It seems strange to think that in today’s age of ever advancing technology, it’s been over 100 years since Nikola Tesla began developing theories for wireless power, and though researchers at MIT have picked up the baton in recent times, we’re still waiting for an efficient, mass-market way to abolish reams of unsightly cables from our homes.
The Powermat, demonstrated at CES 2009, is one product that threatens to kick-start this revolution. Another early mover in the market is WildCharge and we've been testing one of these devices to find out first hand what all the fuss is about.
If you’ve missed the furore surrounding these types of products we’ll summarize by saying that they’re intended for use with handhelds – primarily mobile phones – but can also be used with devices such as digital cameras, handheld games consoles and MP3 players through the use of a range of adapters. The idea is that charging such a device can now be as easy as placing it down on a mat when you enter a home, which admittedly seems very convenient, but we were keen to see if it was truly this easy during a real world test.
The WildCharge itself is simply a pad around the size of a mousemat with conductive metal strips running across it. This must be plugged into the mains using the supplied adapter, but unless you pick up one of the available bundles, you’ll need to then invest in a compatible adapter for the device(s) of your choice.
The reason for this is that there doesn’t appear to be inherently anything fancy about the this type of conductive charging solution. Power travels through the strips on the pad itself to an adapter, which must make metal-on-metal contact to the power port of a handheld.
As it turns out, exactly what type of handheld you have makes significant impact on usability and convenience. The ideal situation, provided you’re happy to smother your shiny new gadget in such a way, is to use a "skin" that encompasses the charge terminals. Currently these are only available for the iPhone and iPod touch, Blackberry Curve and Blackberry Pearl.
Alternatively you could pick up a universal adapter, which is available for a range of devices and also allows you to house the handheld within it, though this admittedly adds significant bulk.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the adapters currently available is for the Motorola V3 however, since this actually replaces the battery cover at the rear of the phone, and is the closest thing to an integrated solution.
Finally, an accessory called the PowerDisc is likely to be a popular add-on since it comes with a range of "PowerLinks" to support Nokia, Palm, Motorola LG, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson as well as Micro USB and Mini USB attachments for other gadgets.
In most cases, charging simply involves attaching the appropriate adaptor and placing it on the mat, at which point an blue LED lights up to inform you that a device is being charged (in addition to the usual battery indicator on a screen). In the case of the PowerDisc however, this must be placed on the mat and an appropriate adaptor cable plugged in between this and the handheld. This solution in particular seemed a bit like cheating, since it’s clearly not wireless and isn’t that different to connecting it in the usual way to the wall.
Other advantages include the ability to charge multiple devices at the same time (though you’ll only fit around three on a pad at once). There's also no trade off in charging time for using this system - in our tests Wildcharge appeared to be just as fast as conventional plug-in charging methods.
Overall though, we were a little underwhelmed by the WildCharge; a product that, on paper, seemed to offer much promise. There’s little doubt that this will appeal more to iPhone, BlackBerry and Motorola V3 users but even then there’s considerable expense involved in picking up the necessary hardware to make use of it.
The WildCharge pad costs US$49.99 (£49.95 in the UK), iPhone and Blackberry skins US$34.99 (£29.99), Universal Adapter US$79.99 and PowerDisc US$19.99 (£14.99), though cheaper bundles are available for many configurations.
For this reason many users may not consider the advantages available with the pad to outweigh the cost involved. What the system does offer however, is a hell of a lot of potential, and if we are to see more handhelds produced with the charge terminals built in, as hinted at by the Motorola V3 adapter, we may indeed be looking at a revolutionary new way to charge our gadgets.
See Wildcharge for more info.