about prolonged exposure to water and or submersion of the panel. Care and cleaning instructions and a tip about charging time for a typical cell phone. Their claim: "2 hours in direct peak sun will fully charge most smartphones. We recommended closing apps and wi-fi to conserve your power."



Expectations and First Impressions Back to contents

Widely known for our sunny days, Phoenix, which averages 300 such days a year should be the perfect proving grounds for a solar panel. Going into this test, my expectations are high for the BioLite gadget. Even with shorter days approaching (and we're all hoping they get here soon) I see no nature related reasons why the SolarPanel5 wouldn't have enough sun exposure to do its thing. Uh oh, plot twist!! Having done some preliminary at-home trials to make sure the panel is working and is compatible with my devices, my results have been sketchy. I have tried two models of Samsung phones (S4 and S5) with their original charging cables and a variety of other cables without success. The Charging Indicator light on the panel shows it's working but the charging symbol on the phones doesn't click on. My luck with an IPad wasn't much better. The IPad does indicate it's charging but after a half an hour, battery life had only gone up 1%. The only device I had very good results with was my son's IPod Touch 5. Starting at 25% battery, it reached 100% after only 1.5 hrs. The last device I tried with the panel was a powerbank. I knew the cube would take a while so every half hour I checked on it to realign the panel. I wanted to give it as many hours of optimum sun as possible to make it a fair test. After 4 hours I lost sun and stopped my timer. The cube was not fully charged. It's important to note that this particular charging cube also takes several hours to charge through my PC as well.

At this point I'm kind of in a pickle. The only USB compatible device I typically need in the wilderness is my cell phone but the panel doesn't like my Samsung S4. If the panel won't charge the only thing I need charging, exciting new technology or not, it's not much good to me in the field. Going forward I'll have to exchange the SolarPanel5 for a new one in hopes it works with Android devices or figure out some other solution so the test can continue.

Update as of Nov. 1st, 2016 Back to contents

After several more failed attempts with other USB compatible devices I decided the SolarPanel5 I received must be defective. I contacted BioLite customer service on Sept 13th via their online help option. I was emailed the next day by a support rep named Dale. Over the next couple of days Dale very courteously gathered info. about my problem then offered me a replacement. In fact, he offered me an upgrade to the SolarPanel5+, which was a very nice gesture. I declined of course since I need to continue with the test on the 5. Our email correspondence ended on Sept. 16th with a promise of a new panel being sent out along with a return label for the defective unit. As of Oct. 4th I was still waiting with eager anticipation for the replacement to arrive, or even a message from BioLite that it had shipped. First, I emailed Dale for a status update but when I didn't hear back after several days I tried customer support once more from the webpage help option. Again, crickets!! Finally, I gave up and I sought help from my BGT Test Moderator to see if they might have any luck moving things forward. On Oct 24th I received a very apologetic email from Dale at BioLite stating something had gone wonky with their computer system so they never received my shipping info and his assurance the new panel was on its way. It did arrive five days later on Oct 29th. I have to admit, if I were simply a regular customer, I would have been pretty irritated at this point, possibly to the extent of just cancelling my order and asking for my money back. To be clear, my irritation stems not so much from the system glitch but from the fact that system is the only way to communicate with customer service.

Back to contents

Field Report
December 26th, 2016


Field Tests Back to contents

Winter, or at least what we Phoenicians call winter, has finally arrived. Fortunately for me the season change has only disrupted our steady stream of sunny clear days a handful of times giving me several good opportunities to evaluate the replacement Biolite SolarPanel5. Up to this point I've done five day hikes with the panel strapped to my pack as well as several at home tests to make sure the new unit worked with my tech. All hikes took place in the desert preserves and mountain parks of north Phoenix, AZ. The landscape in these areas is open with mostly low lying vegetation offering plenty of access to the sunshine. I only used the panel on cloudless days. Temperatures ranged between the low 50's F (11 C) up to the mid 80's F (28 C).

Shortly after receiving the new panel I ran into a couple of complications. Firstly, Biolite did not send a return shipping label so I have been unable to return the original panel to them. My attempts to contact customer service via the support page have failed and with the holidays nearly here I've given up for now with plans to resume my efforts after the first of the year. Needless to say I'm not very happy with customer service at this point.

Secondly, the new panel performs nearly the same as the first. What I've discovered is the first panel wasn't actually defective, nor is the second, they simply do not work as expected with the devices I own, namely Samsung Galaxy S4 and S5 phones. These phones use 2600mAh and 2800mAh Lithium-Ion batteries. For some reason the Biolite panel isn't able to charge these phones unless they are totally turned off. Neither the Quick Start Guide nor the website Instruction Manual mentioned the possibility of the user needing to turn off the device for charging. Doing so did not occur to me while I was experimenting with the first panel. Interestingly, the panel was able to successfully charge (while on) two devices with lower storage capacity batteries. My husband's (now ancient) Motorola Droid Ultra which uses a 2130mAh Li-Ion and my son's Ipod Touch 5 which uses a wee 1030mAh Li-Polymer battery. In fact, of the five USB compatible devices I have plugged into the SolarPanel5, these two were the only ones I could get to charge with any consistency and within the manufacturer claim of "2 hrs". Unfortunately, this doesn't do me any good in the field because I do not carry either of these pieces of tech while hiking.

