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Review: Wireless Charging Not Quite Wireless... Yet

Thu, 04/08/2010 - 12:45pm
Andrew Berg

At CTIA in Las Vegas, I took a trip over to Powermat's booth to pick up a demo unit and check out what the company has in store for the future. They gave me a Powermat Portable Mat, as well as an iPhone wireless receiver and an iPod dock to try.

Conceptually, the idea of wireless charging sounds too good to be true and upon closer inspection, the technology just isn't there yet. Nevertheless, after speaking with a representative, I was convinced that Powermat's road map represents the future of wireless device charging – if they can pull it off. 

The Powermat Portable Mat comes in a nifty little travel case. The mat itself folds down to about the size of a drink coaster and when unfolded can charge up to Powermat Batterythree devices at a time, which solves the one-socket-for-one-charger-and-one-device dilemma. But it doesn't go so far as to revolutionize the way we power up our devices. It's limiting in a handful of ways.

I suppose it's understandable that the first step in wireless charging is to plug the Powermat Portable Mat into a wall socket. The idea after that is you should be able to just lay your device down on the Powermat and have it charge, but the process is decidedly more complicated than that. Each device needs a way to connect with the mat itself, which means that you have to either put your device in one of Powermat's wireless receivers or connect it via a cord using one of Powermat's Powercubes.

The Powermat receivers, essentially device cases that have a sensor on the back that enable the wireless charging, are not only costly but also incredibly limiting if you already have a protective case for you device. When fitted with the Powermat receiver casing, my iPhone's proprietary port was covered in such a way that I wasn't able to plug in the FM transmitter in my car, which meant that I had to remove the case every time I got in the car.

If you're using Powermat's Powercube, then you might as well just plug your device into the wall, because then there's nothing at all wireless about the solution; you're simply plugging your phone into a Powercube, which is resting on the Powermat. The true value behind the wireless charging solution is that it be totally without wires, right? That's just not the case with Powermat's solution as it stands right now.

Powermat Portable Matpx;Both the Powermat Portable Mat and the Powermat Home & Office Mat sell for $99.99. Additional Powercubes go for $24.99 and Wireless Receiver cases run in the $29.99 range, depending on which device you're using. For a family with three device-aged children, each toting their own Nintendo DS, this could be a great solution for simply charging their game systems via one outlet. Beyond that, it's a stretch to say that the Powermat solution is any more convenient than just charging your device the old fashioned way.

Tony Ostrom, a spokesman for Powermat, said the company recognizes these limitations and has taken a great deal of feedback from customers. The company has a solution on the ready that gives me hope for Powermat.

Ostrom said that Powermat has managed to shrink the receiver sensor down, from the size of a business card to the size of a microchip, and found a way to embed it in a Powermat Powerpack – essentially a battery embedded with the Powermat proprietary chip.

For instance, users would buy a Powerpack battery that will fit their BlackBerry, their Canon digital camera or their Nintentdo DS. In that case, the battery or the device can just be placed on the mat and it will be "magically" charged, and users can still keep their chosen cases and accessories.

Ostrom said the Powerpacks won't be available until the third quarter of 2010. If you own an iPhone, which doesn't have a removable battery, you'll still be out of luck, at least for now. Ideally Powermat's proprietary chip could become a standardized feature like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, wherein OEMs could do the work of installing it natively on the device. Then it would just be up to the consumer to buy themselves a Powermat.

The company has a good thing going if it can manage something along those lines. The idea of being able to just set a device, any device, on a surface and have it charge would be a wonderful convenience. To that end, Powermat is working with a number of furniture makers to create industrial solutions that could be deployed at large events or in conference rooms. Imagine sitting down at your next office meeting and charging your phone just by setting it on the conference table.

There's a lot to like about Powermat's ideas, but now it has to take it to the next level for this to be a viable solution. The Powermat solution of today represents an extra step to charging a device, as opposed to eliminating one.

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