Getting creative with wireless charging for your smartphone

Getting creative with wireless charging for your smartphone

Summary: Wireless charging could be a good way to say goodbye to the mess of cables on every desk - here's some creative ways the technology has been used.

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If your desk looks anything like the one in our office, there's a rats' nest of cables down the back, and an only slightly smaller tangle on the surface for charging and syncing phones, tablets, digital cameras, MP3 players and the rest.

Docks with multiple tips like the IDAPT i4 keep things tidier, but only if you have the right tip and the power port lets you fit all your devices on at once; one phone with the power port half way up the side can take up most of the pad.

Wireless charging has been around for a while, but until Nokia put it in the Lumia 920 only a few handsets had it built in. Now it's an option on several Lumia models and a couple of Samsung Galaxy handsets - and Nokia has a nifty Bluetooth headset you can charge wirelessly as well.

If Nokia really does come out with a Windows tablet, that could have wireless charging as well, as the power level in the Qi standard is enough to charge a tablet or even a notebook this year.

When the Lumia 920 was first on sale it often included a voucher for the Nokia wireless charging plate; if you're buying one separately, they're about $70 (£55 here in the UK from Mobile Fun, who supplied a review unit).

This is a neat oval in the same range of colours as the Lumia 920; if you get the Fatboy Pillow wireless charger, it's the same charging plate inside.

In the past, wireless charging was convenient but usually not as efficient as plugging in a cable. Impressively, Nokia has the power efficiency so high on this technology that charging takes exactly the same time and uses the same amount of power as if you plug in a cable.

 

Nokia wireless charging plate

You don't have to position the phone precisely either; there are actually three wireless power antennae inside the base and the base detects the NFC inside the Lumia to work out which one is in the best position to charge the phone.

When you put the phone down, there's an vibration to let you know it's getting a charge and a LED on the side of the charging plate lights up as well. If the phone is at too much of an angle it will either not buzz at all or it will buzz repeatedly as charging turns on and off, so it's easy to make sure you're getting a charge.

You can also get fancy with charging. Nokia sells a wireless charging cradle for the car and a wireless charging stand that both puts the phone at angle where you can easily read it and uses NFC to run your choice of apps when you dock the phone.

Nokia wireless charging cradle

 

If you don't want to shell out for that, how about making a Lego stand to hold the basic charging plate at an angle?  Jkercado recently tweeted an image of his custom cradle. Scott R went a little further and cut a hole in one of the cubbies in his car and put the charging plate in there.

Fitting the charger right into the furniture hides the cable going to the charging plate, making things even tidier. We've seen two different Lumia users fitting the charging plate inside Ikea furniture; Richard Smith put it into a set of Malm drawers, lobbamobba used the Hemnes nightstand. If you have an office desk that has a slot designed to fit a power 'grommet' into, ECA's Wireless Villa has standard power outlets and a wireless charging pad built in so you don't need to do the carpentry. Or if you're comfortable shopping at online components stores, you can find small round Qi wireless charging modules designed to be fitted into furniture, for under $50.

If you're fitting a wireless charger under a desk or in the top of a chest of drawers, check how thick the wood is - and how dense the material it's made of. We've seen demos by Fulton Innovations, who developed the eCoupled technology used in the Qi standard, with devices charging through surfaces that are 4-5cm thick - and we wish they'd sell those adapters as a kit.

When we tried placing the Nokia charging plate inside various pieces of furniture around the office, it wouldn't power the phone through the 1.5cm thick top of a solid wood desk and while the phone was getting charge through the 1cm particle board top of an Ikea Dave laptop table, the charging LED on the base didn't light up - suggesting it wouldn't charge at full efficiency. But when we tucked the charging plate inside a set of Ikea Moppe drawers, which have an 8mm plywood top, the phone charged as if it was right on the charging plate. That meant we could duct tape the charger in place, run the cable out through the hole that's already there for hanging it on the wall and charge invisibly without getting out a hammer and chisel.

