Thinking of giving your phone or smartwatch a cushie wire-free life? Here's all you need to know about cutting the cord - and whether it's actually worth it.
What is it and how does it work?
Wireless charging is a way of charging devices like smartphones and smartwatches without needing to plug them into anything. No fumbling about behind furniture for power sockets or tethering your phone or watch to an infuriatingly short charging cable – simple place your gadget on a wireless charging pad somewhere convenient, and it will magically charge over the ether.
It’s actually been around for longer than you might think; Nikola Tesla managed to power electric lamps without wires as far back as 1891, and if you’ve ever used an electric toothbrush, chances are you popped it on a wireless charger overnight to power it up for your morning scrub. But since more sophisticated, power-hungry gadgets like smartwatches and smartphones started infiltrating our daily lives, demand for stronger, faster wireless charging devices for our smart things has increased, and there’s a growing number of wireless charging pads on the market to give you a welcome break from wires.
So how does it work? Wireless charging is based on the principle of magnetic resonance, or Inductive Power Transfer. Or if we spit out the jargon soup and use normal people speak, the process of transferring an electrical current between two objects. To work, it needs coils. Coils in the charging pad to send the electrical current, and coils in your phone or smartwatch to receive it. When the transmitter and receiver coils both oscillate – or ‘resonate’ – at the same frequency, it creates an electromagnetic field between the two, and the gadget begins to charge.
Can your phone or smartwatch do it?
It’s entirely possible that you’re using a smartphone or smartwatch without realising it’s already equipped with wireless charging chops. Fonesalesman has a really handy list organised by brand of all the current phones that have a built-in wireless receiver, and you can easily find out if your smartwatch has what it takes by visiting its maker’s website.
If your gadget is compatible. it’s likely that it runs on the Qi standard (pronounced ‘chee’). At the moment, there are three organising trying to standardise wireless charging tech and become ‘the’ wireless charging standard – kind of like iOS and Android for smartphones. The Wireless Power Consortium’s Qi standard is currently leading the way, with the ability to juice up gadgets wirelessly up to a distance of 4cm away. It also recently partnered with BOSCH to take Qi wireless charging output from around 5 watts to 15 watts, so new and recent QI charging pads are getting faster and faster.
A close second is The Power Matters Alliance withs its PMA standard, responsible for the wireless charging Powermat installed in some branches of Starbucks. Some phones like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge are equipped to handle both Qi and PMA-powered wireless charging. Last year, the PMA merged with the third contender, the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP), to strengthen their chances of being top wireless standard.
Still, Qi is by far the most popular method of wireless charging, so we’ll focus on it in this article.
Your phone or smartwatch isn’t Qi-enabled – what do you do?
This doesn’t at all mean you can’t get in on the wireless charging fun. There are lots of discreet phone cases available to buy with built-in Qi chips that are relatively cheap. IKEA started selling them for older iPhone and Samsung smartphones to make its range of wireless charging furniture more accessible – you can buy one here for as little as £10, or search the internet for more jazzy options.
Your other option is to wait until your phone contract runs out and get the latest model with Qi chops. This is fine if you’re an Android or Windows phone user because practically all new phones are coming with Qi these days, but it’s a little more awkward for iPhone users. Why? Because Apple is refusing to put Qi in its iPhones. Instead, it’s working on its very own wireless standard that might not surface until 2017.
If you’re not keen on grabbing a Qi-enabled iPhone case, there is one other way to get your iPhone Qi ready. This iQi device is a wireless charging receiver that gives most iPhones wireless charging abilities. There’s just one tiny catch. You have to plug it into your phone. Which kind of defeats of the object of wireless charging.
If it’s your smartwatch that falls short when it comes to wireless charging, there are straps and add-ons out there to put Qi straight on your wrist. The VÜ Pulse, for instance, is a strap for Pebble watches that adds Qi and all kinds of extra smart features.
Is wireless charging right for you?
When it comes to snapping up a wireless charger that will make you glad you ditched wires, it really depends on what your expectations of wireless charging are. And it’s worth noting that wireless charging doesn’t come without its pitfalls; there are good reasons why smartphones are only just beginning to catch on.
The main caveat with most wireless chargers is speed. Wireless chargers are less efficient, lose more energy through heat, and therefore use more electricity. Devices take longer to charge when the supplied power is the same amount, and some wireless chargers can take hours to give a smartphone a fresh tank of battery. It’s likely that the wired charger you’re currently using only takes around 1 to 2 hours to juice up your phone.
Another disadvantage is that wireless charging isn’t technically wireless. You still have to plug in the charging pad to a power source, so it doesn’t mean you can miraculously charge your device on the other side of the room to your usual go-to power socket, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can charge your phone on the go anywhere in the world.
There’s also the fact that you’ll have to leave your device on the wireless charging pad while it’s charging, which suddenly makes plugging your phone into a wire seem much less restricting than you once thought. If you’re charging at your desk or you’re happy to pop your phone on the wireless charging pad while you sleep or get on with other things for a couple of hours, though, you’re probably going to reap the benefits. Like with your wired charger, you can still interact with your phone while it’s charging – you just have to make sure you don’t move it away from the pad.
Which wireless charger should you buy?
Again, this really depends on your expectations of wireless charging, and also, of course, your budget. You’ll also want to check whether your smartphone or smartwatch is Qi only or both Qi and PMA-enabled. Some wireless chargers are also being touted as ‘fast’, which is probably down to the coupling and size of the coils – the maker of Qi gives a more science-y explanation here.
Here are some of popular wireless smartphone chargers you might want to check out, but there are tons on the market that offer variations on charging time, design and compatibility.
Samsung Fast Charging Wireless Charging Pad
Works with: All Qi-enabled phones, but ‘fast’ feature only works with Galaxy S6 Edge+, Galaxy Note5 and subsequent models
Charging time: 120 minutes
Other features: Ambient LED indicators glow green when your phone is charged
Nokia DT-900 Wireless Charging Plate
Price: From £20
Works with: All Qi-enabled phones
Charging time: A test by TopTenReviews saw a Nexus 5 go from zero to full battery in 3.5 hours
Other features: Comes in a variety of colours
Price: £28 on Amazon at the time of writing
Works with: All Qi-enabled phones
Charging time: Not specified, but one customer reviews claims 1 hour
Other features: Phone sits upright, making it easier to interact with it during a charge
Price: £19.99 on Amazon at the time of writing
Works with: All Qi-enabled phones
Charging time: Not specified, but one Amazon reviewer claims a Galaxy Note 4 charges at a rate of 10% per 45 minutes
Other features: Another upright charger
Wireless Chargers with a difference…
If you want to splash your cash on something a bit more snazzy, there are a few wireless chargers that have managed to take Qi tech to dizzying new heights. This anti gravity LIFT charger, for instance, can make Apple Watches and Pebble wrist wear actually levitate while charging. Mesmerising. It’s up for a cool around £153 on Kickstarter at the time of writing.
There’s also a cool gadget called the EnergySquare which can charge multiple gadgets at once, and instead of needing to fix up your phone with a Qi case, you just slap on one of the EnergySquare’s tiny Qi stickers. It was up for €39 (around £34) on Kickstarter and is about to start shipping to early bird backers. You’ll have to keep an eye on the campaign for updates on when you can snap it up.
Dell is also on the verge of releasing a wireless computer monitor that will charge your phone while you work, and, of course, there’s IKEA’s range of wireless charging furniture, including lamps, side tables and standard charging pads. Its NORDMÄRKE wireless charging pad can charge up to 3 devices at once, and costs £60.