I’ve always liked the idea of solar power, it makes sense to keep your gadgets charged on the hill, particularly over a multi-day expedition. I’d previously owned a Freeloader Pico and found the performance less than optimal (putting it nicely), so had always been cautious to invest in a decent solar rig. Fortunately I was spared the need to make a decision when my brother bought me a Goal Zero Nomad 3.5 and Guide 10 plus for Christmas. Despite it being bad form to do so, for the purpose of this review I had to check the price, the Nomad 3.5 will set you back around £49.99, and the Guide 10 plus the same. The bigger solar panel the Nomad 7 is available at around £70 also. As a bit of an overview the Nomad 3.5 is a small solar panel designed to charge electronic devices through a USB port. It comes with a small cylindrical power pack – the Switch 8, which can plug directly into the panel and be charged as you walk, or at camp. The panel itself does not produce sufficient voltage to charge modern smartphones such as iPhones. However the purpose of the Nomad 3.5 seems to be to charge the Switch 8, which does have the power to charge an iPhone or other devices, so not being able to charge devices directly isn’t really an issue for me. I also have the Guide 10 plus, which is another portable power pack designed to be charged from the Nomad 3.5, the Guide 10 plus has a set of 4 AA batteries inside, and a USB port for charging devices.
Look and feel wise, the Nomad 3.5 looks and feels substantial, it’s shower proof (but definitely not waterproof), and folds away neatly. One thing I like about the Nomad 3.5 is the cord loops attached on the sides to allow you to mount the panel on a rucksack to charge on the go, or to secure it to a tent at camp. The Guide 10 plus also feels very substantial, and the instructions for operation on the back are a welcome addition. The Switch 8 that comes with the Nomad 3.5 also feels great. The thing I like about these devices is that they feel as though they were designed to be outdoors, I always felt with the Freeloader Pico that I would break it just by looking at it, but the Nomad, Guide and Switch all feel tough enough to go the distance.
In terms of function, I’ve personally found the whole set up very easy to use. In Wales last weekend I decided to rely completely on Solar power to keep my gadgets charged, and opted against using any power banks, car chargers etc. When I woke up Saturday morning the sun was shining brightly, so I laid the Nomad 3.5 out in the sun, and connected the Guide 10. After breakfast, sorting kit etc, I looked at the Guide 10s power indicator which informed me I had 50-70% charge. The actual charging times for any solar device depend on much sun is shining, Goal Zero say 3-4 hours for a full charge. But having only left the guide for 2 hours or so, 50% seemed about right. 50% battery on the guide 10, translates to roughly 40% charge on my iPhone whilst I was using it, so I suspect this would be higher if I hadn’t been using my phone for Sat Nav etc. Whilst we went for a walk along Newborough I left my Nomad 3.5 in the window charging my Switch 8. When I returned the Switch 8 indicator said I had around 50% charge (although the indicator lights can be a bit difficult to understand). This translated to around 30% battery on my iPhone whilst I was using it (again this would be higher if I hadn’t been using it, and it has been in direct sunlight instead of between a window).
It is worth noting that you can charge you Switch 8 and Guide 10 at home, and just keep it topped up using the sun, this would probably have been a much more effective way of using it. I have no doubt I could have carried on using the Nomad to keep my phone alive had I been out longer. I also tried the Guide/Switch packs with my Suunto Traverse and iPad mini, and it seemed to charge these fine too. In the interests of completeness I charged the Guide 10 and Switch 8 to 100% from the mains at home, and used the to charge my iPhone from flat. The Switch 8 charged it to 100% but was more or less flat afterwards, but the Guide 10 still had power left after completing a full charge. Both the Switch 8 and the Guide 10 can comfortably charge my Suunto Traverse to 100% with power to spare. You can read more on the Nomad here: http://www.goalzero.com/p/195/goal-zero-switch-8-nomad-3-5-kit
It is worth noting that the Nomad has been superseded by the Nomad plus series, which are lighter and tougher. The Nomad 7 (the big brother of the 3.5) is still available: http://www.goalzero.com/p/79/guide-10-plus-solar-kit
All in all, very impressed, looking forward to using the Nomad/Guide/Switch combo on DofE expeditions this year.