We sifted through hundreds of the best portable solar panels and chargers, narrowing it down to 18 top models you can buy in 2019. We purchased these and put them through a series of in-depth tests. We tested an array of panels that are all designed for different purposes; some are small and portable, designed for small batteries and minimal charging. Others are large and bulky, designed to charge laptops and other energy-sucking devices. We tested these models from the comfort of our van and took others into the backcountry. Our side-by-side tests reveal which of these panels truly perform and are the cream of the crop, and which ones fall short.
The Best Portable Solar Panels and Chargers of 2019
|Price||$59.99 at Amazon||$265.00 at Amazon||$39.95 at Amazon||$160 List||$19.99 at Amazon|
|Pros||Inexpensive, efficient, user-friendly, excels in partly cloudy conditions||Durable design, thoughtful concept, works well with Mac products, panel is effective||Light, inexpensive, simple, can charge two devices at once||Efficient for its size, durable, rigid design makes it easy to prop up, designed and built in the US||Inexpensive, lightweight, simple design|
|Cons||Bulky, heaviest weight||Expensive, time consuming||Low capacity, bulky, heavy||Expensive, large, hard to transport, lacks storage pocket||No pocket, no protective cover for panels, single USB port|
|Bottom Line||We were impressed by the BigBlue's ability to charge our gadgets quickly and reliably; its reasonable price is the cherry on top.||The Arc 20 is a 20-watt solar panel paired with a 24,000mAh external battery designed specifically to charge large electronics, like laptops, on the go.||For an inexpensive 10W panel, the Mercury 10W charges devices reliably and effectively, making it our pick for Best Buy.||For a rigid, efficient panel that is well-made and reliable, look no further than the 14W from Suntactics.||The 5W is a unique, durable, incredibly lightweight panel, great for small charging tasks.|
|Rating Categories||BigBlue 28W||Systems Arc 20W||Mercury 10W||S-Charger 14||Renogy E.Flex5|
|Charge Interruption Recovery (20%)|
|Charging Speed (30%)|
|Multiple Device Charging Speed (20%)|
|Weight & Portability (20%)|
|Specs||BigBlue 28W||Systems Arc 20W||Mercury 10W||S-Charger 14||Renogy E.Flex5|
|Weight (measured)||23.5 oz||26 oz||18 oz||20.5 oz||6.1 oz|
|# of USB outlets||2||0||2||2||1|
Best Overall Solar Charger
If your main goal is efficient charging, the BigBlue 28W is hard to beat. With its 28W of power, this large-capacity panel will definitely keep your gadgets charged. We are also fans of the BigBlue's built-in auto restart function, which comes in handy in cloudy conditions. The panel also has a small ammeter, so you can track the panel's output as it charges. The final cherry on the top is that this panel is very reasonably priced, which makes it a contender for our Best Buy Award on top of taking the cake as our Editors' Choice winner.
The downside is that this panel is on the heavier side, with a total weight of 23.5 ounces. If you are looking for a panel that is lightweight and functional in the backcountry, the Big Blue may not be the best option. For front-country use, the effectiveness of this panel "outweighed" its bulky size.
Read review: BigBlue 28W
Best Bang for the Buck
Instapark Mercury 10W
The Instapark Mercury 10W is our Best Buy winner due to its simplicity, low cost, and effective charging capability. It won't break the bank, it works as intended, and it is designed to last a long time. In comparison to panels of a similar capacity, the Mercury had some of the best scores in charge interruption recovery and charging speed. It also has a large storage pocket and is overall one of the more durable panels we reviewed.
Like the majority of the panels in this review, the Mercury struggled to charge multiple devices at once. This is common, even though most of the panels come with multiple ports, which means each USB port only gets about 5W, or less, in full sun. The panel is also a bit heavy and bulky, especially for its relatively small output capacity. That said, the Mercury 10W was one of the highest-ranking panels in terms of durability. Overall, this panel is excellent, as it offers an inexpensive price point and is effective.
