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What happened to solar laptops?

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What if you could use your laptop battery without plugging it in, relying entirely on the sun’s rays instead of a bulky, tangled power cord? Solar laptops existed in the past, but did not catch on. So what happened?

praise the sun

Laptops use 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 intersect, and for Samsung, that happened in 2011 when they released the NC215S solar-powered netbook.

Portable Solar NC 215S
Samsung

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

The problem with solar powered laptops

Samsung’s solar powered netbook was a great device for a student living in a country with lots of sunlight but no electricity. You may only get a few hours of use every day from solar power, but that’s better than having no use at all or using expensive sources of electricity like gasoline generators.

However, there are some drawbacks to using solar power built into your laptop. For one thing, using a laptop in direct sunlight is challenging. Even the latest screens are barely readable outside at full brightness, which misses the point.

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

Do laptops need solar power?

The MacBook Air 2020 M1.
mama_mia / Shutterstock.com

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 the power grid long enough to drain the battery of these modern laptops, and even if they were, lithium power banks are cheap and plentiful. Throw a few in your backpack and it’ll be more than enough to hold your laptop for days or weeks.

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

Given that integrated solar panels come with weight, size, thickness, and the other drawbacks mentioned above, 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 commonplace is that solar-powered technology has gotten so good. It makes much more sense to buy a general purpose solar generator with a single power source that can charge your laptop and any other devices you may have. Even AC powered 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 won’t produce much power. With a portable solar generator, you can deploy a large panel of 150W or more and charge it much faster than a panel the size of a laptop could.

The Solar Laptop Isn’t Dead Yet

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

Laptops consume less and less energy and solar panels become more efficient every year. New battery technology is also emerging, allowing faster charging and higher capacities. It seems inevitable that, at some point, a laptop that can top up its battery quickly and efficiently with a bit of sunlight will be feasible.

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