Feb 12, 2013 (06:02 AM EST)
Wireless Device Chargers: Right Idea, Wrong Price

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There's a showdown looming between two wireless power industry organizations and it will be consumers who are caught in the crossfire. The Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) and the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) each promote different technologies that do the same thing: allow mobile devices such as smartphones to charge wirelessly.

The most recent such product to become available is the wireless charging station for the Google Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 Wireless Charger uses the Qi standard -- supported by WPC -- to charge the Nexus 4 via magnetic induction. According to Google, the charger's angled surface provides easy visibility of the phone while charging. Nexus 4 owners simply place their device on the charger and it begins to charge. There's no need to plug a cable into the device; the charger itself must be plugged into a wall, though. The charger can be purchased directly from Google for $59.99 plus shipping and tax, for a total of more than $70 depending on your state taxes.

This technology and type of accessory are not new, not by a long shot. Perhaps the most visible predecessor to the N4 wireless charger was the Palm Pre Touchstone. Palm Pre owners could drop their phone on the Touchstone and it would charge without any cables. It was released in June 2009, almost four years ago.

[ For another point of view on charging pads, read Wireless Power Is A Stupid Gimmick. ]

Other companies have worked on this tech for years, and offered a number of consumer-facing products. Powermat, developed by DuraCell, and the Enercell Wireless Charging Pad are both products that let consumers charge their devices by placing them on the pad. They can be purchased at retailers such as Best Buy and RadioShack, but device compatibility is hit or miss -- and that's the real problem.

The WPC's Qi (pronounced "chee") standard has a bit of a head start. It claims to have 36 mobile devices with Qi on the market already, and over 100 other tablets, chargers, docks, pads, rings, furniture, and even a lamp with Qi wireless charging built in. Qi is backed by some big names, including Energizer, HTC, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Philips Electronics, Sony, Toshiba and Verizon Wireless.

The A4WP didn't launch until May 2012, but is backed by heavyweights Samsung and Qualcomm. It published its standard in October 2012 and is pitching it to wireless network operators and handset makers as a less-costly alternative to Qi.

The big difference between the two is the use of magnetic poles. The Qi standard requires the device to line up properly with the pole of the magnet buried in the charging pad. This is evident when users place their device onto the pad, as they have to push the device around on the pad until the poles align. The A4WP standard lets devices be placed anywhere on the pad, and doesn't mandate a connection directly to the pole.

If VHS versus Betamax, or Blu-ray versus HD DVD rings a bell with you, then you get what's going on here. The consumer electronics industry can support only one wireless charging standard. Given Qi's head start, I find it hard to believe so many gear-makers are going to suddenly switch standards to A4WP.

Makers of wireless charging equipment also have to find a way to pitch them as something other than pricey accessories. Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of placing my device on a pad to charge it, but there's no way I am going to spend $50 to $70 for that luxury when my cable works just fine. To be fair to Google, its charger costs less than most. A basic setup with a PowerMat, for example, runs $99, and packages that include multiple chargers run up to $235.

At the end of the day, consumers won't much care which technology makes their device charge, but they will care about how much it costs.

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