Accessibility
http://www.gadgetspeak.com/gadget/article.rhtm/753/480990/FreeLoader_-_Helping_the_environment_.html
email articleprinter

FreeLoader - Helping the environment? 

We all want to do our bit for the environment - but it pays to ask questions and not accept manufacturers claims at face value. Here we look at the FreeLoader that offers to power your gadgets for free using the power of the sun. How does it measure up? You may be surprised!

Information on the FreeLoader arrived through the GadgetSpeak letter box a while before Christmas and was followed up by a phone call - and then a duly delivered sample for review.

What is the FreeLoader?

The marketing is clearly targeting the environmental pang of guilt we now all have by giving you a shiny new gadget that also helps to reduce the environmental impact of all your other shiny gadgets. A win-win situation! As the name implies, FreeLoader suggests something for nothing - in this case endless clean electrical energy to drive your favourite gadgets from iPods to cameras to sat-navs. Anything in fact that accepts a DC power source of around 5V.

Brilliant idea. First of the all the product itself. The package contains the Freeloader itself, a set of adaptors for a wide range of products, a short manual and a USB charging cable. The looks are good and this product is obviously sees itself as a fashion statement as much as anything else.

The FreeLoader comes as a rectangular unit 6x12.5x1.7cm (WxHxD). Pull the top from the bottom and half the case splits into two small solar panels. The remaining part contains the electronics and a battery. The solar panels clip into the left and right of the battery unit - at which point you place the unit into sunlight to charge.

...or at least that's the idea. My initial thought was to attempt to use just solar energy to power my phone for a month. Not difficult I thought given the phone battery holds 14 days charge and I make very few calls.

Initial results

Although the battery can be charged by solar energy, and that is the obvious message from the product, you can charge from any USB power source - and you are told that you should first give the battery a full charge from USB for conditioning purposes. This I duly did.

On to solar energy. With a lucky bright, dry sunny spell in our usually dreary weather I was optimistic. I propped the FreeLoader up outside and periodically moved it round to make sure it was continuously in direct sunlight. It was in the sun for around six hours.

At the end of that time - I plugged it into my Sony Ericsson phone using the adaptor provided, having let the phone battery drain to less than 50% by playing a video.

I was somewhat surprised when I found that the total charge time from the unit was 2 minutes. After a whole day in the sun. I repeated this experiment again, but after two days in the sun. Just about the same result.

I was a little surprised given the wording of the press release "There's no need to live in LA to enjoy the benefits of free solar technology as FreeLoader even works in the cloudy and dreary UK or indoors. It doesn't!

I contacted the manufacturers, Solar Technology, to find out whether this was to be expected. And - well - yes, actually. Despite the claim on the firms website that they "use crystalline silicon technology which is more efficient than amorphous or thin film solutions, particularly in lower light conditions found in the UK", they don't expect you to be able to get any charge at all in the UK during winter time and that I should try again in Spring!

Given I'd been provided with the product to test in December this does show a certain lack of planning!

LEDs on the FreeLoader

Looking a little closer

Removing the solar panels from the battery unit I tested the current and voltage output from each panel. In direct sunlight I measured around 17mA and a no-load voltage of 6V. Not a huge amount, falling far short of the claimed 120mA, but neither is it insignificant. This is going somewhere - and it's not charging the battery. I have a pretty good idea where. Each solar panel has an LED indicator in the battery unit that lights up to reflect the amount energy from each panel. Now an LED can take 20mA, forgetting about loss in the charging circuits.

This is clearly a design mistake - and driven I assume by wanting to 'show' all that free energy! If you're trying to collect solar energy from very small panels and you're aiming for the UK market you do not waste that energy making LEDs glow!

The battery

Discussing this with the company further their suggestion was that although you'll not get any solar power in winter (but wait for spring!) the FreeLoader is also a very convenient way of carrying some extra power with you by charging the battery from the USB port on your computer. It was suggested that because it was USB it didn't consume any power - obviously not the case!

Charge time from USB is stated to be around 3 hours. What this is likely to mean is people leaving their computer on over night using hugely more energy than they would charging a couple of AA batteries from the mains. In fact having a mains adaptor for FreeLoader would probably be more efficient overall than using USB (there is actually an option to buy such a product!)

