Gallium Nitride Has Made Boring Chargers Cool Again

Literally and figuratively

Key Takeaways

  • GaN, aka gallium nitride, lets chargers run cooler. 
  • Cooler gadgets can be made much smaller. 
  • GaN is making new kinds of chargers possible.


Several Apple devices connected to an Anker gallium nitride based charger.

Satechi

Gallium nitride (GaN) chargers have taken over gadget bags and desktops thanks to their tiny size, but being small is only one of their tricks. 

At first, GaN was meant smaller chargers, but now things are getting interesting—almost entirely because GaN-based devices create less heat than those with silicon components. For instance, one box can juice several thirsty devices at once, and we're also getting interesting shapes, like Anker's pancake charger that is easy to carry with you. Why is GaN so useful?

"GaN consists of transistors that switch at a very fast rate, which allows the conduction of electricity at a very high rate," Jonathan Tian, founder of the phone-management software company Mobitrix, told Lifewire via email. "This reduces the power lost [to heat], so it delivers high power compared to other chargers."

GaN vs Silicon

Gallium nitride has been used since the 1990s, in LEDs, for instance. Recently, it has revolutionized charging devices. The reason is simple: silicon has reached its size limit in terms of heat and electrical transfer. You can't shrink it any further without things getting too hot. GaN, on the other hand, conducts better and stays cooler. This allows for smaller, cooler-running chargers and related items. 

The best way to see the difference is to put a silicon phone charger next to a GaN laptop charger. The GaN charger is barely bigger, and while a typical phone charger (like the one that used to come in the iPhone box) only manages 5 Watts, the GaN version (Anker's Nano II, for instance) can pump out from 35-45 Watts.

If you use a svelte notebook like Apple's MacBook Air or Dell's XPS, then you may love the computer but hate the bulky brick that you need to carry with it. Thanks to the wonders of GaN, and USB-C-powered laptops, you can now power a computer from something the size and of yesteryear's phone chargers. 

Dual Ports

Once you’ve shrunken a charger, you can start to think about other uses. One of my favorites is the powerful multi-charger. I use Anker’s PowerPort Atom III Slim, a flat, four-port charger with one 45W USB port and three USB A ports that share 20W. It’s perfect for travel because it can slip into the pocket of a bag, a laptop case, or your pants, but it’s also great for velcro-ing under a desk. 45 Watts isn’t enough to keep a MacBook Pro charging while using it at full tilt, but it will charge it while watching movies, and the USB-C port works great with the new USB-C MagSafe cables. 

Or you can go in a different direction, taking a case the size of a silicon-based charger and packing in some absurdly powerful ports. Satechi’s latest offering is a 165W charger with four USB-C ports. The maximum for one port is 100W, but you can happily charge and use four gadgets at full speed without breaking a sweat. It’s $120, but that’s not much more than a branded laptop charger, and it’s way more useful. 

Longer Lasting

Because GaN chargers run cooler, they can also, possibly, last longer. 

"GaN chargers provide a laundry list of benefits. One of them is that they efficiently transfer power and keep heat to a minimum," Daivat Dholakia, a product VP for Essenvia, a company that helps to regulate medical devices, told Lifewire via email. "This means that GaN chargers keep working long after non-GaN chargers stop– even those made a year or two in the past. This longer life allows you to charge more devices and get a stronger charge."

An Anker Gallium Nitride charging port.

Anker

So far, GaN products have mostly revolutionized the USB charger market, but there could be more. Devices that plug directly into the wall can also benefit. These devices—music studio mixers, TVs, amplifiers, etc.—have internal power supplies, which generate heat when converting from 120- or 240-volt power to whatever they need to run. 

That heat can prematurely age the other components, which is why these often use an external power brick. GaN could solve these problems, enabling internal power supplies with less heat. 

It's not a particularly exciting breakthrough compared to miniLED screens or fancy new phone camera features, but GaN improves your experience in subtle and important ways—which is worth taking a moment to appreciate.

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