Charge Interruption Recovery
One of the biggest complaints of users is how terribly small, portable models work on days that are less than "bluebird". If you spend a lot of time outside, you know that a perfect blue sky day is elusive in a lot of places. Because of this, a solar contender that only performs in optimal conditions might not be the best option. To figure out which models did best in sup-prime conditions, we created a test that would compare each one's ability to recover a charge after being shaded. A cloud could pass overhead, a panel could close its self or fall over in wind, or some other shadow could pass over the panel when left out for a few hours unattended.
We wanted to make sure our bases were covered, so we let each model charge a battery for 10 minutes in full sun. Then measured the output with our multi-meter. Then, we shaded each one intermittently for the next 10 minutes and measured its output after being shaded. Some were unable to continue charging the battery after the interruptions, while others continued to deliver charge with portions of the cells covered and even charged the battery pack a few percentage points more after returning to the sun after being shaded. The smaller watt contenders did worse than the larger wattage models, which makes sense.
When working with solar power we learned, through trial and error, the sun, wind, and clouds are constant environmental factors that we had to find ways to work around. This is the beauty of solar power; it is a direct connection from our modern realm of electronic gadgets to the natural world. To get a consistent data in our quest to find the best solar model, we had to narrow down our testing time so that we were sure that all the were tested in the same conditions.
To answer the popular question of how long will this model take to charge my iPhone (or Android), we had to narrow down our testing period to see how much charge an iPhone 6 got after plugging into each model for 10 minutes. We fully charged phones with the panels as well, but to get a side by side comparison, the 10-minute window proved to be a good limiting factor and gave us a range of numbers as the models worked to charge the phones. We also set up each one side by side and plugged a dead battery into each of them. For the next four hours, we kept track of time while the contenders worked to charge each battery. After three hours, we checked to see which one had produced the most charge in our batteries. This gave good corroborative evidence along with the phone charging test to figure out which were actually the most efficient.
Multiple Device Charging
This category applies to models with a 10W capacity or more. The smaller options just don't have the guns to charge two devices at once, as quite a bit of the output power is lost due to inefficiencies. This means that the Renogy 5W and the Outad 7W are out of the running for this category. The Goal Zero Nomad 7 is bulky for its size but does come with multiple options for charging, including a converted to plug into your car.
From this test, we did learn that it drastically decreases the efficiency to have two devices plugged in at once. Because they all have a relatively small wattage, its best to have an external battery or two so you can charge off of those, rather than relying fully on the panel for all your needs.
Out of the box, all 12 of the competitors we tested this year appeared to be quite similar. They are all black, with heavy-duty canvas fabric on the outside, with some kind of pouch to store gadgets and cords. The panels themselves are all monocrystalline in composition but have different coatings and additions depending on price. As we scoured the internet doing research for this review, we found many complaints among customers about the durability of the model they purchased. Because of this, we decided to pay particular attention to the way each one held up over the testing period.
Here are some of the questions we focused on when assessing the durability of the models. Are they delaminating? Does the Velcro continue to stick? Are they warping or melting? Do they still perform well after a month of use? Two months of use?
Weight and Portability
Weight gets high weighting in our scores, pun intended. After all, the whole point of a portable solar panel is to be, well, portable. A model that weighs less than a pound and is very compact is all we take for most outdoor situations: hiking, backpacking, biking, and climbing. If it weighs more than a pound and a half, it needs to do some heavy duty charging of multiple devices and/or a laptop and is probably not ideal for carrying on a self-supported trip. If you are boating, weight doesn't matter. Take that into account when looking at the scores.
Also, consider that weight will increase if you need to bring multiple charging cables and/or a case. The weights in our spec sheet will indicate total weight of the setup we reviewed. The new Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus is noteworthy since it is almost 7 ounces lighter than the previous model. This is a huge drop in overall weight, and lands the 7 Plus right behind the ultralight Renogy 5W as the second-lightest model in this review. Both of these contenders are impressive because they are not only lightweight, but their construction is very durable. The only downside is that both of their overall power outputs are low since they are such small panels.