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The Primus ETA Solo in hanging mode
© Toby Archer, Sep 2010
If there is an elephant in the room, before getting down to any other business it is perhaps worth acknowledging it. So, yes, look over there, that is indeed a bloody great elephant sitting down, watching TV and minding his own business in the corner and, yes, the Primus ETA Solo does look rather similar to a Jetboil product. You aren't the only one notice this – a press release went out recently in the US that Jetboil has filed suit against Primus for patent violations.
I'm happy to leave that judgment to an American judge. Clearly for those in the market for a lightweight outdoor cooking system, whether the Primus ETA Solo is better than the Jetboil PCS is a more relevant question than whether it is a copy. Having had a Jetboil for the last couple of years, my somewhat unhelpful answer is: yes in some ways and no in others. By necessity this review will compare the Primus stove to the Jetboil competitor and will say where I think the Swedes have improved on the American product, and where they haven't.
What is it?
The central design idea is to maximise efficiency. Camping stoves are designed to produce heat by burning gas or some other fuel. Traditionally this is where the design thinking stopped; you just popped any old pot on top with some water in it and got on with waiting for your brew.
Most people realise the efficiency of stoves like this would go down in windy conditions as a breeze would stop the maximum amount of heat going upwards into the pot: rather heat would escape into the air around the pot. Wind shields were the standard solution to this, some integrated into the stove design, others a stand alone barrier you placed around the stove. But MSR being clever folks realised that still heat was lost up the sides of a pot, so created what I think was the first commercial heat exchanger back in the early 90s.
I had one of these wonderful contraptions – all concertinaed copper that would clamp around the outside of the pot. Heat normally escaping into the air around the pan would instead warm the copper, which in turn would conduct it onto the sides of the pan. It definitely worked well, particularly for snow melting, but the weight and bulk of this device was only really worth it if you were going on week or longer trips that would include snow melting.
What the ETA series and Jetboil stoves do is build that heat exchanger onto the base of a pan, meaning more of the heat of the burning gas goes into heating whatever is in the pot rather than the air around it. Additionally, the ETA Solo – again like the Jetboil – clips the burner unit onto the base of the pot, creating a tower stove that is only minimally effected by wind even without any additional wind-shielding.
The efficiency of the system is evidenced by the fact you can't singe the neoprene cosy that wraps around the pot – the heat from the burner is collected too efficiently by the concertinaed heat exchanger on the base of the pot. The cosy itself further adds to the efficiency by insulating the pot, keeping the heat produced by the stove inside. A clip-on plastic lid for the pot does the same thing. Lighting the stove is a breeze using the piezo electronic lighter (although these can fail to work at altitude where the pressure is lower), and the burner unit and a 100g gas cylinder all pack away neatly inside the pot when the stove is in transit. The dimensions of the ETA Solo are basically the same as the Jetboil, to the extent that the cafetiere-style coffee press that came with my Jetboil works perfectly in the ETA Solo.
The Jetboil has not been a huge hit amongst the lightweight and ultra-light backpacking communities who seem to view them as too heavy and not efficient enough to justify that weight – anyway they are all having too much fun turning beer cans into meths stoves. The ETA Solo is a bit lighter (365g) than the Jetboil (425g) although it is still not going to compare with modern ultralight gas stoves, let alone the cottage industry meths and wood burners. Rather I see the ETA, like the Jetboil, as being efficient and super convenient: easy to pack and easy to use – the closest thing you get to just turning on the kettle when in the great outdoors. The shape of the pot makes them good for boiling water and cooking things that don't involve much beyond boiling water. Don't expect to get all Jamie Oliver with this stove, but it does what it should – boiling water – very well.
So what have Primus improved from the original Jetboil design?
Perhaps the best thing from a climber's point of view is that there is a hanging option. A fitting welded onto the outside of the pot has an articulated arm that clips into this, and the arm has wire swaged to it allowing the stove system to be hung from a tent roof or a piece of gear if bivouacked on a route. This comes with the stove whilst the Jetboil requires either DIY or a pricey after-market hanging kit.
Secondly, Primus include three wire pot supports and an additional heat-reflecting ring that can be added to the burner unit in seconds to turn the ETA Solo into a standard gas stove that could take all sizes of conventional pots and pans. Thirdly, Primus include one of their nifty fold-out legs contraptions that fits to the base of different sizes of gas cartridges making the stove much more stable. I bought one of these some years ago for my MSR Pocket Rocket stove and they work well but I have subsequently lost it, so be careful not to leave it lying around in the snow outside your tent! Finally the pot cosy is attached by Velcro so is easier to remove for washing the pot than with the Jetboil.
On the other hand...
My biggest problem with the ETA Solo is the attachment between the pot and the burner unit, which clips the two parts together to make the overall tower-shaped unit. Two springy pieces of metal on the burner unit work as clips to hold the stove securely together. These have red plastic buttons on for you to press to separate the burner from the pot. Although the red buttons don't conduct heat I find it very hard to squeeze these without touching the metal of the burner frame around it, with the result of burnt fingers. In comparison, the Jetboil competitor has a bayonet system that easily separates the two parts of the stove without you needing to put your fingers anywhere near the hot bit of the just used stove.
Primus ETA Solo
I also have probably average sized hands for a man and I can only just get my thumb and index fingers onto the two buttons on opposite sides of the unit and that need to be squeezed simultaneously whilst your other hands is holding the pot (that is likely to be full of boiling water). I imagine that for women with small hands this procedure would be really quite difficult, particularly without touching the still-hot metal of the burner frame. To me this simply isn't as good a design as the Jeboil. After burning my fingers a number time, by being very careful I can now detach the burner from the pot without further burns, but it is a hassle that you wouldn't want if trying to brew up halfway up a gnarly alpine route.
The ETA Solo improves on the Jetboil in some ways, notably for me in being lighter and its clever hanging system. But the burner-pot interface is not as good a design, and may actually be slightly dangerous for people with small hands. Primus have also had a few quality problems with early production runs – a washer needed to be fitted below the burner head to make it less wobbly and Primus is warning people to test that the weld that holds the hanging arm is strong enough to take the weight of the stove full of water. These problems should not reoccur, but they – along with the problem I identified above – give the impression that the model was rushed out a little before it was fully ready.
So, if you are a big handed climber who wants a highly efficient and easy to use stove to hang on your portaledge, the ETA Solo is almost certainly the stove for you. For other users it might be worth checking how easily you can release the burner from the pot and asking whether the Primus' advantages over the Jetboil outweigh its disadvantages.
MORE INFO: on the Primus website
About Toby ArcherToby Archer is based in Finland, where he works as a researcher specialising in terrorism and political Islam.
He describes himself as an "international politics think-tanker, perennial PhD student, hopeless but enthusiastic climber, part-time gear reviewer, often angry cyclist, idealist, cynic."
Climbing keeps him from getting too depressed about politics. He blogs about both at:
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Toby Archer: