Do We Really Want Multi-Device Charging Mats?

USB-C is better in almost every way

Key Takeaways

  • Apple may still be working on an AirPower-type charging mat.
  • 'Wireless' chargers waste as least 20% of the power they consume.
  • Reverse-charging, though, might be a game-changer.
A wireless charging pad next to a potted plant against a white background.

Claudio Schwarz / Unsplash

Multi-device charging pads sound great, but aren’t they kind of pointless?

According to Apple rumormonger extraordinaire Mark Gurman, Apple may still be working on a multi-device charging mat similar to its never-released AirPower product. And in the meantime, long-time Apple collaborator and accessory make Belkin is already onto version two of its MagSafe 3-in-1 charging pad. But other than making a great gift, what’s the point? 

“A universal charger design, whether USB-C or another standard, would absolutely be more useful, but also present fewer opportunities for Apple to sell new products,” Devon Fata, CEO of design company Pixoul, told Lifewire via email. 

Novelty Gift Candidate

Question one: How often do you charge all your devices at the same time? And by devices, we mean a particular set of gadgets: your iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch. For me, the only time I do this is when I’m on a trip, and the only time I have to charge is back at the hotel while I’m sleeping. 

The rest of the time, I charge the watch overnight, every night, on the nightstand. But every other gadget I have just gets hooked up to a cable whenever it needs juice. 

A more practical option is to have a multi-port USB charger, with a mixture of USB-C and USB-A outputs. This can be Velcroed under a desk, or secured on a hallway table. If you prefer the energy-wasting convenience of a Qi or MagSafe charging pad, then it can be plugged into this power brick. Ditto an Apple Watch charger, and of course any devices from brands that are not Apple. 

"[U]ntil wireless charging is actually efficient, it would be a bit wasteful to encourage it as the primary method of charging."

This is not to say that a charging mat is useless. It’s just that it offers a fixed, and rather specific, set of charging options. If you regularly charge the exact combo of gadgets, then it’s perfect. A few USB-C and Lightning cables at strategic points around the home will almost certainly be more practical for everyone else.

Wireless Weaknesses

There's another downside to charging with contact pads rather than plugging in cables. They're inefficient. These so-called 'wireless' chargers only deliver from 30-80% of the power they use, with the rest ending up as heat. This is a waste of energy, but that heat is also damaging to your battery and reduces its life. 

Apple seems to be moving to induction charging as its default for mobile and wearable devices. And that's a problem.

"[U]ntil wireless charging is actually efficient, it would be a bit wasteful to encourage it as the primary method of charging," writes MacRumors forum member twistedpixel8. "Maybe Apple can come up with a better solution that doesn't waste quite so much energy."

And fellow forum member Piggie agrees: "We currently have around 15 Billion mobile devices in the world. Do we really want to double the amount of power generated to keep these devices running if they were wireless?"

However, it's not all bad news. 

Two smartphones laying on a tabletop both connected to charging cables.

Steve Johnson / Unsplash

Reverse-Charging

Reverse charging might sound like a credit-card refund, but it’s a neat trick that lets your devices send charge, as well as accepting it. For example, an iPhone could charge an AirPods case via the MagSafe ring on its back.

This is handy in an emergency, letting you use spare capacity from a larger device to charge a smaller one. In fact, you can already charge an iPhone from an iPad, with the correct cable. 

But there are other advantages to reverse charging. For example, you could plug in your iPhone, lay it face-down, and use the iPhone itself as a charger for your AirPods or Apple Watch. Apple already kind of does this. If you have a MagSafe Battery Pack, you can plug the iPhone into a charger, and it will send juice to the battery pack via an inductive link.

The downside is, this all produces heat. But the idea of being able to plug only your iPad into power and then stack your other apple gadgets on top to charge them is a tempting one and removes the need to buy and carry so many chargers. 

Charging our gadgets is still the biggest unsolved problem—not only for the inconvenience but for all the wasted resources, too. Apple’s charging mat won’t fix that, but it’s ever-more power-efficient computers are at least helping.

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