As our dependence on smartphones escalates, we become slaves to their batteries. They beg for our attention as their power dwindles, and we come running with cables, chargers and power banks. Over the past few years, wireless charging pads have sought to relieve some of that stress by helping us repower batteries without having to plug anything in, but their development has been marked by problems: competing standards, incompatibility issues and slow charging times. In the past six months, however, there have been a number of shifts within the industry that could transform wireless charging from a neat gimmick into a crucial element of future technology.
A pivotal moment happened in September, when Apple announced that AirPower, its own wireless charging pad, would be released in 2018. That product still has not been given a release date, but its announcement revealed that Apple had chosen a wireless charging standard known as Qi (pronounced “chee”) over its main competitor, AirFuel.
“It reduced uncertainty for everyone,” says Menlo Treffers, chairman of WPC, the consortium of companies behind Qi. “With Apple and Samsung both supporting the same standard, this was a message of compatibility.”
Qi was henceforth crowned the winner of that particular format war, and consumers can now be confident that if their device supports wireless charging, and there is a wireless charging pad near by, then the two will probably work together.
AirPower is something of a misnomer, as all Qi chargers work via a process of electromagnetic induction rather than “over the air”. Both the device and the charging pad are equipped with coils that interact when placed next to each other, creating a current that allows the transfer of wireless power.
Back in 2010 that power could reach only about 2.5W, but 5W is now common – ie, the same as a standard phone charger. With the advent of 7.5W and even 10W systems by the likes of Samsung and LG, we now have wireless chargers that are not only convenient, but work faster than the charger supplied with the phone. According to Treffers, such improvements will come thick and fast as more companies join the consortium (it’s up from 220 in September last year to 526 today). “It has introduced a lot of momentum, new initiatives and new features,” he says.
On the surface, the ability to charge a phone without a cable seems like a hyper-convenience that has minimal value. “Don’t underestimate the psychological effect of not having to use two hands to connect a charger,” Treffers says. “It appears to be marginal, but once you start doing it, it feels really different.”
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