In search of the perfect solar laptop

Solar cells are a nice invention. They make you feel like a tree hugger and they are kinda warranty that your gadget always has enough power if the sun is shining. Some stuff like calculators or wristwatches are pretty easy to find in solar powered versions. Recently the market was also flooded with these small solar “power banks” that charge an internal battery while resting in the sunlight and deliver you a nice extra charge for your cell phone when there’s no power socket around.

But whether you’re a tree hugger or just preparing for the next zombie apocalypse – sooner or later you might search for a solar powered laptop and have a hard time finding one.

Remarkably there are only 2 solar laptop models that were ever made.

One is the much hyped “Wewi Sol” or just “Sol laptop”.

Sol Laptop
The legendary Sol Laptop

While hyped as the “300 dollar laptop” which is “rugged” and “waterproof” it was a bit of a disappointment when it was finally released. The fact that this laptop never really took off (It was sold in probably “small quantities” though) is a bit sad, but it’s also a story of crushed dreams. So let’s see what went wrong with this one:

  • Unlike the promised 300 dollars the most basic version costed around 600 dollars. Oops! Make that 850 Dollars for the “better” version.
  • Even the expensive “Marine” versions were not “waterproof” as promised but just used a rubber like coating that was supposed to be “hydrophobic”. Snake oil since plastic alone is also hydrophobic, so the coating does nothing.
  • The term “rugged” was prolly refering to the 2 cool looking greebels added to the solar cell compartment which improved the cool look but did nothing. The so called “reinforced polymer” case is what we would call “cheap plastic”.
  • Nothing against a 14 inch notebook, but when you fold out the solar panels you need loads of space, more like 5 laps or a truck bed.
  • The solar panel is detachable so you can finally lose or forget the most important part of your solar laptop. In theory that would make placing the solar panel much easier, but the panel cord is just like 7 feet long, so impossible to sit indoors in the shadow while using the solar panel.
  • So while you have to charge the laptop outside it is not really great to use outside because the screen is not really great for use in direct sunlight.
  • The promised “2 hours charging in sunlight to work 10 hours” turned out to be more like “5 hours charging to get the battery to 75% under good condition”.
  • It is also a heavy beast – at over 6 pounds there are sure lighter notebooks.
  • There was only one reseller – CDW – and they didn’t do much to advertise this unit.

With all this said it is barely more than a technically disappointing intel atom based notebook with a folding solar cell array. That the array can be attached to the lid when folded is already the cool part about it. There’s better folding solar cell solutions on ebay for less money. Basically a cool idea and a terrible result.

 

Well the second candidate for the title “best solar notebook” comes in form of the Samsung NP-NC215.

Samsung NC215
Samsung NP-NC215

Released much earlier (2011), but much lighter (under 3 pounds), smaller (10 inch screen netbook) and cheaper (around 400 Dollar). Which does not mean that this candidate is flawless (Nobody is perfect – which also seems to apply to solar laptops). So here’s the worst flaws:

  • Pretty small solar cell – Samsung sold it as “charge for 2 hours, work for 1 hour” which seems to be halfway realistic if it is charging under perfect conditions – but admittedly – the 4 solar panels of the Sol laptop definitely produce more power
  • The plastic is cheap quality and in some areas too thin. I actually have 3 of these and for 2 of them the plastic around the power button is already broken because it is so friggin thin and fragile.
  • The claimed “up to 14 hours of battery life” are obviously also far off – make that like 10 hours if you set power saving to the max and don’t play any 3D games.
  • While the screen is actually matte (Kudos for that!) it is far from being “sunlight readable”.
  • Just 1024 x 600 screen resolution which is “okay” for most applications but nothing you’d praise.
  • Was only sold in the U.S., Brazil, Korea and some african countries for a short time afaik.

With all that said the Samsung already comes closer to the “perfect solar laptop”.

Luckily there are a few things you can improve yourself:

  • Change the screen to a “Pixel Qi” – luckily the Samsung supports turning off backlight, so a Pixel Qi will perform very good even in the brightest direct sunlight while saving power. Bad news is that the display cable is a bit too short so you will have to start soldering.
  • Swap the HDD for a modern solid state drive. Some SSD like the Toshiba Q300 have ridiculously low power consumption figures and boost the battery life to more than what Samsung initially claimed.
  • Turn off or remove wifi (and bluetooth) if you don’t use these – they just eat up battery life.

After all the NC215 isn’t that bad once you modded it a bit. I just wish it was made from higher quality (or thicker) plastic.

 

 

Another (sad) candidate would have been the “iUnika Gyy” – sad not because it was supposed to be based on an “Arm” processor (Linux only!), but because it seems this one was never produced or released. Well  unfortunately it was just vaporware… 🙁

 

iUnika Gyy
iUnika Gyy

We heard you like computers, so we put a computer in your computer…

I like unusual computers. So it was love at first sight when i spotted the Sharp Mebius PC-NJ70A in Japan around summer 2009. A laptop with a color TFT touchscreen where others have a boring touchpad. Unfortunately i didn’t wanna spend the 80.000 Yen  that the machine costed in 2009 when it came out – which was like over 800 USD at that time. Well a few weeks later i bought a used one for 30.000 Yen – still a lot, but a price where i simply got weak.

PC-NJ70A
The legendary Sharp PC-NJ70A

Obviously it gets boring to just change the background pictures and even the included bowling game only entertained me for a short while, so curiosity made me wanna inspect the hardware a bit further. Luckily Sharp was kind enough to release a firmware update for the touch pad, so with a bit of editing and extracting i could get hold of the actual Compressed ROMFS image from the installer. If you have 7zip you can simply extract it and look at the complete system of the touch pad.