Read review: Instapark Mercury 10W
Top Pick for Lightweight
Since our other two award winners focus more on performance rather than weight and size, we wanted to give props to a panel with weight and portability as its strong suit. Behold the Renogy E.Flex5! This panel is sleek and durable, which as it turns out, is a difficult combination of features to nail down. For comparison, the Suntactics S-Charger 14W is slim and sleek, but weighs more and costs much, much more than the Renogy. The bare-bones design, light feel, and relatively low price tag make the Renogy a no-brainer as our Top Pick for Lightweight panels. This panel makes for a good alternative to the small battery pack/panels we have tested in the past.
The panel performed relatively well regarding charging speed for its size but could not handle interruptions very well. Its small size also means that it charges slowly. For phones and other small devices, the Renogy performs adequately, but we should note that it took four hours to charge our battery to only 9%. This may seem shocking, but it is just the way it is with small capacity panels. If minor charging is all you need, the Renogy will do the job!
Read review: Renogy E.Flex5
Why You Should Trust Us
This review is authored by professional mountain guide Jane Jackson. Jane spends 200+ days a year outside using and testing gear. She has worked extensively in Alaska, Yosemite, and the Tetons. She has also taught climbing and self-rescue and worked for Exum Mountain Guides. Additionally, her background in outdoor gear sales and rentals means she is well-versed in understanding product features and performance.
We were interested in a number of aspects of these portable solar panels. Those characteristics we chose to evaluate are a product of careful consideration of the types of situations you would likely want to use one of these devices. We looked at things like how quickly charging is resumed after a shading of the photovoltaic surface, how well each model handles multiple devices, how fast the charging actually is, and how durable and portable they all are. In all, we feel this is a comprehensive review which hopefully helps you to make a more informed buying decision.
Related: How We Tested Solar Chargers
Analysis and Test Results
Now more than ever, solar technology is growing in popularity, and we have many well-tested options when shopping for a portable model. Traveling around the southwest US during this testing period, we saw large solar arrays, from the grid homes with panels outside, to campers charging their smaller devices on the go. Not long ago, it was difficult to find a rigid, monocrystalline panel in a foldable, light design. Portable options were bulky, finicky, and didn't last long when exposed to the elements.
Related: Buying Advice for Solar Chargers
Now, dozens of companies produce affordable, effective monocrystalline panels ranging from small 5W models to larger and more powerful 20W options for a faster charge. These monocrystalline models are much more effective and lightweight than their polycrystalline forefathers.
We tested small wattage models that were portable, like the Renogy 5W and the ever-popular Goal Zero Nomad 7. We also added the Goal Zero Nomad 7 Plus, which is much lighter weight than the original Goal Zero, but costs more. Though they are two different models, both the Nomad 7s performed comparably in testing. Yet another addition to the non-traditional panels is the Suntactics S-Charger 14. This panel was one of our new favorites, though it comes with a hefty price tag. This panel is thin and durable, like the Renogy panels we tested in past years but is much more efficient.
We also re-tested some of our favorites from last year, including the Instapark Mercury 10W. We also chose some with some extra wattage for faster charging, like the PowerGreen 21W and Voltaic Systems Arc 20W. Solar technology is improving as a whole; while each panel performed well, their metric ratings range in scores, mostly due to their output capabilities (i.e., wattage), rather than the design of the models themselves.
Our 2017 update included two new models, both of which include a battery. The iClever BoostCel 12W looks like a traditional fold-out solar charger but has a very thin battery inside. This model performed quite well in comparison to our other mid-range models. The size of the solar cells is similar to those of the Instapark Mercury 10W and the Suntactics 14W, which meant that the iClever stood up to these panels when it came to efficiency.
This year we have also included two solar setups that are designed to charge laptop computers: the Voltaic Arc 20 and the X-Dragon 40W are the two models we tested. Both had their hold-ups, and our overall take away was that there is room for improvement in this technology. The Voltaic has been updated recently and the new design impressed us with its larger capacity and ability to charge Mac computers with ease. The large capacity battery still takes a long time to charge via the 20W panel, but we are excited about the improvements overall.
Unlike some other products we test here at OutdoorGearLab (we've tested bikes that cost more than our cars!) portable solar chargers all tend to be on the affordable end of the spectrum. However, even with such a reasonable price point, some models had much better value than others. For example, our Best Buy winner, the Instapark Mercury 10W had the same overall score as products that cost twice as much. If you're looking for a budget pick that still performs well, check out our Price vs. Performance chart below. Our new Editors' Choice Award winner, the BigBlue 28W is not only an efficient panel but also comes at an affordable price, which really won us over.
