Technology

What Happened to Solar Laptops?

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What if you could use your laptop’s battery without ever needing to plug in, relying totally on the sun’s rays instead of a bulky, tangling power cord? Solar laptops existed in the past, but they didn’t catch on. So what happened?

Praise the Sun

Laptops are using less and less power with each generation; at the same time, solar panels are becoming more efficient. At some point, those two trends were bound to intercept, and for Samsung, that happened in 2011 when they launched the NC215S solar-powered netbook.

NC 215S Solar Laptop
Samsung

Netbooks are a bit of a footnote now. Still, at the time, these “good enough” computers offered basic computing functionality for a tiny price, making them perfect for students and other users on a tight budget. The Samsung Netbook integrated solar panels directly into the lid. According to Samsung, it could get one hour’s worth of charge from two hours of the bright midday sun.

The Problem With Solar-Powered Laptops

Samsung’s solar-powered netbook was a great device for a student who lived in a country with plenty of sunlight but no electricity. You might only get a few hours of use every day from solar power, but that beats having no use at all or using expensive sources of electricity such as gasoline generators.

However, there are a few drawbacks to using solar power that’s built into your laptop. For one thing, using a laptop in direct sunlight is a challenge. Even the latest screens are barely readable outside at maximum brightness, rather defeating the point.

Even if you’re not using the laptop while it charges, leaving a computer in the sun requires modifications to ensure the computer doesn’t cook itself. It’s especially dangerous to have a lithium battery baking in hot sunlight since those batteries can fail catastrophically at high temperatures.

Do Laptops Need Solar Power?

The 2020 M1 MacBook Air.
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Modern laptops that fall into the ultrabook class (which essentially killed the netbook laptop) have become thin, light, powerful, and have long battery life. Take the popular M1 MacBook Air example: its high-end CPU performance, fanless design, and 17-hour battery life.

Most users would never be away from mains power long enough to exhaust the battery on these modern laptops, and even if they were, lithium power banks are cheap and plentiful. Throw a few in your backpack, and it’s more than enough to sustain your laptop for days or weeks.

It’s also worth mentioning that batteries can now charge at much higher rates than they could in 2011, so you only need to plug in for an hour or two to get back to 100%.

Since integrated solar panels come with weight, size, thickness, and those other aforementioned drawbacks, it’s not hard to see why solar laptops aren’t everywhere.

Solar Generators Are Better

One of the reasons you haven’t seen solar laptops become common sight is that solar power technology has become so good. It makes way more sense to buy a general-purpose solar generator with a single power source that can charge up your laptop and every other device you might have. Even AC power devices are covered if you have a solar generator equipped with an inverter.

Solar panels are now highly efficient, but even with the latest and greatest panels, the amount of surface area on the back of a laptop isn’t going to produce a whole lot of power. With a portable solar generator, you can unfold a large 150W or higher panel and charge up at a much higher rate than a panel the size of a laptop ever could.

The Solar Laptop Isn’t Dead Yet

That the solar laptop hasn’t quite carved out a sizable niche for itself doesn’t mean that the idea is completely dead. While you won’t find any contemporary laptops with built-in solar panels like that ground-breaking Samsung netbook, it’s likely an idea that was too far ahead of the technology at the time.

Laptops keep becoming less power-hungry, and solar panels become more efficient yearly. New battery technology is also emerging, allowing for faster charging and larger capacities. It seems inevitable that at some point, a laptop that can quickly and efficiently top off its battery with a little bit of sunlight will be feasible.



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