So moving on from the solar aspects of this product to the convenient spare power for your mobile or iPod when you're out and about. This is a possibility, although the spec for the battery isn't particularly stunning capable of 1000mAh at 3.7V, or 3.7W. In terms of stored power that's slightly more than a single 2700mAh, NiMH AA rechargable batteries (3.24W). Further, because the battery is an integral part of the central unit when it's two year lifetime expires you'll be throwing away (hmmm - recycling) not only the battery but also the circuitry, LEDs and other components. Finally the output of the battery also has to drive voltage converters to get to the output voltage of 5.5V - which will not be a loss-less conversion.

New batteries are available for £12.99. Remember each battery stores a charge slightly higher than a single high-capacity AA cell, of which you can buy 4 for close to £12.99.

Solar Tech FreeLoader folded

The environmental impact

I'm not sure where to start on this. The environment is a key issue right now, in the news almost daily. This unfortunately creates a bandwagon (opportunity) onto which many companies may wish to jump. The FreeLoader seems to be a case in point. While many of Solar Technologies other products look sound, this seems to be aimed squarely at cashing in on consumers fear and guilt. Our particular concerns are summarised as follows :

  • Aimed at the UK 'green' market, but unable to use solar energy for a considerable part of the year
  • Even assuming it works in summer - there is the environmental impact of manufacture, shipping and eventual recycling of batteries and panels
  • Poor energy usage design with LEDs frittering away what energy is available
  • Non-replacable low capacity battery with 2 year life-time (to replace, throw away all the electronics as well)
  • Encourages wasteful use of energy by suggesting USB as a suitable non-solar charging mechanism

Energy Awards

Given my findings on this product I was very surprised to find it being awarded "Highly Commended" status by the Energy Efficiency Awards. Something that I find interesting!

Accessories

Apart from a wide range of adaptors for the FreeLoader you can also extend the usefulness of your FreeLoader by buying an AA battery charger - this is priced at £12.99 and can charge two AA batteries. That may sound useful, however bear in mind that the FreeLoader can only charge external devices via it's internal battery - which when fully charged is only sufficient for one high-capacity AA battery. There is loss in the transfer so in practice it won't be sufficient to fully charge a single battery.

Solar Technology sidestep this issue somewhat by only supplying 1300mAh batteries - about half the capacity of those generally available for the same price elsewhere.

Summary

I'm sorry - I can't recommend this product to anyone. It's not particularly expensive at £29.99, but it doesn't do what it suggests on the tin while encouraging environmentally unsustainable practices.

What next?

None yet. The FreeLoader is now in the draw awaiting spring. When spring finally arrives I'll drag it out and update this review with how it fares charging at that time of year and may do the same for summer. Maybe it can redeem itself a little if it can produce a good stream of energy on both sunny and somewhat overcast days. Stay tuned!

Follow us on Twitter!!

add to del.icio.us Digg this review
StumbleUpon
Reddit

Reviews by related category

Have your say!

What's your experience of this product? Agree or disagree, or just have a question? Use the box below and let everyone know.

[ Add your comment | Watch this articleNew! ]

Rating:

Comment by Ian, Jan 26, 2011 14:17

I think they reconfigured the Freeloader in late 08. I live in australia and bought the GLobetrotter pack. No complaints so far.A mates iPhone was fully charged with my freeloader and then 2 AA 2500mAh rechargeable batteries got @ least 75% of charge.With the  "Supercharger ? Similar result with the iPhone after having it outside for 4 hours so on a good day you could charge 2 Freeloaders. I cycle tour. This little gadget is ideal for me. Keeps me and my lights in AA/AAA batteries and charges either my iPhone or old clunker of an N95. It WILL NOT though,charge a BLackberry Bold 9700 ! All up though, REALLY handy for me.
Rating:

Comment by Oli Constable, Aug 29, 2009 0:30

Ok, i have the freeloader with TWO batteries and a 'SUPERCHARGER'. After charging both batteries, plugging it into my iPhone 3G, I got 3% charge and took about 4 minutes. Hmmm, this was after a full days charge! Not impressed.
Rating:

Comment by Jon Gear, May 1, 2009 0:21

I've been quite happy with my Freeloader, mind I only paid £15 for it. I find for sitting in the sun, it happily plays my ipod with seemingly maintaining most of its charge. When I have used it heavily e.g. charged phone, ipod & played ipod video, I charge it in my car thru a 12v usb adapter, which is also "free". I've also charged it from a cheap 2.5 amp solar 12v trickle charger through a car lighter splitter adaptor and from a £10 solar battery charger (when charged batteries are left in, it itself works as a charger).
My main issue with the review is that it seems misleading about the batteries capabilities. I cannot argue with the math, but having used other recharge devices based on 4 x AAA 1000ma power source i.e 4000ma, this subjectively seems to easily out perform - then maybe that's because it's charging at the same time.
Sure if you're able to charge up your devices at work, in the car or can do so in a more environmentally friendly way at home, fine, this product is not for you. But if you like to travel, or wild camp, or like to get away from civilization, this little unit (little being the operative word)is damn near perfect.
Incidentally, most negative reviews on Amazon are by people who have not read the manual (i.e. the solar charger lights never turn green), or have entirely unrealistic expectations.
Rating:

