Experiments with mobile internet abroad and charging on the road

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Sun, 25 Jul 2010
SolarSupra solar panel trickle charging a leisure battery
We've been on the road in france for a few days now. I have an iPhone with t-mobile sim, and was offered (via SMS) one of a few data roaming bundles when I drove off the eurotunnel in calais. I opted for a 30 day/ 200mb bundle for £40, which should be plenty enough for checking email and the odd bit of remote working. At the first campsite we stayed at in the town Jumièges, the phone was showing a strong 3G signal through Orange France, but it was struggling to download webpages, via the phone or tethered to my macbook. Sometimes they loaded, sometimes they didn't - mostly the latter. I wasn't planning on doing any serious work on the first day anyway, but it wasn't encouraging.

The campsite was shady and the clouds were grey (followed by thunderstorms and lightning), so it would have been pointless to try solar charging! The battery on my casio elixim camera had gone flat (probably accidently left switched on in the bag), and the only way I have of charging this is on the road is using the 240 volt inverter on the leisure battery. This is very inefficient, so took quite a chunk of charge out of the leisure battery. Packing up in torrential rain the next morning everything was a bit frantic, so I missed an opportunity to get some charge from the car while we drove the next 200 miles south.

The second campsite near the town of Ligueil in the Loire valley, had free wifi which stretched as far as our pitch a good 200 metres from the office, which was really useful. From there I did a couple of hours work, caught up on email and launched a few new features on one of the sites I look after. There was plenty of sun, so I plugged the SolarSupra panel into my leisure battery via the 12 volt connection to top it up. I haven't got an accurate way of working out how effective this is, but I have to presume that it its a minimal trickle charge, so would require days of trickle charging to have any useful effect. When I am stationary for a longer period of time, i'll try to to leave this hooked up for a few days to see how it fares.

Back on the road heading south to St Emilion, I plugged the leisure battery into the 12 volt socket conveniently located in the boot of the beetle, and by the time we reach the campsite it was fully charged - if only I could get that kind of charging power from nice clean solar power. Also along the way, stopped at a services near Tours my mobile data connection allowed me to check my email no problems, so i'm thinking it will just be a lottery, but at least I know where will be a good bet when we head back up this way.

Meanwhile i'm going to try to charge my iPhone exclusively from the SolarMio for a while to see how I get on with that. I can't help but cheat a bit as every time I plug the phone in to the laptop to get photos off it, it charges a bit!

The site i'm currently on - Camping Domaine de la Barbanne in St Emilion, has wifi but I need to go and pay for a time period, and the signal doesn't reach our pitch. This means I need to work offline, then probably before I leave, will pay the minimal amount to check my email (i'm getting no data connection here) and upload some work. I think this will be the case for much of this trip, so i'll make note of any useful lessons as I go.

It is also worth noting that I had given up getting a data connection on my iPhone, until I switched off 3G and rebooted - I have been getting a slow but working data connection eversince - good news.
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

More solar chargers to test - SolarMio, SolarDuo and SolarSupra

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Sat, 17 Jul 2010
solarsupra solar charger panels
I think I am getting obsessed with solar chargers - when I see or feel sunshine and i'm not pointing a solar gadget at it and charging something, it feels like a massive wasted opportunity!

As I mentioned before, I have been looking around for other products to test and possibly sell via partner site light planet. I now been sent three new solar chargers to test:-

The SolarMio

Small, portable solar panel/ battery pack combo aimed at charging phones and USB powered devices. The panels are flexible, water resistant and robust and fold out into a sheet with eyelets making it ideal for attaching to a backpack.

The SolarDuo

Smaller version of the SolarMio, with only two panels, and the battery pack is actually a charger for two AA rechargeable batteries. This can be used purely as an solar powered AA battery charger, or to charge/ power stuff via USB. Alternatively the batteries can be charged via USB - the solar panel out put is actually mini USB, so hopefully this could also be used to charge small USB devices directly.

The SolarSupra "Value"

Much bigger and more powerful solar panel/ battery pack combo. The battery in this one can power laptops at different voltages, as well as having a USB output. It has eight solar panels on a sheet that folds out and can be laid out or hung up. The unit and all the associated bits and pieces fold away into a nice self contained package resembling a washbag.

