Five solar gadgets that charge themselves

I believe that someday most buildings, vehicles and devices will be solar-powered. And that includes our personal gadgets -- phones, laptops and digital cameras.

The old vision of massive solar energy plants powering everything from a central hub has been replaced by the dream of solar panels on every building, vehicle and gadget under the sun -- plus the massive solar power plants.

In order to get there from here, however, we need a surge in investment, experimentation and product development -- a revolution in trying things.

I'm here to tell you that the revolution is here. While nobody was looking, the widespread transition to solar power began in a big way.

There are mega projects in the California desert and elsewhere that follow the old model. But a huge number of solar-powered, commercially available products have come on the market recently. And a great many projects and innovations are springing up everywhere.

Hotels are installing solar-powered shade umbrellas where guests can charge their gadgets while lounging by the pool. Golf courses are rolling out solar-powered golf carts.

Companies are close to selling roof tiles that act as solar panels. Eventually, they'll be able to print solar panels like paper in quantities that bring the cost of power generation down below those of current methods.

Cities are rolling out solar-powered pay phones, parking meters and lighted bus stops. Solar-powered food trucks and food carts are springing up in a few sunny locations around the country.

Researchers are experimenting with solar-powered airplanes, pilotless drones and weather balloons.

The Toyota Prius has a solar panel on the roof that automatically powers a ventilation system to keep the car cool.

The IKEA furniture chain is working to make eight of its California stores solar-powered.

The list goes on. In fact, America's capacity to produce solar energy will double this year alone.

One of the most immediately gratifying aspects of this revolution is a new generation of solar-powered consumer electronics that have come on the market recently.

I've rounded up five of the coolest -- or, I should say hottest -- of these devices. Here they are: Five new solar gadgets that charge themselves.

1. AUO Solar Laptop

Next week, a company called AU Optronics plans to introduce a solar-powered laptop. It has a solar panel on the outside of the lid, and another one built into the keyboard, which is also an iPad-like touch display.

The keyboard design is exciting because touch displays are an up-and-coming technology. I'd love to see iPad-like tablets or e-book readers with solar panels built into the screen somehow.

AUO plans to sell its power-generating touch keyboard to other notebook makers.

No price or ship date has been announced, but the company said mid-2011 is likely.

2. Jetyo Solar Camcorder

Like many other camcorders, the $130 Jetyo HDV-T900 has a 3-inch screen that swings out from the side. But when you flip up a special panel, it collects solar energy from the opposite side of the screen using one panel on the flip-up lid and another on the back of the display housing.

The solar panels charge four rechargeable AA batteries. The only problem is that recharging the batteries can take a long time; in fact, it could take a day or two in the sun to fully charge the camera. But if you're ever abducted by aliens, this is the camera to take.

Beyond the solar feature, the camera is pretty typical for one in its price range. It records at 720p at 1280x720 resolution. It supports HDMI and AV output and comes with a free 4GB SD card.

3. Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750

Logitech this week announced an $80 solar-powered desktop PC keyboard. The solar panels above the numeric keys can be charged with sunlight, lamps or even ambient light. And the charge lasts long enough to enable use for three months in total darkness, according to the company.

All you need is a solar keyboard and solar mouse, and you can enjoy a desktop free of cables -- without throwing away old batteries and buying new ones every month or two like you have to do with Apple's Bluetooth input devices.

4. Soulra Solar-Powered Sound System

Etón Corp. makes a $199 speaker system for iPods and iPhones powered by the sun. The Soulra sound system is designed for outdoor use -- it's water-resistant and built to withstand shock -- but its speakers are only so-so by audiophile standards, according to user reports.

The convenience factor is what makes this product so attractive. When you're at the beach, on a small sailboat or camping, you're not going to have an outlet handy.

The best part: It charges your iPod or iPhone while it's playing the music.

5. Econova LED TV With Solar Remote

Philips recently introduced the 42-inch Econova LED TV, which costs $1,880 but has a long list of eco-friendly features, like low power requirements, recycled materials and more. One of those features is a solar-powered remote control.

Besides convenience, the benefit of a solar-powered remote is that you don't need to replace or throw away batteries.

Unfortunately, the TV is available only in Europe.

As you can see from these examples, solar gadgets add convenience and cut costs. That means you don't have to be motivated by a guilty conscience to embrace them. They're also great for lazy cheapskates.

These gadgets aren't quite mainstream and probably won't take over the world. But they represent the future of all consumer electronics. They're efficiently designed for low power use, and they're powered by light alone. More important, they're a small part of a very big revolution that will put solar energy everywhere.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld (US)

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