How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [review]

Summary:I planned on writing my review of the Powermat inductive charger by highlighting its innovation but lack of necessity. But then it took my iPod touch captive.

I originally planned on writing my review of the Powermat magnetic inductive charging system by highlighting the innovation in the technology and the lack of necessity for a product that costs a serious amount of coin -- $99.99 for the wired mat plus $40 for the charger -- for achieving the same goal as a simple wire.

But then the Powermat took my iPod touch captive.

First, the straight shooting: The Powermat system is indeed very cool. It does what it advertises and brings "wire-less" charging to devices that normally don't have the ability: the iPhone, iPod touch, select RIM BlackBerry models and so forth.

But the problem with the product should have been evident from the drawing board: it doesn't fill a need, and comes off like a proof-of-concept product. Sure, "wire-less" charging is neat to observe, but you're buying a boatload of equipment (a mat that comes with wired adapter, plus device-specific "receiver") for the price of a new smartphone on contract to replace something that took a moment to achieve in the first place.

That hyphen in the word "wire-less" in the last two paragraphs, by the way, is important: while the system indeed charges without wires -- except for the wired adapter that the mat itself hypocritically uses -- it requires magnetic contact with the mat to work.

In other words, it's not "wireless" as we've come to know it: a synonym for Wi-Fi. Your device will only charge when it's in physical contact with the mat, and even then, it's got to be in the right spot. It's not wireless, like a smartphone. It's cordless, like a home phone. For all that finnicking -- plus all the gear and expense -- it's wholly impractical.

It's the kind of product you can chalk up as appealing to people who like being on the cutting edge, price and practicality be damned. And that's fine.

But then it took my iPod touch hostage.

The receiver for the iPod touch (and iPhone) is basically a new case for the device. Unlike the BlackBerry, whose receiver only replaces the battery cover, the iPod/iPhone receivers (they're distinct models) must be full cases, since their batteries are non-removable.

I should add here that the case is so thick that you can't use headphones with an L-shaped plug unless you use the (included) extension cable.

Besides the silliness of this inconvenience -- it's likely you already have a case for your device, and if you don't, you won't want one now, especially one with a big plastic Powermat hump on the back --it's precisely this $40 piece of matte black plastic that trapped my $220 iPod touch.

The case comes in two sections -- a lower half with a small bump for its own electronics and port for charging, and an upper half to keep the device seated on the port properly. They're kept together by two little plastic hooks that clip into place -- you know, the kind that only move in one direction. To separate them, you must squeeze them together so that the plastic teeth separate enough to clear each other. There's one pair of teeth on each side of the case.

I should have known when I pulled the product out of the box that the case was going to be a problem. Fumbling with it in my hands, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how the two sections separated: did they twist off? Did they pull away from each other? Neither method worked, and the instruction manual offered no help for actually manipulating the case itself -- it just instructed how to set the receiver'ed device up to charge with the mat.

Only by Googling "Powermat remove case" did I pull up this video demonstrating how it was done, which I wasn't able to find on Powermat's support page itself (update: found it! It's on a hidden screen in the "products" section, not the support section).

Here it is:

Looks easy right? The reality is far different.

So I put an undue amount of pressure on the case's teeth (without a device inside, this was easy to do) and they clicked apart. I plopped my iPod in the case, seated it properly and clicked the top on. Time to start charging.

To its credit, the Powermat managed to charge my device very quickly after it magnetically "grabbed" it to the right spot. But I was nearing a business meeting, and wanted to disassemble the setup so it wouldn't be sitting on my desk in my absence.

I tried to pull the case off, just like in the video. No luck. I tried to squeeze the case off, just like in the video. No dice, since the device inside was blocking any "give" the stiff plastic might have. I even tried putting my business card, then my fingernails, then my apartment's mailbox key inside the tiny gap between the two sections in an attempt to raise the plastic edge enough that the teeth would clear each other so I could pull them apart. I failed.

So I walked over to a colleague and asked him for a hand. Maybe we could free my poor iPod if I pulled the plastic edges back and he tugged at the top of the case at the same time. Didn't budge. This colleague is an IT guy, so he suggested using a small screwdriver he had lying around, protecting the fragile finish of the iPod with a Post-it note. With screwdriver, fingernails and a second set of hands, we tried. Nothing.

"This is a really bad design," he said with a huff.

So I went to my meeting, and pulled and tugged at it for an hour with no luck.

After the meeting, I returned, determined. I would have my iPod back, and I wasn't leaving the office until I did. So back to the screwdriver. After another 15 minutes, I found just the right spot where I could best leverage the case's teeth -- it's about half a centimeter in from the case's edge, on the back side -- and worked at it. I freed one side. After two more minutes, I freed the other.

My iPod was free and unharmed, save for a small scuff on the device's edge where the screwdriver dragged against the mirrored chrome finish.

Consumers shouldn't have to deal with this. I've had a lot of products come through my office, and I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. But I've never tested a device that put another perfectly operational one at risk -- in this case, my personal iPod.

The Powermat system's utility is already negligible because it doesn't save you time or money and doesn't do what good technology should do: solve a problem.

(In fact, it directly contradicts the message printed on the product's thorough, well-designed packaging: "Simplify.")

But 45 minutes of continued effort trying to remove my device from a case that was unnecessary in the first place? Despicable.

Topics: iPhone, BlackBerry, Smartphones

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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