I'll write up full reviews of these as soon as I had time to test them properly.
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

A weekend trial run

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Mon, 12 Jul 2010
powergorilla on the roof of our bug
An opportunity came up at the weekend to head down to croyde in devon to try out some of the new camping gear and kit. I had a deadline, so there was a genuine need to work while we were down there. The campsite (sorry - top secret!) didn't have much in the way of mobile coverage last time I went, but things have obviously moved on, as I was getting a full 3G signal with t-mobile on my iPhone. The nearby beach at Putsborough sands had zero signal, which was probably a good thing as I had just bought a surfboard!

The Quechua base tent and picnic table (pictures and post to follow) worked a treat as an ad-hoc office, and I kept the macbook running from the leisure battery, which had some charge from the car on the way down. It kept me going for an evening shift and left me with a charged macbook, but the charge indicators on the battery only showed one out of four when I had finished. One thing I did notice is that I need some kind of reading light to light up my keyboard working in the near dark (yeah, yeah a new macbook pro with backlight keyboard is appealing right now!)

I charged my iPhone via USB directly from the solar gorilla - it turns out positioning really does make a difference. If I layed the gorilla flat, the iphone would complain "charging is not supported with this accessory", but with it angled to the sun it charged. I also kept the solar gorilla plugged in and charging the leisure battery when it wasn't charging the iphone, with negligible results I suspect.

My attempt to do a bit of work at a cafe in Braunton failed miserably - not only did their wifi not work, but I then proceeded to leave my bag with netbook and powergorilla in it at the cafe when I left, leading to a panic drive back to collect it..

I'm pushing the envelope with what we can realistically carry in our tiny car. These working road trips are also family trips, so tech and camping gear is fighting for space with bodyboards, wetsuits and toys. This is only possible in our car because 1. we only have one kid so we use the rest of the back set for camping gear, and 2. because of the carnopy roof bag, which we somehow manage to get a load of stuff in. After buying a surfboard off a friend in a beach car park at 5.30am, I was in danger of not being able to carry it home when the rest of the stuff was packed on the roof, but by removing the aerial I was able to jam it under the roof bars. Needless to say I was really eyeing up VW transporter vans this weekend...
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

Pedal power generation

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Thu, 08 Jul 2010
After disappointing results with my first foray into solar power, I started researching alternative ways of generating power. I was wondering what was on the market in the form of pedal powered generators. I was hoping to find a decent dynamo for a normal bike, or roller type system where a normal bike could be mounted, but looking around so far i've only found DIY solutions for the roller systems (modified "turbo trainers") and very low power dynamo systems. Some of these will charge a mobile phone or other USB device, but I haven't found anything advertising laptop or 12 volt battery charging.

I did come across these two standalone solutions:-

freeplay freecharger weza

powerplus gazelle

They both have a 7ah battery, which wouldn't power a laptop for more than an hour or so, but also both take a full day or more of pedalling to fully charge! If I had had better results with the solar panel, I might have impulse bought one of these to try, but I can't see them being much use for anything other than emergency/ novelty use.

As ever, i'd love to be proved wrong on this, so any suppliers who want to send me samples to try out, please get in touch!
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

Charging a powergorilla from a solargorilla in the UK

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Wed, 07 Jul 2010
solargorilla hanging out of the loft window
Following on from the previous experiment, I wanted to see how long it took to charge the powergorilla from the solargorilla in our not exactly solar-friendly climate.

Yesterday was promising as it was fairly sunny all day, but a days worth of charging (admittedly not making a massive effort to position the solargorilla so it was always facing the sun), only produced 3 out of 6 bars of charge - the first three are smaller than the last three, so i'm not sure if this represents 50% charge, or a much smaller percentage.

Today it is cloudy, and plugging the solargorilla in does nothing except cause the display to flicker. So, er.. i've postphoned this experiment too, as I want to make use of the powergorilla in the meantime. I will try again starting from the next sunny day.

Looking on the powertraveller site, the description sais the following of charging from the solargorilla:

"the powergorilla features solargorilla auto recognition, which means when you connect the solargorilla, the powergorilla will shut off unnecessary internal circuits to improve charging time by up to 2 hours and the little solar logo in the LCD screen will confirm this".

Mine doesn't have one of these, so i'm thinking maybe that the newer models, both of the solargorilla and powergorilla may be more efficient that the ones i've got. (Powertraveller PR dept: Feel free to send me newer versions and any other gadgets you think i'd find useful for review :)

Links to other articles about charging the power gorilla with a solar gorilla

This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

A week on solar and battery (and borrowed mains) day 2

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Tue, 06 Jul 2010
batteries
The start of day two and i'm preparing to abandon the experiment. The tiny amount of charge I managed to get into the power gorilla yesterday only gave me 30 minutes worth of macbook, so at 10am i'm back in a cafe on borrowed mains.

