Hey, 2012: Where’s My Wireless Charging?

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I’d like 2012 to know something: I’m fine without Back to the Future’s hover-skateboard, or the Jetsons’ flying car. I can even survive with the knowledge that the “Human Bird Wings” video is a fake. As I may have mentioned before, I grew up watching Star Trek. The moment I was able to start carrying a communicator and a tricorder wherever I went, “the future” became “the present,” and my life was basically complete. Aim high, kids.

What I can not brook, however, is the tech world’s continued insistence that wires play a part in our wireless world.

As personal media players, smartphones, and tablets have matured, we’ve seen an increasing trend toward wireless syncing of data and content. Palm and Google were early leaders in this space. Even Apple, historically slow to adapt to most new trends, has cut the cord in iOS 5, allowing wireless sync of iTunes libraries and over-the-air OS updates.

But for all of our advancements in data transfer through the ether, we’re still bronze-age cavemen (just go with it) when it comes to charging. Advances in battery technology have significantly lagged behind our appetite for power; there’s nothing we can do about that except wait for improved technologies to make their way to the market.

While we wait, those of us who don’t own devices with extreme endurance like the RAZR MAXX will continue our love/hate relationship with power outlets and chargers. Fortunately, there’s something out there to make our constant topping-off a little less chore, a little more fun and easy: wireless charging capability is here. Not even “here today.” It’s been here. It’s ancient technology. Nikola Tesla was doing this stuff in Colorado in the 1800s, illuminating light bulbs without the benefit of wires. In today’s more practical, less-awesome world, everyone’s favorite example of this technology is “your wireless toothbrush,” which apparently everyone but me has in their bathroom.

Tbrush

Pictured: not what Tesla had in mind.

Now, I’m not talking about any of that new-fangled long-distance charging rumored to be included in the Galaxy S III. The wireless charging I’m talking about happens in a dock or a cradle, but it’s still incredibly cool.

How It Works. You’d think something as (apparently) futuristic as charging without cables would involve a lot of complexity, but it’s actually very simple. A charging station -it can be a dock, a mat, a stand, or a cradle- containing a coil of wire is plugged into a wall outlet or car adapter. The current flowing through this “primary winding” coil creates a magnetic field. When you drop your phone or tablet onto the charging station, this magnetic field induces current in a “secondary winding” coil within your phone or tablet. It’s this current which recharges your battery and lets you get back to playing that new version of Angry Birds. Unless you have a Windows Phone, that is. But I digress.

cellphone elctromagnetic induction charge


Now, what’s the real advantage here? You still have to drop your device onto a specific portion of your desktop, night-table, or dashboard, right? How is this much different from a more traditional dock?

The technical answer is fairly unimpressive: you get a few more millimeters of leeway in positioning the device than you would if you were lining up a port with a connector. Also, the device itself theoretically has no need for a cable port, so there’s one less opportunity for dust or moisture to enter. Barring some kind of special new port design, however, most manufacturers are bound to continue offering a USB connection for the foreseeable future, so this advantage is minimal.

Additionally, there are some downsides: the device receiving the charge needs that “secondary winding” coil mentioned earlier, meaning it either needs to be incorporated into the design, or an aftermarket battery or casing needs to be purchased and installed. Since there aren’t many devices on the market with wireless charging offered natively, that means added cost and inconvenience. So why would anyone find this worth the hassle?

You ready for this? I can’t adequately justify it. All I can say is, for devices with the technology integrated, it’s so unbelievably worth it. For the full explanation, you’ll have to endure another quick Palm mention. Okay with that? Good.

tp and pre3

Look at all the cables that aren’t in this shot.



Like a lot of at least a few thousand people, I was first exposed to daily use of wireless charging when I bought into the webOS ecosystem with a Palm Pre and, later, an HP TouchPad. The Palm versions of the inductive charger were called Touchstones and resembled oddly-cut hockey pucks for the phones, and a nondescript cradle for the TouchPad. Within a few months, they dotted horizontal surfaces in every room of my house. Anytime I changed rooms with my devices, I’d drop my phone or TouchPad on the appropriate charger, and the device would display whatever app or screen saver I’d instructed it to when it sensed it was on a Touchstone. They weren’t cheap (until the HP firesale, anyway), but the cool factor, combined with the effortlessness with which they functioned, made them one of my favorite perks of that ill-fated ecosystem. Know what it feels like to fumble around with a 30-pin Apple dock connector or micro-USB cable after that kind of futuristic convenience?

hurrr

Hurrrrrrr.


We’re not always going to be shackled to this Neanderthal world of yesteryear, though; whether or not the far-fetched speculation about the Galaxy S III’s long-distance supercharging comes to pass, it seems inevitable that another major mobile OEM will pick up where HP/Palm left off. Rumors are already circulating that the next iPhone may incorporate the technology (fueled by rainbow-scented unicorn-horn powder, as usual). Differentiator-hungry Nokia has hinted at this possibility as well in discussions on future Lumia-branded Windows Phones. And, though first-party integration is always preferable, third-party suppliers like Powermat, Energizer and Duracell will no doubt continue offering their wares, customized for as many phone and tablet models as possible.

It’s been a little over three months since I removed the Touchstones from my apartment and resigned myself to living life according to the tenets of the powerful wire-and-cable lobby. The resulting hole in my soul hasn’t really healed yet, though, so going forward I’ll probably be looking at some of those third-party options mentioned above. If you know of something in that vein that works terribly well (or just terribly), sound off in the comments below. I’ll be jacked-in to the ‘net, listening for a response.

GPositronicHead1

Induction Image Source: Cellphones.ca

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA.Read more about Michael Fisher!