ONeill H2 series CommEnt Solar Backpack (Limited Edition) review

4 out of 5
£170

For

Design, Comfort, solar panels, multi-media hub

Against

Cost, complexity, compatibility of certain mobile phones

Sports equipment supplier O'Neill seem to believe that what every snow boarder needs is the ability to securely attach a board to their backs, ascend a mountain and then hurtle back down the same mountain at break-neck speeds, jumping moguls and zig-zagging to their hearts content all whilst deafening themselves to the latest downloads on their i-Pods, and who are we to argue.

The CommEnt Solar backpack is one of three new products created in collaboration with ElekTex smart fabrics. In the same range is also available the CommEnt backpack, essentially the same product but lacking the solar charging panels on the rear and the CommEnt Jacket which allows the user to control their music via arm mounted controls and mimics the Burton Amp Jacket, that hit the market a year ago.

The CommEnt Solar backpack's exterior is a combination of ballistic nylon and E.V.A pressure-moulded sections, designed to offer protection to the technology within. Design detail snacks of getting wet with waterproof seals on the two main compartment zips.

The Solar panels can be unzipped and a snowboard attached via tension straps underneath. The straps have even been specially designed with reinforced section where they'll meet the sharp edges of the board so they can be pulled tight without feast of cutting through the strap it's self. There is even a rear pocket designed to carry a collapsible snow shovel, complete with waterproof lining and drainage holes at the base to let snow melt-water drain off.

Inside the moulded compartment, that rests against the wearer's back, resides the H2 unit containing a rechargeable 1800mAh Lithium Ion battery, a power management system, a Bluetooth module and every possible port and socket you can imagine.

Upon the receipt to the H2 module, you remove it from the pack, plug it into the mains charger and leave it for 15 hours. Once this task is completed you need to set about plugging the H2 into the pack. This involves attaching a ribbon cable for the ElekTex smart controls, a 4-pin plug for the solar panels, a USB, a mono jack, a stereo jack, and that before you add any media.

The H2 unit comes with an integrated i-Pod remote cable and the system will work with al 3rd and 4th generation full sizes, and all mini versions, of Apple's device. The H2 unit and the i-Pod reside, once connected, under a Velcro flap in the rear of the backpack that sits against the spine when worn to minimize exposure to damage when moving / boarding / posing.

The i-Pod charger socket can also be attached to the H2 unit via a Firewire cable. Once all the wires are in place you can operate the music player via the controls buttons on the left hand shoulder strap of the bag, with options to play, skip and adjust volume all available. Your headphones attach into the system by a waterproof sleeve covering a standard jack socket in the in top of the left hand strap.

A mobile phone can also be integrated into the pack via Bluetooth connection. Pairing your handset is done by switching the H2 module to i-Pod and Bluetooth mode (which results in the LED in the H2 unit beginning to pulse), then depressing three of the smart-keys, in sequence, to make the H2 module detectable to the phone.

Once the pairing process is completed, the handset can be placed in a specially designed mesh pocket inside the pack and attached to the H2 module via a USB cable and a dedicated power converter, of which a number are supplied. If your phone rings whilst listening to music, the track will be interrupted by a ring tone, the call is picked up by pressing the skip-back smart-key, this also bares the green phone-up legend.

The pack contains a concealed microphone at the top of the right hand strap, denoted by a silver mic symbol. If you are lucky enough to have a mobile phone that supports voice commands you can also make calls by pressing the green button and saying the name of the person you want to call.

With everything wired together and with a full charge in the H2 module you will be able to control the operation of i-Pod and mobile phone as well as regulate charges to both devices. When moving around in bright light, O'Neil claim that the solar panels will provide enough power to extend the operating life of the both devices by up to 4 hours apiece.

Gripes? Let's gloss over the big why with a simple “because they can”, it's pretty cool and the sort of people who ask ‘why?' won't blow £170 on a rucksack and move to the more technical aspects. The i-Pod attachment is simple although pay attention with the two different jack-sockets, if you get the plugs swapped round you won't get any sound out of the headphones.

Getting the mobile phone to work is a little more difficult. I attempted to use a Nokia 6822 and although I had no problem paring with the H2 unit, this resulted in the phone believing there was a headset attached. This meant when the phone rang, and there was no headset, it went straight to voice mail.

I fared no better with the new Sony Ericsson W800i. The phone paired fine but didn't ring through the headphones and would only allow me to pick up the call, not to drop it. It should also be noted that even though there are a number of USB phone charger attachments, there isn't one for the new style of Sony Ericsson.

Verdict

Overall, the pack looks great, is comfortable to wear and well designed. Once everything is assembled you don't need to remove anything from the neoprene sleeves in which they sit to either charge the H2 module (the charger can be threaded through the back) or change your music (simple alter the plugs around and you can attach a computer to the Firewire).

The waterproofing details and board carry straps will make it appeal to the winter sports fans, although I can see this appealing to anybody who has an i-Pod and is fed up of getting the device out in wet weather, although it's a slightly excessive remote control replacement. Excess, however, hasn't deterred iPod devotees since the machine's invention.