I think I was very over-optimistic about how much I would get out of the leisure battery yesterday - I thought that maybe by getting at least one charge a day from the leisure battery and relying on the solar+powergorilla combo for the rest of the day, I might just make it through the week.

The experiment isn't wasted though - as a friend said to me yesterday, a failed experiment is just as useful as a successful one. I can conclude that I can't expect to sustainably get full working days out of my current set up. In fact, I can only just expect to get one full working day from the macbook, starting with fully charged leisure battery and powergorilla.

I therefore need to look at either getting hold of more kit (we actually have a couple of samples of alternative portable solar and battery products on their way to us at light planet), or planning the working patterns of my road trip (an extended family holiday), around charging time. I'm reluctant to consider a bigger leisure battery, as we only have a very small boot in the car which will already be overflowing with camping gear, plus a bigger battery just means more charging needed.

Several people have pointed out that the new macbooks and macbook pros claim 9 - 10 hours of battery life. I'm not rushing out to buy one though, because I suspect that a significant of this gain is because it is a higher capacity battery, so will therefore need more charging. I know there are probably other efficiencies in the macbook itself, but £1000+ is a lot to pay, especially if i'm going to leave it hanging around charging in a tent! My £200 netbook also claims 9.5 hours, and I think this is realistic. The battery capacity however is the same as the macbook, so will require a similar amount of charge.

One thing i'm keen to see is if it is possible to fully charge the powergorilla from the solar gorilla in one day, on a cloudy day in the UK. See - i'm still optimistic!

3pm and i'm just starting to run out of the "illegal" charge from the cafe earlier. I check the powergorilla which has been charging from the solar gorilla since 8am, and it is only showing 3 out of 6 bars. I don't want to discontinue that experiment, so I plug into the leisure battery again to see if the solar charging from yesterday afternoon amounted to anything. It's difficult to make out where the sun is (see the flaw in my solar charging plan?), so i'm not sure if it is worth moving the solargorilla to the front of the house yet.

When the leisure battery gets too low to sustain a charge, the DC-DC converter starts to make a high pitched noise and get very hot, so it can't be left unattended. This happened after about ten minutes. It added 10 minutes to the estimated macbook charge, so yesterday afternoons solar charging amounted to about 20 minutes macbook charge.

I have an important project to push out of the door, so at 3.22pm as I reach for the mains adapter, this experiment is officially over (for now).
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

Unplugged: An attempt to spend a week working on battery and solar power (and a bit of charging from the car, and maybe a bit borrowed mains!)

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Mon, 05 Jul 2010
halfords power pack being charged by a solar gorilla
As an experiment, even though i'm working mainly from home, to simulate working on the road, I thought I would see if it's possible to work for the entire week without plugging into, or charging from the mains.

In an unscientific way, i'm starting from:-

  • Fully charged leisure battery (let's pretend this was charged from the car on a long journey)
  • Flat netbook
  • Half Charged macbook
  • Fully charged powergorilla

Day 1


Last night I plugged the flat netbook into the powergorilla. A few hours later (didn't record this properly, so not sure exactly how many hours, sorry), the powergorilla was drained, but the netbook was fully charged. This morning I stuck the solargorilla on the roof out of the loft window, and the powergorilla is charging, but I have no idea what current is being produced. I'll need to keep an eye on the sun and move to the other side of the house before the solargorilla falls into shadow. The solargorilla is laid flat, I haven't pointed it directly at the sun and it's a sunny but cloudy day.

Meanwhile the macbook is being powered and charged by the leisure battery (via the trust car charger plugged into the 12v output and DIY magsafe cable). When it reaches full charge i'll leave it plugged in, on the basis that powering a laptop is more efficient than charging it. I'm doing some layout/ design stuff today, so I want to use the macbook rather than the netbook if possible.

Starting work at about 10am (i'd usually start earlier, but had car problems in the morning), I get a full macbook charge just after midday, but the macbook starts discharging at about 2pm. I was hoping to get more out of the leisure battery! By 3pm the macbook is getting very low on the internal battery, so I go and unplug the powergorilla, which is showing three bars out of 6 on the charge scale. I move the solargorilla to the velux window at the front of the house and plug the solargorilla into the leisure battery. I then plug the partly charged powergorilla into the macbook. I get about 20 minutes of charging before it is drained flat! At this rate there's no way i'm going to get a full days work. I still have the charged netbook, but it's not set up for the project i'm working on, and I really need the extra screen estate of the macbook today. The brief bit of charge I got added about 10 minutes to the estimated run time on the macbook.

