We take a look at the chargers and cases in Powermat’s exciting contact charging system and find results vary wildly.
There are many technologies we’re desperate to see break into the mainstream: WiGig, LightPeak and Near Field Communications (NFC) to name just a handful, but the easiest to implement would be inductive charging. Other than the Palm Pre and its Touchstone charger the induction charging in gadgets remains criminally underused so peripherals companies are taking matters in their own hands and none with more vigour than Powermat…
For those not in the know, inductive charging has been around for years. The science is quite complex, but the simplest way to describe it is a form of short distance wireless energy transfer. An induction coil in the charging base station creates an electromagnetic field which transmits power to a second induction coil in the device and this is converted into electric current to charge the battery. If you haven’t seen it in the Pre, then another high profile example is Oral B’s electric toothbrushes.
So back to Powermat and what makes it interesting is the level of commitment the company has to this technology: a massive advertising budget, a multitude of charging ‘mats’ in just about every format and cases for a plethora of devices. In short Powermat is betting the farm on finally getting users to adopt inductive charging. It had a tentative start, but second generation products are now turning heads – so what do we make of them?
Having taken a look at a variety of Powermat products the answer is: it depends entirely on which devices you own.
What can’t be faulted are the charging mats themselves. Powermat sells these in different sizes to support one, two or three devices. They also come in rigid shapes (the ‘Home & Office’ mats above) or foldable ‘Portable Mats’ (below) for easy travelling. Whatever their configuration each is well built with a signal input for an AC adaptor and textured finished to the mat with their charging points clearly indicated.
A nice touch is Powermat uses magnets in its mats and cases so devices automatically align when touched down. You’ll also hear a distinctive noise to let you know your device has started charging and another when it is picked up from the mat. In addition to this mats have a white LED for each charging area which lights up when in use.
So far so good, but where things become more hit and miss are the cases themselves.
Powermat dubs these cases ‘receivers’ and it must be noted there is currently a greater selection of them in the US than the UK. Stateside the company has receivers for the iPhone 4, 3G, 3GS, iPods, BlackBerry Tour, Pearl, Bold and Curve series, HTC Evo, HD2 and Motorola Droid X handsets. On top of this are back panels for the Nintendo DS Lite and DSi. Here you’ll find the HTC, Motorola, iPod and BlackBerry Tour receivers are currently missing and it seems odd not to have made receivers for hugely popular models like the Desire, Desire HD and Galaxy S.
More importantly, however, is the variable quality of the receivers themselves. This is partly Powermat’s fault and partly down to the handsets themselves. For example the iPhone 3G/3Gs receiver is beautifully made with a rubberised back and metal contact charging pad, but it is extremely bulky. You could argue this is because iPhones are sealed so you can’t take the back off to fashion a more compact product and you’d have a point.
The problem is the iPhone 4 case is extremely thin so negates that argument, yet it is constructed with cheap plastic and looks and feels poor making it something I doubt many would want to carry with them. Since the Powermat receivers connect to the iPhone dock connectors these are also covered and the company has opted to embed a mini USB port. This makes them useless with iPod docks and not even compatible with the micro USB universal charging standard. Consequently if you own an iPhone, I’m not convinced Powermat has yet gotten its receivers right.
The flip side to this is Powermat receivers for handsets with removable backs and accessible batteries are superb. Dubbed ‘receiver doors’ they fit almost flush on most models and completely flush on the BlackBerry Bold 9700 and Curve series, HTC Evo, HD2 and Droid X. These work beautifully, build quality is excellent and you’ll end up with a solution every bit as elegant as seen on the Palm Pre and Pre 2. Then again switch to the DS Lite/DSi and again we have a huge rubberised receiver which is both ugly and unwieldy. There’s simply no consistency.
The good news is Powermat clearly has the potential to even out its flaws. The ‘Powercube’, for example, is evidence of the company’s smart design prowess being a small square (it’s not a cube at all) with interchangeable tips that sits directly on the mats and is capable of connecting to hundreds of devices. We’ve also seen Powermat’s vision for inductive charging and it is both ambitious and impressive.
All of which means we find the current products something of a mixed bag with user satisfaction likely to be determined entirely by the device in your pocket. BlackBerry users in particular would be mad not to open their wallets. The inconsistency is frustrating though because the mats do exactly what they promise: convenient charging with charge times that are a match for a dedicated charger plugged into a socket.
Furthermore there are also some bargains to be had. The three device Home and Office mat has an RRP of £69.99, but you’ll find it on Amazon at the time of publication from just £21.97. Meanwhile receivers range from £9.99 for the BlackBerry Pearl to £19.99 for the iPhone 4.
It is hard to rate the Powermat charging system. The charging mats are universally excellent, but cases are hit and miss and price and build quality vary tremendously. Ultimately iPhone users don’t come out of it well, but if you own a phone with a removable battery cover you’ll wonder how you ever lived without induction charging.