Charge Interruption Recovery
Is your panel going to quit on you just because one tiny cloud passes overhead as you left it out on what appeared to be a cloudless afternoon? Or is the solar model strapped to your backpack causing your phone to constantly vibrate as the connection goes in and out of the USB port? These are the questions we addressed in our charge interruption recovery metric. To test these models, we measured the amount each one charged within a half hour span first in full sun, and then again in intermittent sun and shade. We also measured the output power before and after the charge interruption to see if the model could get back on track after being shaded.
The highest performing models in this category were the ones with more massive wattage. The Renogy 5W scored low in this category because it has a small wattage, which makes it more difficult for the Renogy to return to full output after an interruption. Those with a larger surface area also tended to do better in this metric, because there are more cells exposed to the sun at one time. This is a benefit of the Instapark Mercury 10W, which unlike the other two medium watt options, has three panels of cells, rather than two.
The included battery pack of the iClever BoostCel 12W and the Bernet 24000mAh also help in this metric, as the panels can fall back on the battery to continue a charge, even when the cells become shaded. That said, the iClever 12W worked much better to recover from an interruption since it has more surface area overall and stronger output capacity.
The Bernet has such a small surface area (with cells on it) that it runs more of a risk of being shaded as the sun's orientation changes. It also just isn't able to gain as much power from the sun as a more substantial model can.
Some panels, like the BigBlue 28W and the Suntactics S-Charger 14, now come with a built-in auto-restart function. This allows the panel to automatically reconnect to your device after being shaded. Though the panel will still charge slower in cloudy conditions, this feature helps at least continue the flow of power in less-than-ideal charging conditions.
The majority of the time, these solar panels are being used to charge cell phones when electricity is not available. Because this is typically the case, our highest rating metric in testing was Phone Charging Speed. We wanted to know long it took each model to charge an iPhone 6 (the main phone used for testing) as well as our small external battery packs. We set each one out in the direct sun for 30 minutes and measured how much the phone charged.
This way, we could obtain a good read on how efficiently the individual models worked over extended periods. We also timed how long it took each one to charge our 6,000 mAh portable battery packs, so we had that data to compare as well. In general, this size battery can charge an iPhone from 0 to 100% about two times.
We found a broad range in ability to charge batteries, from the X-Dragon, which charged to full in 3 hours 30 minutes, to the Renogy, which took four hours to get the same battery only 9%. The Bernet model also scored a relatively high and was on par with the award winners.
This considerable variability is due to the extensive range in output power of the contenders we tested. Twenty-one watts is four times as powerful as a 5W device, so it makes sense that panels like the BigBlue earned a 9 out of 10, the highest in our testing. In this test, the BigBlue outperformed all by charging our external battery pack the fastest. The Instapark Mercury 10W held its own among the 15W and the 20W models.
For its size, the Renogy E.Flex5 held its own in both phone and battery charging efficiency. The RAVPower 16W was our slowest performer, as it could not fully charge our battery pack over the course of an hour, unlike the other 14W and above models in this review. Overall, it's a better idea to invest in a contender with a higher wattage since a fast charge is typically what we look for in a solar panel first and foremost. For speed and efficiency, a more significant watt option is more efficient. That is unless you're trying to save weight or money, in which case a less powerful model might be a good compromise.
Multiple Device Charging Speed
As you might guess, when tasked with the challenge of charging multiple devices at once, the more powerful models performed better than, the less powerful ones. Twelve out of the twenty chargers in this year's testing had multiple USB ports. The 5W and 7W models simply don't have the power to sustain two gadgets at once, which might not be what you're looking for anyway. That's why on the metrics chart, the three low watt models get a 2 out of 10, compared to the models that can charge two devices.
