Fifteen years into the 21st century, and we are inching ever closer to the dream of a wire-free existence. Wireless smartphone charging, which is accomplished through the use of charging pads and platters that require no microUSB connection, has been a thing for years. The catch is, there are different standards that don’t work with every device, and some require bothersome adapters. In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to getting rid of that messy tangle of cables. At least, not yet.
How Wireless Charging Works
The term “wireless charging” (which is a layman’s term for inductive charging) is actually a bit of a misnomer. First of all, it’s not entirely wireless. If you own a charging pad, that pad still has to be plugged into a power source in order for you to draw juice. Second, it requires physical contact or extreme proximity to the charging base, which translates to physical limitations. There is headway being made with respect to charging bases that will transfer power from distances of a few feet, but the trade-off is that the further you move from the base, the less power your device gets.
The technology itself actually dates back to the work of a guy whose name probably familiar with, Nikola Tesla, who identified that electromagnetic fields could make it possible to transfer power from one object to another. In an extreme oversimplification, it works by coiling wires around a magnet and passing an electric current through it. The electromagnetic field generated can then transfer a charge to a receiving device, albeit at a significantly lower rate of transfer than what you’d get if you plugged straight into a wall socket.
Why Can’t You Wirelessly Charge Your iPhone?
It hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, but wireless smartphone charging is another one of those “neato” features included in a growing number of mobile devices and a slew of add-on accessories. The only holdout in the game appears to be Apple, which has to date failed to include the capability in the iPhone 6s, or any of its mobile inventions save for the Apple Watch. Apple iPhone owners unfortunately require adapters to take advantage of the tech.
Apple has been slow to embrace other mobile technologies in the past, including NFC and LTE. In regards to wireless charging, it could be that Apple is just waiting for the technology to improve to a point where wireless charging becomes faster and more efficient. Though, it could be all about physics, and that the iconic aluminum casing which became the standard for all iPhones starting in 2012 (with the exception of the iPhone 5c) is not conducive to receiving a wireless charge.
That may soon change, however, as the Rezence standard (more on that below) has developed to the point where it can deal with metal casings.
The Dueling Standards
Where wireless charging platters are concerned, there are two opposing standards that – much like VHS and Beta back in the dawn of home video, or more recently Blu-ray and HD DVD – are warring it out for dominion in the marketplace. These are Qi and Powermat.
Qi (pronounced “chee” and not “queue-eye” or “key”) is the standard among the vast majority of Android devices that support wireless charging. Historically, Qi’s power transference hasn’t exactly been as fast as the caveman approach of plugging straight into a wall socket, but it does make life a lot simpler and clutter-free. Recent improvements show Qi is now capable of outputting 15 watts of power to supported devices (up from the early standard of just 5 watts), but much of the effectiveness depends on your device’s limitations with respect to receiving a wireless charge at high speeds. (In other words, pairing up an older smartphone with a new, souped-up Qi wireless charging base won’t speed things up any.) Part of the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), Qi is considered to be the most widely accepted wireless charging platform. A host of high-profile manufacturers like Samsung, Sony, LG, HTC, Nokia, Asus and BlackBerry all use the Qi standard.
Powermat is actually a breakaway standard that used to belong to the same club the Qi did, until “creative differences” forced the split. Powermat then took its toys home and created the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), which is a standard that’s grown in popularity among corporations for its noted ability to track power consumption of multiple devices.
If you’ve ever charged your smartphone at Starbucks or on a Delta Airlines plane, you’ve used the Powermat standard. Recently, Powermat invited its other rival, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), to join forces. The A4WP brings to the table its Rezence wireless charging brand, which employs a slightly different technology to send a wireless charge, but initial plans indicate the organizations are going to share information rather than merge into one unified brand name. Powermat also enjoys the backing of AT&T, which is why you won’t find any Qi charging pads at the local AT&T store.
