I have personally reviewed a bunch of solar power generators, from the little portable chargers to big multi-panel solar backpacks. Every time, I get suckered into it because solar power sounds like such a great idea: it's free energy from the Sun, as much as you want, clean and green and high-tech and all that. In other words, the future.
And then my dreams get crushed by the reality of most of these solar systems: they just don't work. Or rather, they work, but they're not practical. You have to leave them out in the sun for an impractical amount of time to fully charge, and if you're anywhere but on the equator during the equinox, you generally don't get enough hours of full sun for them to power anything you care about. Plus, they tend to be bulky and fragile, making them more of a novelty than a useful piece of gear.
A few weeks ago, I took a four day raft trip down the Wild Section of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The Rogue is home to some reasonably dangerous rapids, including one Class IV that two people died on the week before I arrived. Needless to say, I wanted to document the whole thing, which meant taking along my GoPro Hero 3 plus a cellphone to act as a viewfinder (and a still camera). The Wild Section of the Rogue specifically prohibits infrastructure, meaning that there'd be no outlets (or any other amenities) for nearly the entire trip, so I needed a solution, and despite my past experiences, solar seemed to be the best option. The only problem was, I needed something that could keep my GoPro and phone fully charged every day, and something that could withstand being dropped in a river and/or smashed on a rock.
And I found something.
A Rugged, Powerful Solar Charger
The is the JOOS Orange (get it?), billed by company Solar Components as "the most powerful and durable portable solar charger you can buy." Yes, well, we'll see about that, won't we? To be fair, though, those are the two reasons why the Orange interested me: a peak output power to the battery of up to 2.2 watts (or potentially 3.3 watts with the addition of a pair of solar reflectors), a big fat battery pack to store that power, and (according to the website) the Orange was both waterproof and bulletproof (!). Now, I should point out that we don't generally solicit items for review that aren't new to the market, but I so desperately wanted to believe that this thing could do everything it said it could that I asked Solar Components if I could borrow one.
Here's what comes in the box: the charger itself, a manual, charging cables and tips, and a little dry bag for said cables and tips (a nice touch):
The one additional accessory that you might care about is the reflector pack: the reflectors are two plastic mirrors that bolt onto the sides of the charger and reflect additional sunlight onto the solar cell, boosting power by up to 40%. More on those later.
The Orange JOOS is, as far as solar chargers go, a beast. It's made with a steel frame inside a polycarbonate case; the frame doubles as a heat sink so that the thing doesn't melt if you leave it in the sun for six hours, allowing it to operate at temperatures of up to 140 degrees F. It's not small (9" x 6" x 0.75") and it's not light (1.5 pounds), but a significant chunk of that heft and bulk can be blamed on the replaceable 5,400 mAh lithium polymer battery. The hole in the top is to tie it to stuff, or to run a security cable through if you want to leave it out all day unattended.
Most solar chargers (the JOOS included) usually don't charge your gadgets directly (although the JOOS can if the battery dies). Instead, they charge a battery, and your stuff charges off of that. The battery in the Orange JOOS has enough capacity to charge an iPhone four times, and if you're really desperate and run the battery dry, you'll actually get 120 minutes of 3G talk time on your iPhone for every 60 minutes of sun running it off the panel directly, meaning that you can use and charge your phone at the same time. There's a single female micro USB port (with a rubber plug to help keep water out), and the JOOS comes with a bunch of adapters for iPhones and other hardware. To see how the JOOS is doing in terms of power, there's a red LED that blinks when it's charging, and a green LED that blinks to indicate approximately how much charge is currently in the battery. If you want more detail, there's a slick interface that you can access by plugging the panel into a computer.
So this all sounds great on paper, but most solar chargers sound great on paper. The question is, is the Orange JOOS great in real life?
On the River
I started off with the JOOS Orange all charged up before I got on the river. You can plug it into an outlet and it'll charge up its battery, sun not required. It was cheating, maybe, but I had no Plan B, and I figured if this thing ended up sucking, the battery would at least be big enough to put an extra charge or two into my GoPro.
The weather was hot and sunny and I was troubled not in the least by the lightning storm that had occurred a few days earlier. I tied the charger down on top of a cooler on one of the rafts, where according to the status LED, it quickly topped itself off to completely full. After charging both my GoPro and my cell phone at the end of the day I still had three blinks of the green LED (60% battery) remaining.
The next morning dawned apocalyptically. It turned out that that lightning storm had sparked a few forest fires. And by a "few," I mean 63. Overnight. And they were growing.
There was now so much smoke in the air that it was essentially overcast, and our entire camp was covered with windblown ash.
Now might be a good time for me to mention the special low voltage circuit that the JOOS Orange includes. Even if there's just a trickle of power coming from the panel, the battery will charge, meaning that the JOOS will be collecting energy if it's left in the shade or if it's overcast. Or in my case, smoky.
Low voltage circuit or no low voltage circuit, I sorta figured that the JOOS was just doomed, since the amount of sun making it through the smoke was pitiful. I figured incorrectly. It did charge significantly slower, but it still managed to bring in somewhere between 20% and 40% of its battery capacity over the course of the day. I didn't even have the reflectors on most of the time because the way I had the JOOS tied to the raft, meaning that I could have asked for even more power, and gotten it. That 40% (ish) per day was enough to keep my GoPro and phone topped off, and I probably could have dealt with powering another device or two without many problems.
So, the JOOS was easily able to power all of the stuff that I needed it to power, even in lousy conditions. The other part of this review, though, is making sure that the JOOS really is as rugged as it promises. It's rated NEMA 6P, which means "waterproof." Let's test it!
This is not just getting it wet, or even completely submerging it: there's some force behind that waterfall. Not only did the JOOS come out absolutely fine, but according to the LEDs, it was somehow charging during this little experiment. Solar Components told me that the only vulnerable place (as far as water goes) is the USB connector itself. Post waterfall, I took out the plastic thingy that covers the port and blew into it to remove any water. That's it.
Now, how about impacts?
Obviously, this is not something that we (or anyone else) would actively encourage you to do with a solar charger. But you could, and it would be fine. Really, what this means is that you don't have to worry all that much about dropping it (or dropping things on it), because unless you can impart more force than five rounds from a .22 rifle, the JOOS will shrug it off.
Overall, the JOOS Orange performed better that I could have expected, which is a rare thing for this jaded technology journalist to admit to. Due to the forest fires, I wasn't even able to give it a fair test, and still it managed to impress me. Maybe, just maybe, solar power is the future after all.
What I Liked
- Lots of power, even when there isn't lots of sun.
- Large battery capacity means that you can skip a day of charging the panel and still be able to charge your stuff.
- This thing seems to be practically impossible to drown, melt, crush, or otherwise destroy. Doubles as bulletproof armor.
- Optional reflectors offer a power boost, and you can take them off when you don't need them.
- Two LEDs provide basic status information on the panel itself, and you can plug into a computer if you want detailed numbers.
- The only thing that might eventually go bad (the battery) is replaceable.
- Solar Components claimed the JOOS Orange could do lots of things, and it in fact was able to do all of those things.
What Could Be Better
- The power level indicator is hard to read, especially in full sun. I'd much prefer several incrementing LEDs, or (in my crazy fantasy world) a tiny little E-Ink display.
- Having a second mounting point somewhere on the unit would be fantastic; just the single hole makes it easy to hang, but not easy to strap down.
- It should be lighter! And thinner! Because why not!
- I'm not sure why there isn't a full-size female USB port, since that would eliminate most of the cables and adapters (you'd just use your own).
- The reflectors are great, but the mounting system is not. Getting the reflectors on and off is a bit of a hassle, and having four screws just means four more things to deal with. I'd love if it were, say, a magnetic mounting system, where the reflectors could just snap on and off.
Should You Buy One?
The question isn't really whether you should buy a JOOS Orange. The question is whether you want or need a portable solar charger. If the answer to that is yes, then the JOOS Orange is the one you should buy. There are a lot of other solar chargers out there that are smaller, lighter, and cheaper, but they don't work nearly as well in terms of battery capacity or power output, and if you're somewhere where you need a solar charger, it's hard to overstate the importance of the JOOS' epic durability.
Solar Components is currently working on several other versions of the JOOS, including both a smaller and lighter model, and an even heftier one that should be able to charge laptops. We'll update you when we get a look at either of those.
You'll pay $150 for the JOOS Orange itself, and another $25 for the reflector panels, which aren't strictly necessary but are pretty cool to have and can add some extra oomph to the JOOS if you need it. The JOOS Orange is available directly from Solar Components at the link below, and you can also find it on Amazon and at REI.
Thanks to Solar Components to sending us a JOOS Orange, and thanks to Black Helterline for sending us down the river.