The X-Dragon lapsed in and out of charging and the Powergreen 20W appeared to be working, but we never saw an increase in percentage. The PowerGreen 20 was the highest scorer, earning a 6 out of 10. Next was the Instapark Mercury 10. Some panels, like the Wildtek Source 21W, now have three USB ports, but we found this panel to have the same issues as many of the 2-port versions out there. It appears that models with a higher wattage are more effective at charging multiple devices at once. With this in mind, check out the BigBlue 28W or the X-Dragon 40W if this is a feature you find important.
Since their job is to lie out exposed to the elements, we had high hopes for these models when it came to their ability to hang tough as we took them through deserts, mountains, sun, wind, and rain. Through months of testing, nearly all the contenders stood up to the challenge. The canvas protective fabric is like an exoskeleton-guarding the important insides of the panels. Solar technology seems to be advancing too, with companies working to make cells more durable and resistant to sun and water damage.
When scanning through customer reviews online, we noticed complaints about various models withering and warping in the sun. Because of this, we were extra vigilant, even when we set them out in the blazing southern Utah desert sun. Thankfully, in our testing period, none of the chargers endured much damage at all. These are hardy machines, and with technology advancing every year, solar panel companies have come leaps and bounds in the construction of portable options.
Models with external storage pockets, like the Powergreen 20W and the Instapark Mercury 10, won us over because their pocket not only protects extra gadgets but also keeps the USB port dry and covered when charging. Some of the models, like the Goal Zero Nomad 7, have a mesh pocket, which is helpful for seeing what is inside, but also tends to wear out faster than a more burly canvas construction. Others, like the Renogy 5W and the Suntactics S-Charger 14 lack pockets, which makes them more streamlined but also harder to keep track of your cables. The Renogy 5W's USB port is well-protected on the back of the panel, but the ports on the Suntactics panel are exposed to the elements and often got dirt in them when we propped it up on its side to charge.
Weight and Portability
Since the primary function of all these portable models is to be, well mobile, this is an important category. A model that is too heavy or bulky will be left behind to collect dust in the closet when you set out on your next adventure.
The models range from a mere 5.6 ounces, like the Renogy 5W, the only model to earn a 10 out of 10 for portability, to the iClever BoostCel 12W, which weighs in at 21.5 ounces. For the most part, smaller options will be less powerful, but some of the low wattage panels, like the Goal Zero Nomad 7 weigh almost as much as the 20W powerhouse panels.
Some come with lots of accessories and extra features, which make them easier to use and more exciting, but also make them bulky and unappealing to carry on long trips. There is a happy medium between overkill and overly simple. Though portability is key, we found that we focused more on performance in our testing, since the panel is just dead weight if it doesn't work at all. That was our reasoning behind handing out awards to heavier panels like the BigBlue 28W and the Mercury 10W.
This year we mostly avoided testing any models with battery packs included, though many of the companies in this review provide these products. To make the review more standardized across the board and to simplify the testing, we used a standard battery pack and USB for all the panels. We used the 1byone 6,000 mAh Portable Charger, as it was an inexpensive external battery with good reviews, used mainly for charging phones and small gadgets.
Many people choose to combine a solar charger that doesn't have an internal battery with an external battery. This allows the panel to charge the battery during the day while you're using your devices (phone, GPS unit, and the like) and you can charge your device at night via the external battery. External batteries are an essential addition, too, because as our tablets and smartphones demand higher power (like 2A charging ports), this becomes harder to produce from the sun (which is variable at best), and requires higher wattages, and thus more panels, meaning more weight and bulk. The best option, in our opinion, is to have a less strong (and lighter weight!) solar charger that charges a high-quality external battery, which can, in turn, produce the necessary 2A of current for our devices.
Deciding on the right solar charger can be an overwhelming task. To make it easier to wrap your head around, figure out what you will be using it for, and go from there. Are you running a mobile office and need to keep multiple, energy-hungry devices happy? Or are you concerned with having a fully charged phone on a weekend excursion? The smaller watt options are going to be less expensive, and thus less powerful. As you increase the wattage, the panels become more and more efficient. The sky is the limit, but it depends on how much money you are willing to spend. We put all 18 of these competitors to the test and found that there are some that perform better than others, and a higher price tag doesn't necessarily mean a better product. We hope that our thorough tests and reviews of these products will be useful to you as you shop around for your new solar charger.
— Jane Jackson