By Albert Samaha
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Q: Despite Con Ed's reassurances to the contrary, my hunch is we're due for another blackout sooner rather than laterthose Eisenhower-era power grids seem a wee creaky, yes? I didn't mind the darkness so much, but having my cell phone go kaput was a monster pain. Is there any way to recharge gadgets sans wall sockets?
Sure is, though Mr. Sun may have to comply. Wilderness buffs have long been in the know about solar-powered rechargers, which are now being tailored to juice up batteries for consumer electronics rather than campsite lanterns. They're a little dicey in terms of performance, but they'll do the trick on a bright, sunny day. And if you're freaked that the next blackout will occur beneath overcast skies, there's a smattering of hand-cranked alternatives to consider.
As often tends to be the case on green matters, the Europeans are one step ahead. Britain's GetEthical.com offers a trio of solar rechargers for mobile phones, all for around 25 quid (about $40, my Yankee mates). Folks with Nokia handsets should pay a visit, as the recharger offered here is simpatico with most models; the Ericsson and Motorola compatibility is much more limited. GetEthical claims it takes between two and nine hours for a cell battery to get fully charged; Mr. Roboto's titanium gut tells him it's probably closer to the latter than the former.
Far more versatile is the iSun, from Montreal's ICP Global Technologies (icpglobal.com). The company says the $80 iSun can power up 90 percent of all small electronics, ranging from phones to MP3 players. (You'll need to splurge on a $10 adapter to get it to work with most handsets, though.) While you're on the site, indulge your fantasies of living off-the-grid by checking out the array of backyard solar panels. Amazon.com's selling a 50-watt ICP "Plug'n'Play Kit" for $440, in case you can't stomach the thought of missing an Epilady shave during the next blackout.
Laptops, of course, are much bigger energy hogs than cellies. Your best bet for keeping one humming is the Brunton Solaris, from survivalist mainstay Brunton Instruments (brunton.com). The four-pound fold-up is delightful, save for the $400 price tag.
Doesn't take a genius to figure out that Mother Nature has to cooperate for any of this to be effective. Plus, for you New Yorkers whose apartment windows face dim air shafts, tough luck. But if your wrists can handle the strain, you could try a gizmo like FreeCharge, a windup charger from Britain's Freeplay (freeplay.net). The concept couldn't be simpler: Jack it into your Motorola or Nokia handset, give the handle a few dozen quick turns, and you've got enough juice to support a five-minute call. But Mr. Roboto tried a test unit last year, and can safely say Freeplay's time estimates border on ludicrous. To wake a dead battery, you'll need to get cranking for several minutes, and the winding's got to be fasttech site ZDNet.co.uk estimates 100 revolutions per minute. You'll feel that one in the morning, for sure.
Those who fear sore muscles may prefer the Instant Power Charger (instant-power.com), which relies on a chemical mash-up of oxygen and zinc to amp up PDAs, cell phones, or even digital cameras. The playing-card-sized unit costs just $15, but you'll need a $15 replacement cartridge once the chemicals depleteafter as few as three uses. Mr. Roboto hasn't given the Instant Power Charger a whirl yet, but he does give a big thumbs-up to the spokesmodel on the home page. No self-respecting robot can resist a woman who combines a love of chunky belts with a love of Palm Pilots.
In related blackout news, IBM's fabrication plant in East Fishkill, New York, had to shut down for a few days. Some pundits say that's terrible news for all y'all waiting for the new Power Mac G5, which features a 64-bit IBM processor. But Apple insists everything's proceeding according to plan. The company just started shipping its muscular darling, but only the 1.6 and 1.8 GHz models. Looks like those of you who are itching to get your hands on the top-of-the-line 2-gig version will have to wait a few weeks more. Play it cool, Mac lovers.
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