Once I figured out the "secret" method necessary to charge my Samsung Galaxy S4 I thought for sure the rest of this test series would be a snap. Oh, not so fast! Turns out the SolarPanel5 is a fickle little thing. Not only does it not like my phone, it also doesn't like movement. On my first three hikes I attempted to attach the panel to the outside of my pack, aimed as best I could toward the sun per my direction of travel. Although the Charge Strength Indicator never stopped blinking, the panel could not keep a continuous charge going into my phone. My cell regularly buzzed alerting me to each connection and disconnection. Besides being incredibly annoying it also resulted in a negative net charge because the phone had to expend more battery power reconnecting than it was actually gaining from the panel, even while powered off.

On hikes four and five I changed my strategy. I very much disliked hiking with my phone turned off and it wasn't charging anyway so I kept all three items (phone, panel and USB cord) stowed inside my pack and waited until it was time to take a trailside break. As soon as I stopped I found a suitable location for the panel and my phone, hooked the rig up and let it do its thing - phone off, panel still, sunlight beaming. I gave it 15 min during which time my battery life went from 76% to 84%. I wouldn't call this amazing but it was a net gain and given the less than stellar start to this test series, I'm calling that a victory.

 

Pros and Cons Thus Far Back to contents

Pleasing Aspects:

  • The free energy concept is always a winner in my book
  • Hauling it in my pack was easy because of its lightweight construction
  • Attachment points gave me a few relatively easy options for lashing to my pack
  • The kickstand / sundial combo made alignment a snap

Underwhelming Aspects:

  • Incompatibility with my more powerful devices has made finding ways to use it difficult
  • The real time power connection isn't compatible with on-the-move charging so it's less practical for dayhike use
  • The location of the USB connection port was tricky to get to.
  • Customer service has been hit or miss with far more misses than I'd like.

 

Back to contents

 

Long-Term Report
March 3rd, 2017

Collective Use and Field Conditions Back to contents

In the last two months of testing I used the BioLite SolarPanel5 three more times for a collective total of eight outings.

Dec. - 8 mile (13 km) day hike in the Tonto National Forest near Carefree, Arizona. Desert and Riparian area with elevations ranging between 2,300 up to 2,800 ft (700 up to 850 m). Weather conditions were clear, warm and sunny with temperatures in the mid 70's F (24 C).

Jan. - 6 mile (10 km) day hike in the Tonto NF, same location as above. Weather was nearly identical to my Dec trip but slightly cooler, temps in the low 70's F (22 C).

Feb. - 3 mile (5 km) hike in the Phoenix Mtns Preserve in Phoenix, AZ. Desert mountain area with elevations averaging about 1,800 ft (550 m). Skies were clear with temps in the upper 70's F (26 C). The picture to the right is from this area.

Long Term Findings Back to contents

As high as my hopes were for the BioLite SolarPanel5 it simply didn't perform. In fact, it's become even more unreliable at the end of the test series for some unknown reason. Once I thought I had figured out how to use it with my phone, I felt comfortable taking it on longer trips where I would actually need to rely on it. This turned out to be a mistake. On both my Dec. and Jan. treks I attempted to charge my phone during lunch stops. Both were unsuccessful although I followed the same procedure I had done before, namely closing all apps then turning the phone off. On both occasions I ended up with a net loss in battery life after charging for 30 minutes. On the last attempt the drain was significant. My battery life went from 67% when I started charging down to 42% when I turned it back on. Crazy!! I have no explanation for this. The panel was motionless the entire time, sitting in full sun (albeit low in the sky given it was winter time), and I used the original cable for my phone.

Needless to say I didn't trust the panel after that. My only other attempt at using it was a shorter "in town" hike in one of our local mountain preserves where I work most days of the week. I brought the BioLite out one last time to see if my phone would charge while Airplane Mode with all my apps closed, instead of fully turned off. This configuration didn't make any difference. My Samsung showed no signs of charging until I turned it off again.

Final Thoughts Back to contents

My conclusion is the SolarPanel5 simply isn't compatible with any of the devices I own that run off batteries offering more than 2600 milliamp hours. Additionally, I found the challenges of the natural hiking environment proved too unstable for a panel that requires fixed sunlight. The best results for me happened within the more predictable setting of my backyard where I could control the use conditions a bit better. Given that, I think the panel could prove useful in an "at-home" emergency but I can't see any reason to lug it on anymore hiking treks.


My thanks to BioLite Inc. for giving us a chance to evaluate their product and to BackpackGearTest.org for choosing me to be part of this test series.

JJD-2017

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Reviews > Electronic Devices > Chargers > BioLite SolarPanel 5 > Test Report by Jamie DeBenedetto



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