This leaves me with about 4 more hours of possible solar charging with which to start tomorrow with!

By 4pm I have to switch to the netbook for a bit, but really need to get back on the macbook, so I modify the experiment to allow me to go to a local cafe to charge up. After a moment of panic where I can't find any plug sockets, I spot a double socket on a window sill so start charging the macbook and powergorilla with borrowed mains juice and charge myself with an americano.

I have to head out at 5.45, which leaves both the macbook and the powergorilla partly charged. When I get back home, I check the leisure battery, which although still showing a charging indicator hasn't been charged a measurable amount (it has 4 LED's to show charge status, and it's still on number one).

As a last attempt to keep this experiment going tomorrow, I plug the partly charged powergorilla into a sleeping macbook to see if I can get an hour or two out of it tomorrow.
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

Working on a dell mini 10

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Sun, 27 Jun 2010
dell mini 10
I've bought a dell mini 10 netbook as a "fallback" machine for the road trip. I usually work from a macbook, but wanted a second machine, should the first one get broken/stolen/lost. Even though I already have a spare macbook, when I saw that the new dell mini's boast up to 9.5 hours battery life, it dawned on me that it might be a better approach.

As well as the battery life, the machine is very small and light, so it is more practical for lugging around in a backpack, on the offchance that I might stumble across some wifi, or find a spare hour or two do some work in a cafe.

So the question is, can I actually do any serious work on it? Software-wise i'm sorted, with dual boot windows and ubuntu linux, plus virtualbox to run other servers from within either environment, and I could even run apple osx on it if I wanted. The keyboard is useable, but the trackpad feels awkward. I think it is absolutely fine for writing code on, but doing website layout and design is going to be awkward. When i'm not on the road, I can plug in an external monitor to get around that, but the point is to be mobile.

A massive plus is cost. This was only £200 before VAT, so that makes it almost "disposable", at least compared to £1000 upwards for a macbook. This also makes me think that when the time comes to replace my macbook, maybe I ought to consider switching to ubuntu full time, and get a bigger non-apple laptop.
This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

Using a Powergorilla to power and charge a macbook.

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Wed, 23 Jun 2010
powergorilla LCD display


First test - does it charge at all?



Yes. Using the magsafe "sample" powertraveller sent me and with the power gorilla set to 16 volts, it does indeed charge the macbook. I'm very happy about that, otherwise this might have been an expensive experiment! This also confirms that the cable is suitable for charging, so therefore my previous experiment with the solar gorilla confirmed that it should have been charging, but didn't.

Test two: how long does it last?



Starting from a half charged macbook, I plugged in a fully charged power gorilla. I wanted to see how many charges I got from it, if I unplugged it whenever the macbook battery is charged and plug back in again when it gets low. Simultaneously powering and charging the macbook drained the power gorilla before it had even completed the first charge. I'm not sure what to make of that - in theory the powergorilla has four times the capacity of the macbook battery - is the charging process so inefficient that most of that is wasted? I guess I have to factor in the fact that the macbook was also drawing charge whilst being charged, because it was running. I need to repeat that experiment with a sleeping macbook.

I tried again starting from a fully charged macbook, and fully charged powergorilla - I was also using the macbook, and got just over two hours before the powergorilla was drained, and the macbook status went from "charged" to using the internal battery. This is about the same amount of time I get from the internal battery. Once again, this is disappointing, as in theory the powergorilla has four times the capacity. I should point out that even the macbook (one of the older plastic ones) claims up to 5 hours battery life, in reality I usually only get about two and a half, as I tend to run a lot of stuff - virtual machines, photoshop etc. To continue the experiment I then carried on working from the internal battery until it was virtually flat. In total I got 4.5 hours - that's combined total runtime from a powergorilla that claims 2 to 5 hours laptop power and an internal macbook battery that claims up to 5, so less than half in total!

Most importantly, this isn't a full days work, and I need to allow for charging time too. The claimed maximum battery life is always higher than you get in reality unless you switch of wifi/ bluetooth, dim the screen and work with only a few lightweight applications. There are more details on expected macbook battery life here here. The newer macbooks and macbook pro's claim more battery life, but via the grapevine i've heard that they still fall short of a days work when used under realistic load. Also these higher capacity batteries will require more charging therefore don't necessarily solve my issues.

