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Road Tested: Voltaic Systems Generator laptop bag

Thinking green? Voltaic Systems' Generator laptop bag (US$499) might be just the thing to buy for Earth Day on April 22nd.

I had a chance to road test one of these incredibly cool bags for a month and was very impressed. What makes it so special? Well, it could be the big photovoltaic panel on one side of the Generator that provides 15 watts of power to feed your electronic devices. Voltaic points out that the Generator is the "first solar bag powerful enough to recharge a laptop." That panel charges an internal 58Wh Lithium Ion battery pack that can run most laptops.

The solar panel isn't the only thing that's green about this bag. The materials that make up the majority of the bag are made from recycled PET soda bottles. In fact, the shell, webbing, mesh and lining of the case are made of 100% recycled materials.
Voltaic Systems provided me with a test unit that I regretted having to return. The Generator could come in very handy in emergency situations, in third-world countries, or just when you're sitting outside in a park using your laptop. For me, just playing with the bag and watching the red LED on the handle glow red when the bag was charging was fun enough (hey, I'm easily amused...).

Being an amateur radio operator (KCØEZH), I'm always looking for ways of powering my radio and computer equipment in the field for emergency use. In a full-day field test, I was able to keep my MacBook Air and a Kenwood TH-D7 dual-band handheld transceiver charged and in use with the Generator.

In the full, bright Colorado sunlight, it took about 4 hours and 50 minutes for the battery pack to charge. Even when it was cloudy out, the Generator's solar panel still pumped out enough power to charge the battery pack, although at a much slower rate. Voltaic Systems says that it will take about 8 - 10 hours of sunlight to fully charge the average laptop battery, and they don't recommend trying to charge the laptop. Instead, the Generator should be used to extend the life of the laptop battery.

A little bit about the LiIon battery pack inside the Generator; since devices operate at different voltages, the pack is configured so that it can be switched between 3.5 - 5V (most USB connectors), 5 - 6.5V, 6.5 - 8.4V, and 12 - 20V. Within those ranges, the pack automatically switches to the correct voltage. I used the 5 - 6.5V setting and my usual iPhone charging cable to charge up my iPhone, while the MacBook Air required the 12 - 20V setting and a special adaptor that I'll discuss later.

If you're looking for a light laptop bag, then this isn't the bag for you. With the internal battery pack and external solar panel, the Generator weighs in at 4.5 pounds (2050 grams). On the other hand, it is large enough to hold a 17" MacBook Pro, so that extra weight might not come as a surprise to owners of the gargantuan laptop. My MacBook Air seemed a bit lost in the Generator, so I gave it some company by adding a GPS receiver, my iPhone, and the radio gear described earlier in this article. There was still a lot of room for more goodies and gadgets.

The Generator comes with a padded carrying strap that attaches to the bag through large aluminum lugs on either end. One thing that has bothered me with other bags is that sometimes the strap hardware will squeak or clink. The Generator strap was blissfully silent while walking.

To charge various computers and electronic gadgets, Voltaic provides 19 different connectors:

In case you're wondering about the AC adapter, it allows you to plug in the battery pack and charge it at night. The cylindrical item in the center top of the picture above is a car charger socket. This allows any device that would normally plug into your car power socket to be powered by the Generator. If you want to know what all of these different adapters are and what they're used for, click here. If you can't find an adaptor for your device, that link will also point you to a list of optional adapters for specific devices.

How about connecting to a MacBook with a MagSafe adapter? Voltaic notes on their website that Apple has not licensed the MagSafe plug to third-party manufacturers, so they offer an optional reconfigured MagSafe (US$20) for use with the Generator:

With its relatively high price, the Generator isn't for everyone. But if you have a need to have power everywhere you go, if you're a dedicated eco-freak, or if you have a lot of money and just love to have cool gadgets, you might want to consider the Generator. I'd be interested to see if any TUAW readers have jobs or hobbies that require them to work outside away from AC power. Leave a comment below and let us know.

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