If you’ve been wandering tech shops looking for last minute Christmas gifts, chances are that you might have spotted the very reasonably priced SunStream solar charger by World Panel in Vodacom’s stores and been tempted to pick one up.

We wouldn’t blame you. At R199 it looks like an absolute bargain: we first wrote about the SunStream last month and pointed out how good it appears on paper.

It comes in a ruggedised case which won’t just take a beating in the bottom of your kit bag, it’s fully waterproof too. The price is excellent and it claims to be able to charge a phone from flat in just two hours, and be able to produce 15Wh per day.

As a standby for loadshedding or a camping essential it’s a shoe-in for a stocking filler.

Or is it?

Personally, I’ve always been a little bit underwhelmed by solar phone chargers. I really, really like the idea because how can you not? A once-off charge then free energy forever, wherever you are? Of all the things to take off-grid the phone makes most sense in my head – theoretically, at least. Practically, it’s a different matter.

For a start, even though I enjoy heading out into the bush with my tent and rucksack more than most, I’m never really a long way from a phone charger. Either using mains power at night or a car charger during the day, the practicality of traditional charging over solar can’t be beaten. The real problem, though, is that if you are out of range of either car or socket you’re probably hiking somewhere anyway – and solar chargers aren’t much good on the move.

Putting aside my personal failure of imagination to find a use case scenario for a small, portable charger, there are problems with the SunStream panel in testing. The good news is that it is, potentially, very effective.

Ampere App Screenshot
The Ampere app gives you an idea (with a certain degree of accuracy) of how much charge your phone is taking.

Using the Ampere app for an Android phone, which monitors incoming charge, SunStream’s panel does deliver results. It’s rated for 360mA, but the phone registers a solid 750-1000mA depending on how carefully angled you can keep the panel, with the PV cells pointing towards the sun.

That’s really impressive. The only problem is that modern high end smartphones require anything between 1500mA and 2000mA to charge. Over the course of two and half hours keeping the panel moving in line with the sun’s blaze, the most we managed to charge a HTC One M8 was 17%. A far cry from a full battery.

So the panel performs, is well made but just not quite suited to the task in hand, unless you don’t mind turning your phone off (so there’s no residual draw on the battery) for a day while it’s being charged.

But there are a couple of upsides. Firstly, with the right cable you can daisy chain chargers together to double the amount of power going into your phone. For less than R400, that’s still a good deal. Personally, however, I would forget about charging your phone directly at all, and pick up World Panel’s awesome 3000mAh battery stick, the PowerStream, as well as – or even instead of – the solar panel itself. This is a very nifty battery pack that comes with three advantages over lesser models.

Firstly it has a metal case, so like the panel it’s tough (although not waterproof) and good for adventure. Secondly, you can charge the battery and attach it to a phone at the same time – so your solar panel can be permanently plugged in and topping the battery up for when you need it.

Finally – and most importantly – it also has a powerful LED torch built into one end. Which, when all’s said and done, will probably be the most used and most practical part of the whole assemblage if you’re camping.

PowerStream By World Panel.
The PowerStream battery pack. By far the better of the two.
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.