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Solar uptake for cell phones still 'limited'

Performance and price issues mean that solar-charging tech won't replace batteries anytime soon for portable devices, market researcher Gartner says.

Solar technology in mobile computing devices is still impeded by performance and price issues and isn't likely to entirely replace batteries anytime soon, according to analysts.

James Hines, Gartner's research director for semiconductor, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that performance is the "primary inhibitor to the practical application of integrated solar cells" in today's mobile devices.

Solar-powered battery chargers for mobile phones and other devices are already available in the market. However, they are not only expensive, but their performance is also "poor," he had said in a recent research document.

Samsung's recently released Crest Solar can generate 5 to 10 minutes of talk time by charging for one hour in sunlight. Samsung

According to Hines, consumer electronics manufacturers are considering integrating solar, or photovoltaic (PV), technologies into more mobile devices.

In June, Samsung launched the Crest Solar (also known as Solar Guru, depending on region), which the Korean mobile maker says has the capacity to provide 5 to 10 minutes of talk time by charging one hour in sunlight. Japanese vendor Sharp also unveiled its Solar Phone SH002 in June, the Nikkei Business Publications reported. And Sanyo released its Eneloop Portable Solar panels for portable device charging earlier this month.

For these applications to be feasible, however, there must be a "significant breakthrough in PV technology" to not only improve energy conversion efficiency but also lower costs, Hines said.

Photovoltaic cells, he explained, currently have a low-energy conversion, while mobile devices increasingly consume more power in active mode. To meet a "significant portion" of the power requirements of full-feature modern mobile devices, the solar panels will have to be larger than the devices, which makes portability more problematic.

"For this reason, products such as the solar-powered mobile phone will probably see limited uptake in the near future," said Hines.

Annette Zimmermann, senior research analyst at Gartner, noted in a document released last month that, "in practice," it takes solar mobiles about a full day to recharge completely. "This will certainly limit the functionality, given that few users have the opportunity to expose their devices openly to the sun for such a long time."

The main selling point of these devices, she added, appears to be the "theoretical convenience for those who do not always have access to electricity," such as in emerging markets. Still, the new technology will most likely have a higher price tag than any low-cost device, which does not match the price expectations of its target market--low-budget users.

Hines added that solar-powered battery chargers for a variety of mobile devices remain the "most practical application in the near-term."

Such battery chargers could even be integrated into backpacks, laptop cases or garments. However, these are a "supplemental" means of charging--in situations where grid connection is not possible or convenient.

Due to their power limitations, integrated solar cells are not likely to replace batteries in mobile electronic devices," said Hines. "Instead, they will be used in conjunction with energy storage devices such as batteries to extend their operating time."

Vivian Yeo of ZDNet Asia reported from Singapore.