There was a time when watch technology consisted of tiny cogs and you had to wind your timepiece every day to keep it running. When batteries came along, we no longer had to wind a watch or clock — unless we wanted to. The advent of rechargeable batteries brought longer watch life and smarter watches. Rechargeable batteries mean today’s youth will never know the hassle of fussing with miniature screwdrivers to remove a watch case, access the battery, then actually find the right size at a local store.
The next leap in power technology for watches and wrist-worn gadgets, in case you haven’t heard, is solar-powered wearables. Amazingly, this technology uses just the sun to keep your device charged and ready at all times. Should we all be rushing out to snap up sun-powered wrist wear?
In wearables, a hard glass, like Gorilla Glass, is paired with a layer of semitransparent solar “traces” that cover the entire watch face. The traces harvest ambient outdoor light and convert it into power. Solar-powered batteries, also known more academically as photovoltaic cell technology, work similar to those huge panels on the roof of a home.
Solar power recharges the batteries and keeps whatever it’s connected to fully charged — as long as the sun keeps shining. Believe it or not, some devices also have the ability to recharge themselves using not just the sun’s rays, but artificial light, too.
To be clear, solar wearables aren’t common; manufacturers like Timex, Citizen and Seiko all make simple solar watches that tell time, and Garmin has two models of its data-centric, GPS-enabled “adventure watches” that are now solar-powered.
The Garmin Instinct Solar is a more utilitarian option while the Garmin Fenix 7 Solar Edition is the higher-end model. Garmin uses what it calls a Power Glass solar-charging lens that uses the sun’s energy to extend battery life by days. It’s worth pointing out that the solar-charging option isn’t designed to be the primary power source. You’re still supposed to plug it in for the most part and use solar as your emergency backup.
The benefits of a solar-powered smartwatch are obvious, particularly for adventurous types: You don’t need to pack cables or battery packs, and there’s less risk of being left with a dead device. Plus, the convenience of keeping your watch charged potentially for weeks, and not just hours, can’t be understated.
You’re no doubt reading this and thinking this sounds great, but the downside of this technology may already be obvious: It’s more expensive.
Garmin’s Fenix 7 costs $699, while the Solar Edition rings in at $799, and the Cadillac Garmin Fenix 7 Sapphire Solar version (no additional power, but more durable glass) is $899. Is it worth an extra hundred dollars to get that additional power and solar charging? Some may think it is. Others may want to wait for the technology to improve.
The Garmin Instinct Solar is just $399. The Apple Watch Series 7 by comparison starts at $399, but if having off-grid power is more important to you than Siri, this buying decision may be a no-brainer.
While solar battery technology is still uncommon, it is cropping up in other places. The 2021 Samsung Frame TV uses a SolarCell Remote, which slowly recharges with either sunlight or — rather amazingly — indoor lights. Just by leaving the remote solar-side up on the table, it can charge perpetually, meaning there will likely never be a need to buy batteries for it — another tantalizing plus.
This SolarCell isn’t a powerhouse and it’s not fast, but even trickle charging it over days and weeks should keep the battery powered for a year, according to Samsung.
As this technology improves, gets smaller, and charges device faster and more efficiently, it’s going to be a game-changer for a lot of us. Could you imagine what would happen if Apple took the leap and designed the newest iPhone to sport a solar back panel (in addition to a wired USB-C charger for those times when you need juice fast) that would keep power flowing slowly into the phone all day, without need for Qi pads, power banks, and twisty cables?
Smartphones could easily adopt this technology, but you could also find it coming soon to headphones, charging cases, or a wireless computer mouse. There’s also great promise for things like small security cameras or powerful outdoor lights with reliable solar-charging technology built in, instead of the ones we have today that need dinner plate-sized add-on solar panels.
The future of solar wearables looks bright. And wouldn’t it be nice to put all those bulky charges in a drawer with all those various batteries that are on standby?
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