Will the power gorilla power/charge a macbook while it is being charged itself?



When it is being charged via the mains: sometimes. I think the battery has to have a certain amount of charge before it will output anything, while being charged. When/ if the indicator changes from the charge icon to 16v, it will start charging. Note that as the mains charger is 16V, the battery can only output 16v while it is being charged. So far it hasn't worked while being charged from the solar gorilla. This is a pain - I was hoping that the powergorilla could permanently be hooked up to the solar gorilla when practical, to take advantage of any available energy, but it seems that while it is being charged, it won't power the macbook.

How long does it take to charge from the mains?



I've not worked this out yet - definitely more than 3 hours, but last time I tried I went to bed before it was finished, but it was charged when I got up.

How long does it take to charge from the solar gorilla



Obviously this is weather/ sunlight dependent, and i'm in the UK during a predictably unpredictable summer. I'll post back here when i've done it a few times.

Update: follow up articles:-

This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: mobile working /

You know what I did last summer?

This post was written 8 years ago, by Rick Hurst.
Mon, 21 Jun 2010
team rubber video shoot
Last summer I was freelancing for the lovely Team Rubber, when I overheard one of the film making dept say "Now we just need a skateboarder to skate the halfpipe..". I immediately volunteered myself for the role. "Can you skate a halfpipe?" he asked. "Um.. yep, how high?", I replied. "13 foot". "..err.. (mumble)... can I come along and watch though?".

I tend to work on projects with a local working copy on my laptop of whatever it is i'm working on, so pre-empting the current meme of working away from the office, I offered to go along to the shoot, help out where I could, learn about the video shoot process and work the rest of the time from my laptop.

The video shoot was on an old air base in wiltshire. I arrived early in the morning and couldn't figure out how to get on site, so I circled the perimeter trying out various back roads and possible routes in, occasionally encountering other car drivers, eyeing me up suspiciously as I loitered. I eventually spotted some of the crew arrive and unlock a gate, and sure enough most of the cars I had encountered earlier turned out to contain runners, directors and extras.

The ramp was already set up and I was dying to have a quick go on it, but then the heavens opened leaving the uncovered ramp to get soaked. I prayed that the weather would clear up, as the shoot would have to be postphoned or cancelled if the rain continued. Fortunately it cleared up soon after, and became a scorcher of a day so I went and swept the surface water off the ramp to help it dry out quicker.

I climbed onto one of the platforms just to see what it would be like to drop in, but being considerably higher (4.5ft higher specifically) than anything i've skated before, there was no chance of me giving it a go, at least dropping in from the top. I skated it from the bottom, pumping the transitions to gradually get higher and higher up the ramp, but looking back at the embarrassing video clip I persuaded someone to film on my camera, I can't have gone any higher than halfway towards the top. Fortunately, the ramp owner, and UK vert legend Pete King arrived to provide the goods.

Pete King air
3d model of the halfpipe

The plan was to use the skater as a reference for a CGI character, so the CGI guys set up a makeshift studio in one of the hangars and created a 3d model of the ramp. Pete was dressing in a rather fetching grey one-piece ("chroma key" suit) with white tape to use for CGI reference. As you can see from the photos, he didn't disappoint with the skating - pulling some massive airs for the camera. These photos are not modified - he was consistently getting airs that high, and landing them most of the day, despite the blazing sun and being asked to repeat the sequence over and over.

Hangar studio


As if hanging around on an air base watching a skateboarder dressed in a lycra suit wasn't surreal enough, the actors, now dressed as american GI's, were bought in to encourage and heckle Pete, sometimes while he was there, sometimes when he wasn't.

more air
Then the chopper arrived. Ever wonder why insurance companies have a problem with media types? Luckily i'm a software developer, so *cough* no chance of my car getting hit by helicopter-related flying debris on a film shoot..*cough*. I made myself handy by securing a nearby gazebo with breeze blocks before it (and the helicopter) took off again.

I can't say I got a massive amount of work done as planned. Working from the hangar and my mobile office (car, with leisure battery + 3g phone), there was no wifi on site and I could barely get a mobile signal good enough for data, but the main reason was there too much exciting stuff going on to concentrate. I skated the ramp anytime it wasn't being used - you can't stick a halfpipe in front of me then expect me to concentrate on python and javascript! Thanks to Team Rubber for a great day out!

mobile office
p.s. you can see the final video here.

This post was written 8 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)