CNET News - Wednesday, August 9, 2017 at 4:00 AM
How iPhone 8 could change the wireless charging landscape - CNET
As we approach the expected September iPhone event, the gadget world is
abuzz with questions: Will there be two new iPhones or three? How much will
the presumed high-end OLED model cost? Will facial recognition fully replace
Touch ID, or merely be an alternative? And: will the iPhone finally get
But that last one is a loaded question because "wireless" charging is in the
eye of the beholder.
Sure, you can place a Samsung Galaxy and many other Android phones onto a
charging pad without having to plug the phone into any charging cable. And
those same pads are increasingly built into countertops at coffee shops,
burger joints and even furniture you can buy at Ikea. But those pads still
need to be plugged into a wall outlet. The wire is still there, it's just
not attached directly to the phone.
Some current iPhone battery cases, like Mophie's Juice Pack, include
wireless charging compatibility.
That's a roundabout way of saying "wireless charging" is basically a
misnomer. Except when it isn't: "True" wireless charging -- in which
batteries get juiced up at distances measured in meters, not centimeters --
is a real-world technology, too.
Wireless charging over a distance could be the real tech game changer,
allowing us to juice up our phones as soon as we walk into a room. The
technology is also a boon to the ever-increasing number of smart devices in
our lives, from portable speakers to hearing aids. It just needs to get over
the pesky questions over whether it's safe -- and actually show up in a
mass-market consumer device.
So, before we posit the question as to whether the next iPhones will include
wireless charging, let's start by untangling the different technologies that
Apple might incorporate.
Inductive charging: Qi vs. Powermat
Widely used for years in cordless electric toothbrushes, inductive charging
is the most common technology employed in most of today's "wireless"
charging devices and accessories. There are two major standards in the
space: Qi -- named for a Chinese word that means energy and is pronounced
"chee" -- and Powermat.
Both standards are also working to incorporate magnetic resonance
technology, which could charge over distances of up to 4 centimeters. That
would, for instance, mean that aligning your phone to the charging pad
"sweet spot" would be less of a hit-and-miss affair, or that the charging
pads could be hidden behind thin layers of wood or plastic.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 recharging on a Powermat inductive charger at a
Qi has been incorporated into phones from a variety of manufacturers, and
McDonald's has built Qi-compatible chargers into the furniture at its
restaurants. Powermat-infused tables, meanwhile, can be found in some
Starbucks and airport lounges.
The rivals are backed by two opposing standards organizations, too: The
Wireless Power Consortium for Qi, and the AirFuel Alliance for Powermat. The
latter was formed when Powermat and its Power Matters Alliance merged with a
third, rival wireless standard (confusingly called the Alliance for Wireless
Power, or A4WP) in 2014.
The good news is that the rivalry has been less of a zero-sum game in recent
years. Samsung, for one, has made its recent high-end Galaxy phones
(including the S7 and S8) compatible with both inductive charging standards,
so you can juice it up on a Qi-powered counter at McDonald's and a
Powermat-powered one at Starbucks.
'True' wireless charging: Energous and Powercast
Forget about 4 centimeters. How about charging from a distance of 4 meters?
Or anywhere in an average-size room?
It's a pretty recent concept, but companies like Energous and Powercast are
producing technology that can more accurately be called wire-free. Both use
radio frequency (RF) energy, a charging method that works similarly to
Wi-Fi, that enables devices to charge when within the range of a power
Energous is the developer of WattUp, the wire-free technology that the
company claims is capable of charging anything from a mobile device to
various wearables like a hearing aid when located up to 15 feet (about 4.5
meters) from the transmitter. The first wire-free transmitter is expected to
hit the market before the end of the year, according to CEO Stephen R.
"Besides mobility, the idea of charging at a distance is very, very
important to IoT devices," said Rizzone. "Now what's happened, is that you
no longer have to run a cable to them, nor do you have to have a large
battery, that either has to be replaced or somehow recharged. You can have a
much smaller battery because you're continually getting power from these
Powercast demonstrated its distance-charging tech in New York City earlier
But there's a common concern: is it safe? The Federal Communications
Commission enforces the standards of the Food and Drug Administration that
determine how much power is safe enough to be absorbed by human tissue --
and Rizzone says Energous is "very, very close" to getting its first FCC
Powercast, the other true wire-free company, has made some greater strides.
The company's Powercaster transmitters are already approved by the FCC, and
they've been available since 2010 -- but only in industrial, commercial and
PowerSpot, Powercast's new standalone transmitter created for consumer
electronics, is still not available to consumers and isn't yet FCC approved.
The company hopes to also bring it to the market before the end of the year.
"The goal is for consumers to simply place or hang all enabled items for
recharging within range of a PowerSpot in their home or other public
places," said Charlie Greene, chief operating & technical officer of
Which way will Apple go?
All of this brings us back to the iPhone issue. Will Apple finally jump on
board the wireless power bandwagon? If so, which horse will it back: Qi,
Powermat -- or door no. 3? (You can buy third-party cases for the iPhone
that enable wireless charging, but the feature has yet to be built in.)
To date, Apple has two products that use inductive charging: the Apple Watch
and the AirPods wireless headphones. Both of them, however, come with their
own chargers, and neither appears to work with any third-party wireless
chargers -- Qi, Powermat or otherwise.
And while Apple has a penchant for proprietary standards -- iPhones use
Lightning cables rather than the emerging USB-C standard, for instance --
the news in February that Apple had joined the Qi-backed Wireless Power
Consortium has some declaring that group the winner. However, Apple's
statement at the time was more equivocal: "Apple is joining the Wireless
Power Consortium to be able to participate and contribute ideas to the open,
collaborative development of future wireless charging standards." (Neither
Apple nor Qi responded to our requests for comment earlier this week.)
The "wireless" inductive charger attaches to the Apple Watch via a magnet.
If Apple were to go with Qi, Powermat has implied it would do whatever it
takes to be compatible. Powermat "will continue to innovate and develop new
products and technology supporting all devices coming into the market" the
company said in a statement. "We recognize Apple's ability to bring wireless
charging into mainstream by the sheer volume of iPhones in the market." Put
another way: Powermat wants to ensure that partners like Starbucks can
service the tens of millions -- and eventually hundreds of millions -- of
iPhone owners, just as they do for Android fans.
Could Apple wow the world with true long-distance wireless charging?
Energous CEO Rizzone has long touted a "top five" consumer electronics
partner, and the company received a $10 million investment from Apple
component supplier Dialog Semiconductor. Leapfrogging straight from no
wireless charging to true wireless charging would be an impressive feat, but
a material product from a possible Apple/Energous partnership could also
still be years away -- if it ever materializes at all.
The good news is that the wait for Apple's wireless charging plans will be
short. If the company sticks to its normal schedule, the new iPhones should
be announced in the first two weeks of September. (Whatever wireless
charging feature is announced, though, may be delayed a few more weeks,
according to a rumor from July.)
The bad news? It may be more convenient, but wireless charging is far less
efficient than a good old wired charger. A CNET test found that the Galaxy
S8 took 3.5 hours to charge inductively, more than the typical 2 hours it
takes with a standard USB-C cable.
But fans of quick wired charging won't have to worry. Unlike the headphone
jack, we expect the iPhone's Lightning port won't be going away anytime
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