Goal Zero has made a big name for itself as purveyors of a whole family of smartphone-friendly solar chargers, and we got a chance to check out some of their latest products, the Switch 10 battery stick and the larger Torch 250.
First up is the Switch 10. This is a really neat 3000 mAh battery that has replaceable utility heads and full-sized USB plugs. The different heads, which include a little rubber fan, flashlight, and threaded microUSB cable, plug into the female USB end, and screw securely into place with a shifting ring on the tip. On the other side is a male USB plug that flips out to connect to a charging source, which more often than not will be the included Nomad 7 solar panel. At the base, you can tap a button to check the charge on the battery, and at the other end, you can toggle a handy little LED flashlight. The Switch 10 itself is extremely well-built, and feels tough as nails. It would be nice if the screw tip had a bit more grip; it can be quite slippery when trying to loosen tightly attached accessories.
The selection of accessories for the Switch 10 are really impressive. The breeze you get from the fan is surprisingly strong, though less useful as the cold season creeps in. The only downside is that you'll have to hold the Switch 10 the whole time, since there's no easy way to prop it up or attach it to anything. The full flashlight head is great year-round. You can easily adjust the focus of the light as broad or as narrow as you like, and you get a respectable 110 lumens of light out of it.
As for charging an iPhone, it would be nice if there was at least the option for a lightning cable attachment similar to the microUSB one included, but adapters aren't expensive and you can always just plug your personal lightning cable right into the stick. The battery capacity is big enough to provide a single full charge to an iPhone without any worries, but don't count on it providing a noticeable amount of juice for your iPad. Charging by sun can take awhile, depending on conditions. Goal Zero advertises 4 hours of sunlight to top up the Switch 10, but in my experience that time is under ideal conditions. 5 - 6 hours lines up closer to what I got. That said, it's worth noting that relying on solar as a primary means to charge your gadgets isn't really going to work out for you. Expect to be using these as a back-up after all of your fully-charged batteries are dead, like, say, on the third or fourth day of your camping trip. In that particular instance, I'm a huge fan of using Goal Zero in conjunction with BioLite stoves.
The Nomad 7 charger is noticeably more portable than the larger Nomad 13m I had used before, and still includes the handy zip pocket around back, magnetic closing mechanism, built-in fastening anchors, and rough-and-tumble fabric covering. There's a built-in cable so you can chain together multiple panels and make a fairly impressive array, but I found the cable wasn't quite long enough to put the panels right next to one another. At most, the top edges of both would have to be right up against one another, which isn't always useful if the area you're working with is long and skinny. In addition to charging the Switch 10, you can also charge your devices directly thanks to the full-sized USB slot tucked behind the mesh pouch, which can also conveniently hold your device while doing so.
The other device I tried from Goal Zero was the Torch 250, which is a big, tough, and versatile piece of kit. It has a small solar panel built into it, two flashlights, and a hand crank for manual charging when things get really hairy. The front-facing spot flashlight can be on high or low brightness, and two red lights are used for getting around without blinding everybody in the middle of the night. The red lights can also be flipped on to a blink mode for emergency situations. On the underside is a wider flood light, also with high and low intensity which is toggled with the hardware buttons at the base of the Torch 250. At that base you'll find two fastening hooks which can be easily stowed, and the female USB jack for charging your iPhone or iPad. Along the side is an integrated male USB cable for when you want to charge directly from another source like, say, one of those Nomad panels.
If you want to rely on exclusively on the sun, you really do need an additional panel for the Torch 250. It's nice having a panel built in, and the angled body construction helps make sure it's facing 45 degrees very easily, but after leaving it outside on the balcony for a few days, the battery still wasn't half full from dead. This may be a factor of the 4400 mAh capacity here, but either way, it's important to see the Torch 250 as a powerful flashlight and a back-up battery well before considering it a solar charger. That said, once the Torch is charged, it's beefy enough to give you a full charge on your iPad without any problem.
Both the Torch 250 and the Switch 10 are extremely versatile and do a great job at simultaneously handling basic tasks like lighting and keeping your iPhone alive. It's hard to justify a premium on solar power when it can take so long to charge anything, but outdoorsy types will very quickly get the use they need out of Goal Zero gear. I'm not a prepper by any means, but just having the Torch 250 around makes me feel more comfortable about handling any hypothetical emergencies that might kill my power supply for a few days. That said, I'd say this gear is worth grabbing if you're an avid camper, but is probably outside of the price range for more casual users.