Images courtesy of ThinkGeek (above and below left) and Solar Technology (bottom).
The Freeloader Classic.
The Freeloader (which was supplied by ThinkGeek for this review) is a portable back-up power option that is shaped like a big granola bar or the kind of cigarette case you see in movies from the 1950s. It can be pre-charged from a computer, a car's cigarette lighter socket or a mains outlet (via a USB port) or from the sun. A solar charge is collected through two plates that snap together when not in use or plug into each end of the Freeloader's battery unit to absorb the Sun's rays.
The Freeloader can be fully charged in about three hours by a computer and less using a mains power source. Solar charging is a lot slower, especially under cloudy conditions or through a window. Eight hours is the time specified on the official website but that seems optimistic based on my tests (or it assumes a long day of continuous exposure to full sun). The bottom line is, you can't expect to get your iPhone back to full battery after leaving the Freeloader on the patio table for a couple of hours.
In my tests I also found that bringing a fully discharged smartphone battery back to life from a solar-charged Freeloader was a long process. Moreover, only around 30% of full charge was restored before the Freeloader was exhausted. Nonetheless, the solar charging option is a handy bonus if you plan on taking your smartphone, tablet or mp3 player on a camping, hiking or mountaineering trip somewhere sunny, but off the grid.
You don't have to go to extreme or exotic places to benefit from the Freeloader, though. It is small and light enough to pack in a coat pocket, purse or satchel whenever you go out. When you’re on the go, it's easy to whip out the Freeloader and plug it into a power-starved device using the included USB cable and supplied adapter (or you can use your device's original charging cable). You can then put the combo back in your pocket or bag and go about your business while your device charges in about the same time that it would from a wall outlet.
The Freeloader can’t charge from the sun and feed power to a device simultaneously, because the rate at which it absorbs a charge is slower than that at which it can dispense one. Its biggest flaw, however, is that its charge indicator only works when the Freeloader is collecting power. Hence, if you don't use it for a while, you might not know if it's fully charged without plugging it in.
That niggle aside, the Freeloader is a gadget that could rapidly become a constant companion for the technology dependent.. As long as you remember to recharge it after every use, you need never again lose contact with a loved one because of a dead cell phone or have to rely on restaurant crayons to keep the kids happy.