Here’s something cool: a laptop bag with a solar panel on the front, so you can get free unlimited charging for all your gadgets. It’s called the GCELL Gratzel Solar Backpack 2, and we’re going to take a look at it in today’s review! We’re also taking a look at another GCELL solar product, an iPad Air 2 keyboard cover. Let’s begin!
Summary and score
The GCELL Gratzl Solar Backpack 2 is a well-designed and durable bag that also happens to provide free (if slow) solar-powered recharges. Whether you spend a lot of time outdoors or you just hate recharging power banks, this awesome backpack makes a lot of sense.
Dye-sensitised solar cells
At the heart of the GCELL backpack are dye-sensitised solar cells, a special kind of thin-film cell invented by a chap called Michael Grätzel. Here’s Technology Review on how they work:
In this type of solar cell, dye-coated semiconductor nanocrystals are sandwiched between glass panels or embedded in plastic along with an electrolyte. The dye absorbs light and creates electrons, which are transferred to the semiconductor and then out into a circuit. Dye-sensitized cells have lower light-to-electricity conversion efficiencies than the best thin-film solar cells, but they are considerably cheaper to manufacture and can also be printed on flexible surfaces.
The cell’s low manufacturing cost and flexibility make it perfect for embedding in all sorts of consumer products, like the backpack and iPad keyboard cover we’re looking at today. While it isn’t the most efficient solar cell, it’s still enough to charge from natural or artificial light, and combined with the included power bank it makes for a nifty gadget support system.
The bag is also something of a local product; a rarity for XSReviews. The company behind the bag, G24 Innovations, created the solar cells used in the bag quite close to our Bristol HQ; just across the bay in Newport, Wales.
Features & Specifications
Backpack: Nylon 1680D durable fabric, 150D polyester lining. 21 litre capacity, with 12 individual compartments in total including a secure 15-inch laptop space. Includes air-mesh padded back and straps, a sturdy handle and hook, foam lining and adjustable chest strap. Available in iron grey colour.
Solar cell: DSSC. Power max 0.5W minimum. Operating 100mA, 5.5V.
Power bank: 5000mAh, 1.1A / 5V output. 1 USB port, micro USB cable provided.
As a power source
The first thing we wanted to know about the Gratzel Solar Backpack 2 was how much power its solar cell actually provided… and unfortunately, it wasn’t much. At 0.1A, you’re looking at a fraction of what a USB port provides, and an order of magnitude less than what you can get from a good mains adapter these days. If you’re planning to just recharge in the same way you would from a wall adapter, without preparing the backpack beforehand, you’ll be out of luck.
That small amount of solar juice adds up over time though, and the backpack seems to work indoors as well as out. We left our backpack exposed to the sun during the day, and by the evening there was always enough juice in the power bank to about half-fill our iPhone 6 Plus. That’s not revolutionary, but it’s enough that it’s a useful feature, particularly if you’re a ways from the nearest mains power.
As a backpack
Of course, the GCELL backpack is more than just a place to recharge your iPhone. It’s also… a backpack, a container that allows you to bring more things with you than you could carry with your hands alone. It’s here that the GSB2 impressed us the most, as it genuinely seems like one of the best bags we’ve ever used.
Everything here seems well designed and well executed, with sensible choices and quality materials abound. The laptop compartment offers a good measure of protection, and its placement behind the straps ensures it can’t be opened by a malicious third-party while it’s being worn.
The front pockets are quite spacious, with a few internal compartments but not so many that the bag feels overly heavy or complicated as a result. The power bank has a nice wee pocket to fit into, ensuring it stays in the right place and doesn’t get tugged around. It’s comfortable to wear too, with plenty of padding in all the right places. In short, this bag is a winner.
As an iPad Air keyboard cover
G24 also included a keyboard cover in their package, the Solar Powered Keyboard Folio for the iPad Air 2, so it seems remiss not to try it out as well. Unfortunately I don’t have an iPad Air to test it with, but as a Bluetooth keyboard it will work with a range of devices.
As a keyboard, the GCell is in the middle of the road. It doesn’t offer a ton of tactile feedback, but it has enough key travel to be usable at reasonably high speeds. The layout is quite ordinary, with few annoying deviations and iOS-friendly hotkeys. Thanks to the built-in solar cell, it should go forever without needing a recharge, which would definitely be handy if you’re writing a lot each day at your iPad.
The cover is well-made too, with nice synthetic materials that provide a professional look and feel. The stand works well and provides a stable writing platform in that familiar laptop stance, and the whole thing tucks together easily when not in use. It’s fairly thick for a keyboard cover, but for something you’re keeping in your bag it’s totally reasonable.
G24 have produced a backpack of definite quality here. The last solar backpack we tried was competent as a go-anywhere charger, but fell down a little as an actual backpack — it felt a bit cheaply made and lacked good looks or a rugged exterior. Conversely, the Solar Backpack 2 feels both well-made and cleverly designed, with good laptop protection, a sensible array of pockets, strong zips and durable materials. At that stage, having a working, useful solar cell on the front is just a bonus. All in all, an awesome solar backpack that deserves our Editor’s Choice Award!
The Keyboard Folio feels similarly well-designed and implemented, allowing the solar cell to feel like a useful bonus rather than the only redeeming feature. The keyboard isn’t the best I’ve used, but it fits into the cover nicely and is a definite improvement over writing using the Air 2’s on-screen keyboard.