The other option is putting the wireless charger into some other gadget. The most popular option is a set of Bluetooth speakers; drop your phone down to charge and it can use NFC to pair to the speakers and play your music. Nokia and JBL got together to design a set of these, in the Lumia colours, and TDK showed off a stylish cube speaker with wireless charging at CES. Put the two together and using your phone as your alarm would be a lot harder to sleep through.

TDK wireless cube

Bluetooth isn't the only option for wireless music. There are a couple of wireless speakers that don't need you to pair the phone or turn on a wireless radio because they use Near Field Audio. We first saw this at CES 2012 from iFrogz, which is now owned by Zagg.

The £50 Boost is a neat little box with a rechargeable battery (plug the unit in by USB to charge ) and as soon as you drop your phone on top of it, it uses Near Field Audio (NearFA for short) to pick up the music you're playing (or the voices on your conference call) and plays them through the speakers at a much more audible volume. It works with any phone, without any setup, because it's picking up and amplifying the signal going into the phone speakers.

Oregon Scientific's Boombero uses the same technology at a slightly cheaper price (you can get it as cheap as £35), but it doesn't work nearly as well unless you have an iPhone.

The NearFA detector in the Boombero are positioned to work well when you drop an iPhone into the groove on the top; that sounded far louder when we tried it and was still fairly good quality. But when we tried with a Lumia 920 and Motorola Android handset, we couldn't get the Boombero to pick up the audio, no matter how we balanced the phones on the base or in the groove.

If you want wireless music without the effort, stick with the Boost - or go through the effort of Bluetooth pairing and enjoy high quality music from our favourite wireless speaker, jawbone's Jambox which is also splash proof enough to use outside or in the bathroom.

Topics: Hardware, After Hours, Windows Phone

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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20 comments
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  • Or, here's a novel thought

    Standardise charging ports/cables as has been tried in the past. The problem comes when one or two manufacturers refuse to standardise and go their own route. I know the larger tablets need higher power but still, they could still be standardised.

    Be honest, look around your desk, what are the most cables for? For me, as a lot but not all people, they're power cables. At none of my workstations is it mobile device charging cables causing the problem. While wireless charging is cool and will progress to useful technology, for most people it's still a gimmick as very few consumers need 5+ charging cables on their desk. All of my gadgets can be charged using one of 2 types of usb and even if I need to charge all at once, I just go and get more leads out of the drawer.
    Little Old Man
    • try it

      It sounds gimmicky but it's one of those hugely convenient experiences that just make life easier. you can't embed your cable invisibly in the night stand either!
      mary.branscombe
      • Don't get me wrong

        I do see it's easier, certainly since lining up device to pad seems to have been sorted out. I just don't think the problem you suggested actually exists for most consumers. I'm sure that when it becomes universal, the general population will dive right in but for now, the majority don't suffer from cable overload.

        As an aside, I really do support the efforts to standardise charging ports. Knowing how many chargers I have lying around, all specific to one device, often without clues to what device, being able to use 2 chargers for everything is a dream compared. Same goes for inductive, if one pad fits all, I'll jump on it (not the pad obviously).
        Little Old Man
        • Qi is the standard

          there have been several wireless charging technologies; it was only when the Powermat standard joined with the Qi consortium that we started to get real adoption and Qi is going to be widespread. I saw acres of Chinese vendors with Qi wireless charging pads, plates and units at CES; they're pretty good at seeing demand ;-) One pad will fit any Qi compatible device - or any device you put a Qi-compatible jacket or adaptor on (not as convenient but if you were going to have a case anyway...). You can already charge your Nokia phone and Nokia Bluetooth headset on the same pad, and then put a Qi-enabled Samsung (or in the US, LG) handset on it. NFC lets the pad adjust what voltage to deliver for the device. Next step is the 15W capable charging pads, and putting two-way wireless charging into a tablet so it can charge and then top up your phone.

