Solar panels being moved in a manufacturing facility.
PastryShop/Shutterstock.com

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.
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 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.

ALLPOWERS 140W Portable Solar Panel Charger for Laptops

This versatile 140W solar charger can keep your laptop charged or charge up a battery for night-time use.

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.

The Best Portable Solar Panels

Sustainable Solution
Top Choice
Jackery Solar Generator 1000, Explorer 1000 and 2X SolarSaga 100W with 3x110V/1000W AC Outlets, Solar Mobile Lithium Battery Pack for Outdoor RV/Van Camping, Emergency (Solar Generator 1000 200W)
Waterproof Option
Best 100W
Topsolar 100W Foldable Portable Solar Panel Charger Kit
Easy to Carry
Best for Transportation
DOKIO 300W 18V Portable Solar Panel Kit
Made for Outdoors
Best Value
Solar Charger 25000mAh, Hiluckey Outdoor Portable Power Bank with 4 Solar Panels, Fast Charge External Battery Pack with Dual USB Outputs Compatible with Smartphones, Tablets, etc.
Take on a Trail
Best Waterproof
BigBlue 28W SunPower Solar Panel Charger
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Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
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