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Waiting for Better Battery-Charging Technology

The wait for better battery-charging tech can be a real buzzkill. Here are some innovations in the space.


“You really want another thing to charge?” Steve Jobs said, with an incredulous expression.

About five years ago, Re/code co-executive editor Walt Mossberg and I sat in a meeting with Apple’s then-CEO, discussing the smartphone landscape, among other things. We broached the topic of wireless earbuds for the iPhone, since everything else seemed to be riding the wire-free trend. Jobs was immediately ready with his retort — which, in memory, may not have been as PG as the quote above.

Of course, wireless headphones now come in all shapes and sizes, but Jobs was right: They’re just one more thing you need to remember to plug in and charge.

Our mobile devices are smarter than ever, yet they — and we — are still enslaved to the same old charging methods: We fumble around to find charging cables, plug in our devices while we sleep, and hope that we make it through the next day without running out of juice. Newer devices with better technology have made incremental improvements in battery life, and useful tips like these can help you stretch your charge to last longer.

Back in 2011, I wrote this column, in which I talked about how inductive charging pads might someday make cord-fumbling a thing of the past, letting us set our phones, tablets and other gadgets down to charge on any restaurant table, airplane tray table or nightstand.

Four years later, we still haven’t cut the cord. Why are these changes taking so long?

This week, I learned about the current and future landscape of battery-charging technology so I could tell you about it. This is a crowded space, so I’ll only touch on a handful of examples to illustrate what companies are working on, what might move us ahead and how long it might take. (Hint: You better plug your phone in while you’re waiting.)

Finding your Qi

Audi with built-in Qi for device charging
Audi with built-in Qi for device charging
Wireless Power Consortium

The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC), which has been around since 2008, keeps trying to establish its Qi technology as the global standard for what it calls wireless charging. Qi, in its current iteration, uses magnetic inductive charging, which essentially means transmitting the charge through some flat surface rather than a plugged-in cord. Despite its “wireless” description, Qi still likely requires a wire somewhere, depending on your setup.

For example, if you use a Qi charging pad, it has to plug into the wall. If you have a nightstand with Qi built in, the nightstand will still need to plug into the wall. Cars that have built-in Qi, like Toyota’s Prius and Avalon models, have an easier time as they generate the power needed for the transmitter (base) piece of the Qi setup. Transmitters range from around $24 to $100.

In all of these cases, your phone (or other device) needs a receiver to accept the charge. A few phones, like Google’s Nexus phones and Nokia’s Windows Phone lineup, have Qi built in. Otherwise, you’ll need a special backing, case or card that lies on top of your phone’s battery. Receivers range from about $12 to $60.

One popular example of inductive charging is at Starbucks, where the company has partnered with Duracell-owned Powermat to offer inductive charging in some of its coffee shops.

The WPC is working on finalizing its next version of Qi, which will use magnetic resonance and will be available within a year. This technology lets people move their devices slightly farther away, but charge slower and still require a gadget to be touching or lying on a surface. The next generation of Qi will be backward compatible with existing Qi gadgets.

Power through the air

 uBeam prototype
uBeam prototype

At least three companies — uBeam, WiTricity and Energous — want to use different tech solutions to charge your devices through the air, letting you skip the part where you put your phone down on a surface. These could allow multiple devices to charge simultaneously, and would work when you walk into a room without you doing anything.

UBeam, which first demonstrated its proof of concept at the D Conference in 2011, is working on technology that can charge devices through the air via ultrasound from more than three feet in any direction of a transmitter. Meredith Perry, uBeam’s founder, recently showed me a prototype transmitter, which is about six inches square and a quarter of an inch thick. The phone receiver case she’s working on looks like Apple’s own iPhone cases. But uBeam is still about two years away.

WiTricity, which was started by an MIT professor 10 years ago, uses something called highly resonant wireless transfer protocol to charge devices, and brands like Toyota and Intel have jumped on board for future products with the company. Energous transmits energy in the form of Wi-Fi, using WattUp hubs that charge up to 15 feet from a central hub. It won’t have products out until late 2015 or 2016.

Speeding things up

The Moto Turbo Charger gives devices six or eight hours of battery life with a 15-minute charge.
The Moto Turbo Charger gives devices six or eight hours of battery life with a 15-minute charge.
Motorola Mobility

One idea that keeps popping up in the battery world is the concept of using a super-speedy charger, saving you time in those instances where you have to wait around for your phone to charge before leaving the house.

The Motorola Turbo Charger ships with Moto’s Droid Turbo and Nexus 6 smartphones. It delivers a brag-worthy eight hours of battery life to the Droid Turbo after just 15 minutes of charging; the Nexus 6 gets six hours of battery life after a 15-minute charge. On its own, the Turbo Charger costs $35. It also charges other phones quickly because of its 1.6-amp charging rate — but not as quickly as it charges the Droid Turbo and Nexus 6.

An Israeli company called StoreDot is based on the concept of charging smartphone batteries in less than 60 seconds — but could mean charging more often. This would require a behavioral change in the way we charge devices, but a lot of people wouldn’t mind the sacrifice if they were rushing to go somewhere and needed a charged phone. The company plans to launch its technology built into a smartphone in late 2016.

Clever charging


If you’re tired of the traditional battery-charging phone cases, alternatives abound. Two examples of creative products that are in the works now are HDkey and Ampere. HDkey is a pocket-size device with USB plugs on both ends, letting you power your phone by snagging power from someone else’s phone. Ampere is a charging sleeve that lets you slip your phone or tablet into a stylish sleeve for charging — but your device will need a special receiver to get the charge.

Charging our mobile devices still takes longer than it should, but simpler methods that are truly wireless are on the way — just remember to charge up while you wait.

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