          Even just charging one phone without fumbling the right cable out of the bedside drawer is one of those little but delightful improvements in life ;-)
          mary.branscombe
          • Then fair enough

            you've certainly made me think about looking into the options again. Previously it has been; "you need this modded case which will work with this single charger...". Now if I can drop my phone, tablet, PAS, SLR etc all onto a universal pad, I do see where you're coming from.
            Little Old Man
  • I'd like to see the numbers.

    I'd like to see the numbers. Did they really bump up the efficiency, or did they simply bump up the power it supplies to compensate for the inefficiency?
    CobraA1
    • Since it's a Microsoft company

      ZDNet will sing its praises. More than likely they just upped the Amperage to overcome the issues. If it was any other company the review would have been much less favorablr. They would also complain about the $70 pricetag
      Troll Hunter J
      • really

        really does ZDNET praise microsoft and how is this connected to microsoft
        Mac_Win
    • efficiency

      There is some useful information on the Fulton eCoupled site looking at advances they've made in efficiency; I've seen them driving blenders crushing ice and charging an electric car with scaled up versions of the technology they put into the Qi standard. Close coupling near field induction is a lot more efficient than you might expect.
      mary.branscombe
      • You highlighted the main opportunity

        If we could somehow cost-effectively incorporate this into the road system, the need for electric vehicles to find a charging point would be gone. The same as scaletrix (I presume you lot got that over your side of the pond?) but without the annoying breaks that stopped the cars from working. Until we're all driving flying cars of course.
        Little Old Man
        • parking spots

          Fulton has a car charger that looks like a barrel; fit it under a manhole in a parking space at the mall...
          mary.branscombe
    • Yeah. Induction is ALWAYS going to be

      less efficient than a wire. It's the nature of the physics involved.
      baggins_z
      • They are claiming 98% though

        I imagine this will depend a lot on the orientation and placement of the device on the wireless charger, but apparently Fulton is claiming 98% efficiency. The article with the information is locked behind a login wall, though. I'm not about to create a login just to read a single paper.
        CobraA1
      • Sure

        But youre already stepping down 110 - 240 volts in most power adapters anyways. And people leave those plugged in all the time. If you had 1 universal one that was slightly inefficient versus 4-5 plugged in to compensate for all your mixed devices you'd probably save overall.

        I think also if they cared enough about the energy loss we would have a simple switch to have it activate only when a device is placed on the pad (perhaps a capacitive sheet that would be powered on a separate charge or solar mats to charge those internal switching functions). There are lots of ways to make them more energy efficient ... im sure its more about convenience and up front cost.
        RedSoldat
        • Also ...

          A wire is constantly propagating waves as well. Inductors arent any less efficient energy wise ... we just arent any good at capturing the energy they give off. I wouldnt say things will always be that way however.
          RedSoldat
        • NFC acitvated

          the Nokia charging plate only puts out power when a devie that negotiates charging via NFC hits the plate
          mary.branscombe
  • Use this technology daily

    I work from home. I still overnight charge my Lumia 920 with a plug-in charger, but during the day, when not in use -- I simply place my phone on the wireless charger to keep it at full charge. It is a tremendous convenience.
    jkumin@...
  • gimmick? no.

    Wireless charging is very convenient specially if you move from your place intermittently, I’m using an Htc 8X and never plug my phone again for charge in a week, just leaving my phone on the nokia pad in my desk during working hrs., even if I’m moving from my place a lot of times during day the phone is fully charged all day …easily.
    After trying this for a while I know this is not a gimmick... it's also a requirement for my next smartphone...
    Torch4x4
  • Instantly convenient

    Wireless charging is instantly convenient. I have one of the RAVPower Qi charger, picked up on Amazon for $40. It works great.
    AlexJaz
  • Which wireless charger is the best in the current market?

    Hello Mary , I have read your article it's very informative thanks for giving such kind of information for new biz smartphones. But I have a little question that is -
    Which wireless charger is the best in the current competitive market? As you can see there are so many companies providing online facilities of charging products as well as a lot of on Amazon too so how can we make sure about to get the right one for us without any hesitation........I get one from Amazon and save 57% and it's working outstanding take a look - http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00JAWDDL2
    bobyjohn