When I showed Sol to my family, they all got a bit confused. My dad asked why I was testing a toolbox for Engadget, while my sister took one look at it and said "Bumblebee." If you peek at the images below, you'll understand why: This solar-powered laptop does resemble a hardware tool case. And yes, it looks like a Transformer too.
Nobody would call Sol "sleek." It's big, bulky and measures more than two inches in depth at its thickest part -- a look that calls to mind Panasonic's Toughbook series. Indeed, Sol was designed to be more durable than your average gadget, which makes sense since it's mainly aimed at travelers and field scientists. In fact, everything about it (even the chemical composition of the plastic) was meant to last through heat. It's also durable enough to survive a fall -- good news for Sol's target audience. Compared to other rugged laptops, though, Sol's quite affordable (with a price tag of $375 to $400, depending on the market), as it was designed for use in developing countries. So how is it in use? After two weeks of testing Sol in the Philippines, I'm finally ready to weigh in.
Low price tags usually come with some drawbacks, and for Sol, its toy-like design is perhaps the most apparent. Other than the black bottom and rubber accents on top, the unit comes swathed in bright yellow, plastic casing (other colors are available too). If you're wondering why Sol is so top-heavy, it's because unlike Samsung's solar netbook, which has panels embedded on the lid, the top compartment houses a foldable solar array instead. That case is completely detachable (hence, the Transformers comparison) and makes up more than two pounds of Sol's rather hefty 6.6-pound body.
When you remove the massive compartment, what's left is a thin laptop without any branding on top. As you might have guessed, the array's removable so that the laptop can still harness the power of the sun while it's sitting comfortably in the shade. A cable connects the two components and transmits solar energy from the array to the device itself. Unfortunately, the cable's only roughly 83.5 inches long and likely not enough for you to use the laptop inside while the array's under the sun.
While the detachable array works as promised, charging via solar power might take more time than the company says. David Snir, Sol's creator, says you should only have to expose the device to "good" light (think: clear sky, overhead sun) for 2.5 hours to get a full charge. But, I've had to leave the laptop under a really bright sun for five hours (from 10 AM to 3 PM) to get the battery gauge to 75 percent. I live in the city, though, and the surrounding walls and houses might have blocked the sun from reaching the solar panels at one point or another. According to Snir, the best way to position the array is to have it directly face the sun in the horizon in the middle of the day.
Besides the chintzy feel, another testament to Sol's low-end price is its middling performance. The laptop worked fine with my WiFi connection, but lagged considerably while I was browsing the internet, especially when I was loading YouTube videos. It also crawled while I was using the pre-installed LibreOffice apps and generally stuttered too much to pass muster as my main workhorse. To be fair, the device's manufacturer (Canadian company WeWi Telecommunications) sent me a unit meant for beta testing, which is different from the production version that will be shipped to buyers. For instance, this model is rated for five hours of runtime (my test unit only got two and a half hours, though), while the production version promises seven hours. The two models also have different processors. To better compare them against each other, check out the table below. (By the way, if you've heard of Sol, but haven't seen these specs, it's because WeWi hasn't published them anywhere before.)
|Sol (beta unit)||Sol (production version)|
|Weight||6.6 lbs.||6.35 lbs. (Laptop: 4.23 lbs., Solar Pack: 2.12 lbs.)|
|Screen size||13.3 inches||13.3 inches|
|Screen resolution/type||1,366 x 768 LCD||1,366 x 768 LCD|
|CPU||Intel Atom D2500 1.86 GHz Duo Core, Intel 945GSE + ICH7M||Intel Celeron N2806 1.6GHz dual core, Turbo Speed: 2.0 GHz|
|Battery life||5 hours||7 hours|
|Storage||Seagate 2.5-inch SATA HDD 320GB||Seagate 2.5-inch SATA HDD 320GB|
|RAM||2-4GB Kingston DDR3 SDRAM (Options Available)||2GB Kingston DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||1080p HD Video, Intel HD Graphics (Bay Trail, 313 - 756 MHz)||1080p HD Video, Built-In Intel GMA3600 Graphics|
|Camera||3 megapixel||3 megapixel|
|Video capture||1080p||1080p, 30 fps|
|Audio||Realtek ALC661 HD Audio, built-in 2 speakers, internal mic, 1/8-inch input||Realtek ALC661 HD Audio, built-in 2 speakers, internal mic, 1/8-inch input|
3 USB 2.0, headphone jack, HDMI, LAN, multi-card reader (SD/MS/MMC)
|3 USB 2.0, headphone jack, HDMI, LAN, multi-card reader (SD/MS/MMC)|
|Bluetooth||Integrated Digital Core BT4.0||Integrated Digital Core BT4.0|
|Connectivity||3G World/multimode LTE||3G/4G World/multimode LTE|
|WiFi||MIMO 802.11b/g/n (2.4/5GHz)||MIMO 802.11b/g/n (2.4/5GHz)|
Another thing to keep in mind is that while the 13.3-inch 1,366 x 768 screen looks crisp, it's not bright enough to be used under strong sunlight. The device's touchpad is also not as responsive as I'd like. Still, it's not a bad choice for the price, though its main selling point is definitely that solar array. So, if you always have access to electricity, this won't appeal to you.
That said, I believe that Sol will serve its target audience well. Adventurers and researchers can simply pop the array open wherever they are when they're ready to use the laptop. Meanwhile, students and teachers in emerging markets can read educational materials even if they live in remote places with no electricity -- they can even replace Ubuntu with any OS they want.
In the future, Sol might add divers and undersea researchers to that audience list, as WeWi plans to release a Marine version that can be submerged underwater for up to 50 minutes. But for now, the company's focusing on bringing the current model from Ghana and Kenya to other places, including the Philippines, Thailand and South Africa. There's no need feel left out, however: Sol will also arrive in North America by the end of the month, and those fond of the great outdoors will be able to get one straight from the laptop's website.