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

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.

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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

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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33 comments
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  • Unnecessary..

    ... POS if you ask me!
    Dave!
  • Cordless charging will work only when

    it will be standardized and built into the various devices.
    paul_c317
  • what about solar-charging wireless?

    i've heard it was on the drawing boards...has
    anyone refined this 'green tech' to the point
    where it can be relied on?
    rroberto18
  • Oh, well... The transformer is such an innovative device...

    This idea has been in use for decades, primarily for electric tootbrushes.

    Yes, it's convenient. But not $140 convenient.

    Not long ago you could buy a stand that held the chargers for your portable equipment. You just plugged in the charger, and lay the device on the top. It cost around $20.

    PS: I'll bet the manufacturer received multiple patents on what is an obvious and trivial idea. I thought of this 20 years ago, as thousands of other people did.
    GrizzledGeezer
  • It's an IQ test

    If you buy one, you have failed . . .
    Roger Ramjet
  • SSDD

    none of the ideas of this product are new. surprise! what bothers me is that supposedly technically savvy people miss the repackaging of old ideas, and also miss the not very sophisticated application of modern catch phrases to sell a product that is marginally useful.
    CaptOska
  • RE: How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [review]

    What's the point? For about $10 I got a wire-less charging cradle for my Blackberry.

    Just put in cradle and it charges the phone.
    hcprobst
  • RE: How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [review]

    All that not withstanding, it creates another problem. The case must be removed for syncing and docking! To me, these are as big a problem as the others noted above.
    scottkinfw
    • Really??

      I've never seen one of these close-up - but I seriously doubt it needs to be removed.

      I have the Touchstone charging block (same basic technology) for the Palm Pre - and it is SO much more convenient than plugging in a micro USB cable to charge, it is easily worth the $50+ bucks I paid for it (it also puts the phone in 'speaker-phone' mode, another plus).
      MAKsystems
  • ...But why?

    It's like putting legs on your car when the wheel has been wround for thousands of years and gets the job done so much more conveniently.
    blackepyon01
  • Shoot the hostage, no one cares about it, review the product

    Your frustration with removing the case
    misses the point of reviewing this device.
    When you put a case
    on, you do not want it accidentally coming off,
    so it has to be a snug fit and not unlatch it
    easily. I have had cases that would pop off
    when I dropped the phone which is what I would
    consider a bad design. Having the case stay on
    firmly is a good design. Taking off the case
    is not a use case people are generally going to
    be concerned with, so why devote such a huge
    part of your review to it? Holding it hostage?
    wtf?

    To all the people who say this device is
    useless, you may be missing its point. It is
    for people who own multiple phones, say a work
    and personal phone. I do think it is not
    useful for anyone owning just one device.

    Saying all that, I own an iPhone and I doubt
    I would buy this device for it. I don't want a
    powermat branded iphone (Do you see that huge
    logo!). I would be more likely to buy it for a
    Blackberry since it only replaces the back
    cover.
    kac2
  • What I really want to know...

    is how well it fries eggs. I'd like mine over easy please.

    I would think it might be more practical and entertaining to have a hamster running on his wheel generating the power to recharge my wireless devices. When he stops working at least he's easier to dispose of (flush).

    Besides, wireless power has already been invented. It's called lightening.
    bobavery
  • RE: How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [review]

    This sort of technology has been around for over 30 years I was connected with a company (as a design Eng)
    for its use on charging heart pacemaker batteries at the time.probably patents on the original stuff have run out & easier cheaper to build with today's components.something I will not be using,apart from with my cordless toothbrush,in case the none techs wondered how the battery got charged up.
    ronangel
  • RE: How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [r

    This is not specifically in reply to the powermat piece, but
    more generally to so many devices one uses today.
    So, the question: is there an inverse law at work in the
    universe insofar as we make life easier in so many ways
    (tech and otherwise) and yet, complexify, if you will, with
    the little things such as opening said powermat and sundry
    other items that don't really need to be so clever.
    And thank you for having a hassle with your powermat; i
    feel a bit less klutzy now.
    mac in manhattan
    Sunon
  • you forgot the most important test!

    Drop your wallet on the mat and let us know if it erases the magnetic strip on all your credit cards.

    Wireless charging and security features, all for one price!
    jreuter
  • it is cordless not wireless............

    mat still needs a cord and albeit one cord compared to a power strip containing 3 or more adaptors....it is less of a hassle.
    but a laptop is wireless as a cellphone is wireless. now if this damn power mat could 'wirelessly' charge my product as convieniently as i can connect to the internet thru my wireless router, then i would buy one.

    good concept, not much practability for mainstream...title is just misleading!!
    kavallerie07
  • Established alternative you can buy today

    A couple of years ago I had the fortune to see the
    first working prototypes from WildCharge. The adapter
    thing was, indeed, the biggest market obstacle. The
    equipment worked great, but they only had two adapters
    (neither of which was difficult to work with).

    But now they have a clever dongle thingy that will
    work with a number of devices, plugging into the mini-
    USB or proprietary power/accessory plug on the
    phone/device itself. This simple work-around solves a
    bunch of issues, not the least of which is spending
    all kinds of money on additional adapters.

    I am surprised they haven't been in the news more.
    FYI, I have nothing to do with the company whatsoever.
    I was looking at implementing their stuff into my
    custom furniture. Take a look at them.
    Lucky2BHere
  • RE: How the cordless Powermat charging system took my iPod touch hostage [r

    Anyone done any efficiency tests on this wowee device? I hardly think it would be ''green''. If someone GAVE me one I might sit on it to see if I had increased energy...
    JRude
  • Wacom tablets use this technology.

    I wonder if I'll eventually be able to charge my phone by
    placing it on the Wacom tablet I already have. Works well
    for powering the Wacom stylus & mouse. Would save me from
    having to buy extra hardware.
    Garrett Williams