Let the sun shine on your gadgets

Looking to take a vacation away from technology? Good luck. These days, it takes a lot of discipline to turn off your Blackberry or iPhone and get away from it all. Even a weeklong camping trip to the Valley of Fire State Park doesn’t mean you’ll be without access to e-mail anymore. OK, it can be tricky to get cell reception, but there’s no need to go without power.

Here’s a look at some products you can use to enjoy the great outdoors, from solar- powered chargers to wireless, portable speakers. These products don’t require a tent to enjoy them; they’ll work just as well on your porch or at a tailgate.

Let’s start with solar-charging devices: You can now find cases, stand-alone chargers and even backpacks to provide iPhones with the necessary juice to keep them going.

One of my favorite new products is the Novathink Surge ($80, novothink.com), available for the iPhone 3G and 3GS and iPod touch. The Surge is a solar-powered case that provides a charge by harnessing visible sunlight. The case has a hole in it that allows users to clip it to a belt or backpack with a carabiner (those things once reserved for mountain climbers that people clip to belt loops and often use as key chains). The clip makes it relatively easy to keep the case exposed to sunlight if you’re biking, jogging, hiking, or otherwise enjoying the outdoors.

There’s an important caveat about this case and other solar-powered chargers: They are designed to be supplemental power sources. You cannot rely on them to be a primary charging device, as the technology for tapping into the sun can’t yet provide enough power to satisfy a typical gadget’s consumption needs if the devices are in constant use. And we’re still waiting for a solar laptop charger.

In the case of the Novathink Surge, for instance, two hours of direct sunlight generates just 30 minutes of talk time on a 3G network or 60 minutes of talk time on a slower network, according to the company.

This means that you’ll have to take advantage of the case’s built-in USB jack and connect the device to a computer or wall socket to give your iPhone or iPod touch a proper charge before you go rafting down Black Canyon. The case feeds your iPhone through Apple’s standard 30-pin dock connector, which means you don’t need to remove your iPhone to give it a full charge—just keep it in the solar case and let the sun or the wall provide a charge. The hard case includes LED-powered bars to tell you how much charging power has been stored, and also protects from bumps and scrapes, too, in case you drop it during your hike.

For a more versatile solar charger, the entire Solio product line will work with nearly every major gadget out there, thanks to interchangeable charging tips. I’ve used the Classic-i ($80, solio.com), a sweet-looking triple-bladed charger, and found that it works very well. Each blade holds one solar panel, so the combination of three panels provides juice faster.

Solio products are exceptionally portable, which is convenient, too. The Classic fits into the palm of your hand when closed, which means you can toss it into a backpack or purse when you’re on the go. You can also attach it to a backpack or your belt with that handy carabiner of yours, and keep it exposed to the sun. Solio sells single-panel chargers as well, the Rocsta and Mono ($50-$80), that include one charging tip of your choice. (Extras will cost you $10.)

Another option to consider: Instead of attaching a solar panel to a backpack when you explore Red Rock Canyon, why not use a backpack that has a solar panel built right in?

My favorite solar backpack is the Juice Bag ES100 by Reware ($275, rewarestore.com). This big and spacious backpack is able to fit hefty textbooks as well as all the day-to-day gear we tend to schlep around. If you’re a camper and pack reasonably light, this bag will work for you, as well.

The Juice Bag collects solar energy to charge your electronics as you walk, hike, bike or otherwise expose it to sunshine. It needs up to four hours to fully charge a device and does not store solar power, but you can purchase solar batteries that will store the energy for later use.

The ES100 includes a built-in CLA (car lighter adapter) socket to charge gadgets that allows you to plug a charger into the backpack’s built-in socket, just as you would in a car. Granted, the bag isn’t cheap, but the company sells other solar panel-equipped bags under the Juice Bag brand, including messenger bags, briefcases and smaller backpacks.

Another, smaller-yet-similarly expensive solar backpack comes from Voltaic Systems ($250, voltaicsystems.com), but the backpack isn’t big enough to hold more than a few newspapers, some knick-knacks and a hardcover book—so if you’re a student and have a lot of big textbooks to lug around, this solar backpack isn’t for you.

OK, back to being outdoors and enjoying things other than nature.

If you must have music, the Cy-Fi Wireless sports speaker ($100, mycyfi.com) is a nice choice. It’s waterproof, mounts on a bike handle or backpack and connects to your music player via Bluetooth. It’s super light, too, weighing less than four ounces. The audio quality is adequate enough—not great if you want to hear fine details in music, but perfect if you want to stream a Major League Baseball game over your iPhone while setting up the campsite.

Likewise, if you just can’t live without TV when you go outside (or to a tailgate party), remember that that old portable model you have been using for years won’t work this season thanks to the recent transition to digital TV. This means you will need a portable digital TV, and luckily there are a few decent, affordable options for you to choose from.

Look for models from Haier, Eviant, Coby and Insignia, with models starting at about $60 for screen sizes ranging from 5 to 7 inches.

These battery-powered products can also be handy in emergency situations, such as a power outage during a major storm—but don’t expect the batteries to last long. Another nice thing about these TVs: Thanks to the digital transmission, the picture is stunningly clear, even on a small screen. (It’s high-definition, after all.) The bad part: The antennae are small, and getting a signal can be a challenge.

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