Comment by petew, Jul 27, 2008 16:47

As promised I've done a little more testing of the FreeLoader. The results are vary considerably depending on the conditions - the smallest amount of cloud mades the current drop.

First test - 4pm on a hot sunny day in June - no cloud. This gave the best results. I managed to get 60mA at 6.2V out of each panel. Re-reading the spec : "120mA premium quality crystalline solar cells" - I take that to mean per panel, however if they mean in aggregate then I actually got the theoretical maximum - whohooo.

Testing again today, July 27th (yesterday was the hottest day of the year I think and today is blisteringly hot), the absolute best I managed to get was 42mA. The sun is shining but there is a *very* light, almost imperceptible cloud haze in the air.

In both cases I had to angle the cell directly at the sun - even moving it a few degrees made the output drop off. For example laying the panel flat today rather than angling the panel to the sun, caused output to drop to 28mA.

So - it would seem that in perfect conditions and assuming your hold the panels directly toward the sun you can get a power output of around 0.7W. We all know how common those perfect conditions are in the UK. If you love closer the the equator, or in sunnier climes you are more likely to get outputs to the top of the range. Do bear in mind though the times to charge and the very limited capacity of the battery (read the review above!).
Rating:

Comment by browncow, June 17, 2008 20:47

Thanks for the update Pete- I would certainly urge you to do a full test on this as I believe that are continuing their astroturf campaign on Amazon for the new freeloader "supercharger"

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A2141OXHB0VATC/

Another Amazon reviewer (who I suspect was also solar technology/their pr people) posted their own test and claimed to get 48mA on one panel on a "not very sunny day" which I find doubtful

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A8MI8KEPF0FP/
Rating:

Comment by petew, May 27, 2008 12:07

hi browncow - I've not done a formal re-test on this yet. Subjectively I have put it in full sun for a day and it did work slightly better. It managed to charge my phone for around 10-15 minutes. Now you've prompted me I'll try to get out and do some measurements when summer decides to return!

Susie : a fully charged FreeLoader (assuming no loss) has the capacity of about 50% of the PSP battery. The transfer will by no means be lossless so I'm not surprised at your experience!

Pete
Rating:

Comment by browncow, May 27, 2008 1:21

I bought one of these last year and tested it in July, midday sun, facing south at an angle, basically ideal conditions and guess what, I only got 16mA which is almost exactly what you got in winter! This product just seems to be a complete disaster if you look at reviews on Amazon as well as various other peoples experiences scattered round the web.

http://search.freefind.com/find.html?id=28262815&pid=r&mode=ALL&n=0&query=freeloader
Rating:

Comment by SusieM, Jan 8, 2008 12:34

My husband gave me one of these for Xmas - so far not very impressed - none of the supplied adaptors fitted my Motorola phone nor Samsung camera.  Tried to charge my PSP but on a fully charged FreeLoader it only put one bar on the PSP.  Nice colour though!

Add Comment

Member of GadgetSpeak™?Not a member?

required but never displayed
 If you're asking a question - join GadgetSpeak first. Then you'll automatically receive an email when someone replies!
Rating for article:

Are you human?

Access code : 1254

 

Smiley Rating

Features1
Performance1
Value1
Ease of use1
Overall1

If you like this article then why not link to it from your site!

Use a text link, or download an image

 

Our current Free Prizedraw!!

Why join GadgetSpeak?

Well - there are lots of reasons to join, depending on you and your interests :

  • Member prize-draws
  • Real reviews - by real people
  • Membership is free
  • Email summary of the weeks reviews
  • Share your product feedback with others
  • Keep in touch with all that's new in gadgets
  • Full of great ideas as the Christmas deadline looms!

Convinced? Come along and join in the fun!

close

Invite friends and family to GadgetSpeak

Why not invite friends or family to join in the fun?

Help us make GadgetSpeak the place to come for free and impartial reviews of the latest gadgets!

Start inviting your friends along!