Are wireless gadget chargers as revolutionary as they sound?

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Are wireless gadget chargers as revolutionary as they sound?

With products finally hitting the Australian market we wonder if wireless charging is another technology that sounds more awesome than it actually is

The term ‘Wireless Power' is laden with the kind of promise seen usually in science fiction. It conjures up a mental image of a world where batteries are redundant, where power zips invisibly through the air, landing in our gadgets and providing the electrical lifeblood that drives them.

We are now seeing the first of such products coming to market in Australia. PowerMat is set to launch its line of products mid-April, with base station and single adapter packs for $199.95 and extra adapters for $49.95.

Uniden has also released a Wireless Power product line, costing $129.95 for a kit containing the mat and a universal charger (phone-specific adapters cost $59.95).

What are wireles chargers?
In reality, wireless power/wireless charging are marketing terms used to describe the recharging of ones gadgets without directly plugging them into a wall socket. Both of the products that we have seen in the PC Authority labs use a mat that plugs into the mains. Special adaptors are then used to enable devices to charge by placing it on the mat.

This makes the charging process technically wireless. Or at least it does if you have one of the handful of phone models that are actually supported with custom hardware. This is fine if you use an iPhone or a Blackberry. Those using brands like Nokia or Sony Ericcson will end up using a universal charger than plugs into the phone and sits on the mat.

The two types of wireless chargers
There are two main types of wireless power devices hitting the market here in Australia. The first, from Uniden, is based upon a product called WildCharge, and uses a conductive charging method. Basically you have a charging mat with electrical strips across it. This is then paired with a phone specific sleeve (or universal charger) which has small metal contacts on the back. When placed upon the pad this forms an electrical circuit, which passes power into the device and charges the phone.

Wireless Power from Uniden uses a conductive charging method with a metal charging pad.
Wireless Power from Uniden uses a conductive charging method with a metal charging pad.

The other kind of wireless power system is made by a company called PowerMat. This similarly requires the use of a charging mat and a phone-specific sleeve or universal charger. Devices then sit on the pad in specific spots for charging. Unlike the Uniden product, the Powermat one uses an inductive charging method through which magnets in the mat interact with ones in the sleeve to create an electrical field which charges the phone.

PowerMat uses magnets in order to create an inductive loop with devices.
PowerMat uses magnets in order to create an inductive loop with devices.

Conductive vs Inductive charging
Functionally the difference between the two technologies comes down to conductive vs inductive. The inductive method is touted to be faster to charge devices and is certainly the more elegant solution of the two. It is also the only truly ‘wireless' technology - the conductive method still requires a physical electrical connection between the device sleeve and the mat.

In practical terms, however, both products are mats that you lay mobile devices on so they can charge. This is a very elegant solution for those who have devices that are properly supported by the charger manufacturers. Unfortunately this is currently limited to a handful of phones that are popular in the US marketplace (where these devices have been around for a while).

Just an expensive universal charger?
For those who don't own an iPhone or a Blackberry these wireless power devices are currently just an expensive route to a universal phone charger. Having to connect one's phone via wire to a device that then sits on the wireless charging pad seems overkill, especially when mains or USB powered universal phone chargers sit at the cheap end of the market.

The next wave: cordless and built-in batteries
Where this technology will come into its own is in the next generations. Powermat in particular has some nifty applications of its technology, leveraging it for more than just reducing the number of cords plugged into the mains power.

One of these things is a portable version of the mat. Designed for travelling the mat has a built-in battery which lets one charge devices away from mains power. It also has products in development that will be capable of charging larger devices like netbooks using the same sort of process.

One of PowerMat's future products, a portable version of the charger with a built-in battery.
One of PowerMat's future products, shown at this year's CES, is a portable version of the charger with a built-in battery.

The Apple factor
Ultimately for this technology to take off, support for induction charging needs to be integrated into devices themselves. For the vast majority of devices this means the creation of aftermarket batteries with the technology inside. However for tightly integrated devices like the iPhone, it would mean negotiating with Apple for it to happen. With this in mind we suspect that the need for specific iPhone cases will exist for some time yet.

 

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