This portends good things for the two brands, as Rezence has some technological advantages in addition to the one described above, including larger charging plates capable of dealing with multiple devices.
Depending on the mobile device you’re using, it will likely support either Qi or Powermat, and sometimes both. In most cases however, the decision of what kind of wireless charging pad to buy is already made for you. If you own any Android smartphone worth having, you’re probably set up for Qi. If you’re a die-hard AT&T loyalist, the Powermat choice will have been made for you.
But in the attempt to deliver what everybody really wants – choice – at least one manufacturer is starting to put the decision on you by enabling their devices to accept either solution. Samsung’s S6 product line and Note5 support both Qi and Powermat, which could be indication that future support for both may become the standard.
The main accessory needed for the wireless charging of your smartphone, whether your mobile supports Qi or Powermat, is a charging base. Also commonly referred to as platters, these come in a variety of shapes and sizes that offer a certain level of aesthetics – from flat mats that fit on a desktop to stands that hold your smartphone at a 45-degree angle.
Innovations in the design of plates and pads have led to some cool improvements, such as charging pads that act as portable battery packs you can bring along with you. Because of the high heat often generated by wireless charging, some accessory manufacturers have taken to building charging pads with small fans. The average cost of wireless charging pads can range from $10 to $70, depending on how many bells and whistles you demand.
If you’re still happily operating on an older generation smartphone that doesn’t support wireless charging, not all is lost. There are accessories you can buy and attach to that old brick that will enable it to work with a charging pad. You can buy a snap-on wireless charging cover that replaces the back battery cover of your smartphone and lets you set it on a compatible charging pad. Other devices require charging cases that surround your entire phone but don’t require you to remove the back panel. Still others work by connecting to your smartphone’s microUSB port, which we think is pretty much the same as running a cable into your computer or wall socket, only slower. This solution may not be ideal, but it offers an alternative to searching for an unused power outlet or USB port.
There’s also wireless charging furniture. IKEA is among the vanguard of furniture and home appliance providers that actually make it possible to buy a nightstand or a lamp that also doubles as a mobile device charging station. The physical location of the charging station is marked by an X that you rest your phone on to begin charging. If your smartphone doesn’t support the protocol, you can buy a separate charging cover to place on your phone to make it work.
Powermat in Public
An increasing number of businesses – coffee shops, restaurants, and airports – are adopting the Powermat platform as a means of serving their customers by installing charging stations on tables and countertops throughout their establishments. Aside from the increased foot traffic generated by this convenience, Powermat’s ability to track and record power consumption enables business owners to identify patterns of activity that they can use to their benefit. As a basic requirement, users have to download the Powermat app to their mobile devices in order to charge up. In turn, business owners can leverage that app to send alerts and promotions directly to customers’ phones.
In New York City alone, there are 300 Starbucks locations with Powermat charging spots. Boston ranks second among big cities with the most widely available Starbucks power-up stations, followed by Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Colleges and universities are also getting in on the action, installing wireless charging stations in public locations throughout campuses. Florida State University and California State University at San Bernardino are two of Powermat’s highest profile educational partners.
Powermat wireless charging stations are also set to begin appearing with greater frequency in General Motors cars, starting with the 2016 Chevy Malibu and Impala models.
The Clear Winner
Ultimately, when standards compete, the everyday user ends up being the big winner. This is likely to be the case as wireless smartphone charging standards continue to go head-to-head in pursuit of the almighty consumer buck. Powermat is growing exponentially as the protocol of choice in public spaces, like the aforementioned Starbucks, Delta Airlines, and even McDonald’s. Meanwhile, with its broad support from top-level device manufacturers, Qi has become the de facto standard for an enormous number of Android smartphone owners.
With Samsung’s recent decision to support of both platforms in its S6 line of products and the Note5, it’s likely just a matter of time before all other manufacturers recognize the benefit of embracing both solutions. When that happens, you’ll be able to bounce from your home-based Qi pad to Powermat while loading up with caffeine at the local Starbucks.