The Best Portable Solar Battery Charger

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After considering 70 models and testing for over 30 hours, we determined that the Anker PowerPort Solar Lite is the best portable solar charger for people who want to power a phone or small device when in an emergency or off the grid. It can charge most phones at near-full speed and fill them with less than a day’s worth of sunlight.

The PowerPort Solar Lite is so efficient, in fact, that it’s the smallest and lightest charger we’ve tested that can produce 15 W. It’s just 18 by 11 inches when deployed and unfolded and its 11-by-6-inch dimensions when stowed are no bigger than a tablet. At 12.5 ounces, it’s lighter than one, too. You would have to spend a lot more or carry something much bigger to charge your devices more quickly. About half the chargers slowed to a crawl when a cloud passed overhead, but the Anker resumed full-speed charging almost immediately after the cloud was gone.

Although the three-panel RAVPower 15W Solar Charger used to be our runner-up pick, it has been discontinued. We’ve moved our analysis of it to the Competition section.

Solar chargers produce power that can be passed to dying gadgets, but there’s no way to store that power for later. That’s why we recommend pairing it with one of our picks for the best USB battery packs. Used together, you can take advantage of the sun during the day and recharge your devices overnight. A USB battery pack is the TiVo to your solar charger’s daytime power. In the past, we recommended an all-in-one solar panel and battery as a compromise option, but we’ve removed that recommendation. They charge too slowly and store too little energy, and they do so at too high a cost.

Who should buy this

Honestly, a lot of people looking for a portable power solution are going to be better off skipping the solar charger altogether and starting with a USB battery pack. Our large battery pick will keep a smartphone charged every night for a week and is no bigger than a paperback novel. But if you’ll be on the trail for more than a week, you can’t be sure of your power needs, or you want something to tuck into your emergency kit, a solar charger could refill a small battery pack in a day or directly charge a smartphone in two to three hours.

The proviso is that these chargers only work with USB devices, which limits their appeal for those who need them for long-term, off-grid setups. If you’re going to be mostly stationary and need to charge or run larger devices like laptops or televisions, or if you need to use more sophisticated communications equipment, you’ll probably be more interested in the larger setups from companies like Goal Zero or even Suntactics. In the future, we may review these units, but for now, they’re outside the scope of this guide.

How we picked

When it comes to anything to do with solar power, even the basics can get complicated quickly. For those who want to really understand how these chargers work and what makes one solar charger or battery different from another, read The amps and volts of electricity at the bottom of this guide. Otherwise, read on—if you get confused, you can always scroll to the end to read the explanation.Small differences, like the efficiency of a solar panel, that can yield outsized benefits, like a charger that produces the same amount of power in half the space.

Solar and battery technologies have been leap-frogging one another, with improvements to both that keep nudging the purchase decision one way or the other. It’s easy to feel like both types of products are commodities with nothing to differentiate one from the next—searching for “solar charger” on Amazon now yields thousands of results. But there are small differences, like the efficiency of a solar panel, that can yield outsized benefits, like a charger that produces the same amount of power in half the space.We started with a pool culled from Amazon sales and user reviews, authoritative review sites, and any mentions on sites that specialize in tech or outdoor gear. In our survey of more than 400 readers, more than 40 percent said they would want to be able to charge a tablet, so we considered only models that can produce at least 2 amps (2 A)—the minimum current required for tablets and large smartphones to charge at full (or close to full) speed. That ruled out a lot of the entry-level products in the sub-$40 range. Since 59 percent of respondents wanted to spend less than $75, we also ruled out some of the more expensive offerings. Chargers and kits with higher prices may offer more power or ports, but based on our survey, most people won’t take advantage of those more expensive, and often larger, models.

We tested five chargers in our last update: the Anker 14W Portable Solar Charger, the RAVPower 15W Solar Charger with Dual USB, the Poweradd 14W Foldable Solar Charger, the Instapark Mercury 10, and the GoalZero Nomad 7. Then, for this update, we tested the new Anker PowerPort Solar Lite directly against the top performer from the previous group, the RAVPower 15W Solar Charger with Dual USB.
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How we tested

The build of the Anker PowerPort Solar Lite felt similar to the rest of the chargers we’ve assessed and followed the same design philosophy. Most solar chargers are just two to four solar panels are sewn to a woven-nylon backing with any wires hidden between the layers and charging connections in a pocket at the end. You’ll find various riveted holes or loops around the edges to help you hang or mount the unit when deployed. All the models we examined had roughly the same quality of stitching and nylon, and all of them lacked any noticeable weatherproofing at the charging ports. Since the panels themselves are weatherproof, they’re just sewn in at the edges without any additional covering. The size and weight varied a little between the models, but once we had them all in hand, the basic designs didn’t vary enough that we could rule out any or pick a favorite. For solar chargers, it really comes down to performance.

With cloudless, blue Southern California skies and an expected high in the 70s, the panels were all set out at roughly a 25-degree angle at 10 a.m. and connected to a PortaPow V2 Premium USB Power Monitor and an external USB battery.

This is close to a best-case scenario in a few ways. First, even a sunny camping trip will probably yield more clouds in most parts of the world than the deserts outside Los Angeles. Second, our panels were placed at near optimal tilt. (Optimal tilt for solar panels is based on latitude and time of year.1)  The biggest downside to our updated test was the weak winter sun, since we tested in November in the northern hemisphere.

In our last tests, we disqualified the top performing Poweradd charger, because once shaded it was unable to get back up to its maximum output without unplugging and reattaching the target device. That’s a dealbreaker shared by a lot of cheap solar chargers. If you decide to leave your phone and solar charger out all afternoon to absorb some juice while you’re off hiking, you’d be pretty disappointed to find your phone only charged for a total of 15 minutes before a cloud passed by. Since the RAVPower 15W charger and the Anker 14W charger were the best performers without that quirk, they became our top picks. We chose the smaller, three-panel RAVPower as our pick and the larger, four-panel Anker as our runner-up.

Because the new model from Anker, the PowerPort Solar Lite, promises the same output with just two panels, we tested it against the RAVPower for this update. In direct sunlight just after noon, the two had nearly identical production: 1.71 A for our old pick, and 1.67 A for the newcomer. But there was a huge difference when the winter sun was at a steeper angle. After 3 p.m., the larger RAVPower was still able to output 0.95 A while the Anker had effectively shut down for the day, trickling just .02 A through our measuring device.

When we discharged the test batteries that had been filling up from our solar chargers all day, the difference in available capacity was only 15 percent—3,181 mAh produced by the RAVPower and 2,705 mAh from the Anker.2 That’s a small difference for almost a pound less in your pack, and we didn’t do any midday adjustments. In this test, both panels were stationary for six hours. If you repositioned the Anker every couple hours to better capture direct light, the power production would have been even closer.
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