The surprise was pretty big when i realized that the touch screen is more than just a TFT – it’s actually a complete computer with RAM, flash-based SSD, ARM processor and even USB, networking and sound. It runs a customized Version of Wind River Linux 2.0 which is optimized for embedded systems.

This fact makes it one of the most overlooked systems ever – shame but noone ever really hacked this system even though it has loads of potential. I think the main problem that leads to the lack of attention is the availability. While this laptop was sold in quite large numbers around Japan it was never released outside of Japan – which is a shame.

A few months after the release of this laptop some Linux activists in japan threatened to sue Sharp since they obviously used all kinds of GPL software – but failed to release the source code. So Sharp did release the source code half-heartedly.

Originally Sharp had big ambitions for this laptop – they released an additional game (Kinda DDR clone) for the touch pad on their – now defunct – Mebius Club website. Since Windows 7 came out shortly after the laptop was introduced they also released a “new” version that came with Win 7 – the PC-NJ70B (impressive naming scheme here). The NJ70B also came with more touch pad games – which Sharp “forgot” to make available for the owners of the old NJ70A laptops. Sharp also promised an SDK to develop custom appz and games for the touch pad – needless to say that they never released that promised SDK.

After all this machine is so interesting (Well the touch pad is…) and had so much potential – it’s a shame they abandoned it so soon. I am sure that if this was released in the US along with the promised SDK, the Linux sources and everything it would have become an iconic machine with a cult following. There are limitless possibilities of appz, hacks and utilization scenarios for this “2 computers in one” netbook, but we’ll probably never see them since noone outside Japan knows about it (And the Japanese never cared much about Linux it seems).

So here goes hoping that my website will at least interest a few people in this unique machine.

A flatrate before the internet was invented…

I already wrote what it was like to use the internet when flatrates were not invented and how i stayed online 24/7 anyways without paying a few grand on phone bills ( Why hackers loved AOL ).

Well even before the internet went public many people were online and many of them didn’t feel like paying a fortune for that.

In Germany paradise was actually closed on January 1st 1980. Before that a local call was always just “one unit” which was something like 5 cent. the thing was that the unit did not have a time limit. So you could connect to any other local modem virtually forever, costing you like 5 cent. Back in the late 1970s the popular BBS (Bulletin board system) came up, so just when it became fun to be on-line (back in the days you would write it with a dash) it was over again.

BBS System screen
That is how it would have looked like to connect to a BBS in the 1970s and early 1980s

Actually in Western Berlin (Which held a special role until the German re-union) local calls were still “unlimited” until 1992. However the rest of Germany (And other parts of the world) needed a solution. And the solution actually came much earlier – from desperate U.S. users – namely “John T. Draper” aka “Captain Crunch”.

John "Captain Crunch" Draper
John “I need more butter” Draper aka “Captain Crunch showing the famous captain crunch cereals whistle

John Draper aka “Captain Crunch” discovered that a whistle included in the famous “Captain Crunch” cereals produced nearly exactly a 2600 Hz tone – which was coincidentially also the exact frequency of the “operators” dialing console to trigger a long distance call. In a nutshell – you could call a local or free phone number, send the 2600 Hz tone through the phone line and then dial the long distance call number being only billed the cheap (or free) call. The mechanics behind this were already published in 1971 – but for obvious reasons they didn’t become that common in Germany before January 1st 1980. But yeah by then even the Germans saw how useful this technique is and it stayed very common until the early to mid 1990s when phone companies finally moved to “out-of-band” signals for routing phone calls.

Until then the 2600 Hz tone was so popular among “computer freaks” – some people even managed to whistle in 2600 Hz, some had tropical birds trained to whistle 2600 Hz, the 2600 Hz tone was on loads of audio tapes, there were selfmade (and “kit”) electronic devices around to produce it, there were toy whistles and with the popularity of sound cards and home computers with sound abilities there were obviously also numerous appz to produce the wanted frequencies. In the early 1990s most people in the “warez” scene used blueboxing to download tons of games and appz without having a high phone bill.

Acoustic couplers, hackers and the rest…

Even though it might be a surprise for some younger readers – before you connected to the internet via wifi or ethernet there were these crude little devices called “modems”. And – unthinkable to many – before the modem (and long before the internet – yes even without the internet some of us went “on-line”) there even more obscure devices to connect a computer through a phone line – the acoustic coupler.

Acoustic coupler in phone booth
Iconic German hacker “Wau Holland” connecting to a remote host via an acoustic coupler in a public phone booth.

These weird devices looked a bit like a stylish stand for a phone handset. Like the actual handset they contained a microphone and speaker – just in the opposite order of the handset – giving them the ability to “talk” and “listen” to the actual handset.

That might sound confusing to the younger audience – i already hear someone mumbling like “Hell why not just plug a modem into the phone jack?”. The answer is simple – back in the early 1980s there usually was no phone jack – phones at home were just directly “soldered” (not really, but imagine they were) to a cable that came out of the wall. And even if you had a jack back in the days – the phone companys in most countries had  a monopoly and strict rules that were usually “it’s not allowed to connect any device not issued by us” in a nutshell. So the early adopters of computer communication had to fall back to such primitive devices – the acoustic coupler was born.

Obviously they came out of fashion when phone jacks became common and phone companies either lost their monopole or at least “issued” their own “seal of quality” modems.

However – some hackers still kept them since these were (and still are) the only possibility to connect when there is a handset but no phone jack. Like for example in a public phone booth. This was also used by some real black hat hackers for illegal actions since when you call a BBS or other remote host they can usually trace your phone number. If the caller is a public phone booth though that information was not so valuable. Today you may be behind a dozen proxies or an open wifi – but back in the days you were in a phone booth. These were the days.