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Saturday, February 17, 2024

This Wireless Charger Imitates Apple’s AirPower Tech—Almost

Ever wake up to find your smartphone at zero percent, despite it staring back at you from the wireless charger on your bedside table? You likely didn't align the two perfectly before bed, which means you now need to plug your phone in with a cord to quickly get some juice before the day starts, whether you're commuting or working from home.

These charging misalignments may not happen too frequently, but when they do, they are a source of annoyance and frustration. This is the state of wireless charging today (and has been for several years). These pads and stands aren't as convenient as promised—sure, you don't need to fumble around in the dark for a cord, but you still need to make sure your device is in the right position. Not to mention that charging is slow, you can't pick up your phone and use it while it's charging, and you still need an outlet for the charger itself. Well, a new wireless charger from accessory maker Nomad tries to solve at least one of those problems.

The technology inside Nomad's Base Station Pro is called FreePower, and it comes from a relatively new company called Aira. FreePower supports the widely-used Qi wireless standard, so any Qi-charging phone (all phones that support wireless charging) or wireless earbuds can draw power from it. What's special is the internal design, which makes it so you don't need to worry about placing your device a certain way. A simple, nonchalant plop will suffice.

Wireless Charging, Rebuilt

Wireless charging tech uses inductive coils hidden inside a charging mat or phone stand to transmit power to receiving coils, which are built into devices like your phone. For charging to work, the coils need to couple; they need to sit directly over one another. That's why a slight misalignment might cause your phone to not receive any power at all.

Most wireless chargers today have one coil inside that you need to align your device with, but there are wireless chargers with multiple coils that can charge more than one device simultaneously. With these, you still need to carefully place your devices in specific areas to recharge them.

“If you look at the landscape of charging in general, there are two value propositions—performance and convenience," says Aira cofounder and CEO Jake Slatnick. "Standard wireless chargers today don’t give you either."

There was a wireless charger that was going to challenge this notion: AirPower by Apple. It was said to be capable of charging multiple devices, without needing to place your iPhone, Apple Watch, or AirPods case in a specific area. Apple canceled the project after hitting a few roadblocks, but rumors suggest the company is still working on it.

Aira figured out what Apple couldn't. FreePower technology allows for full surface freedom. That means you can place your device anywhere on the wireless charging mat and it will juice up, no careful placement needed. The first company making use of FreePower is Nomad with the Base Station Pro, but Aira says it will have more products soon from other manufacturers and in different form factors. It also wants to put this technology everywhere: airports, coffee shops, and other public spaces.

This "full surface freedom" is accomplished with multiple coils in a wireless charger—18, specifically, on the Base Station Pro. The charger can accurately pinpoint where devices are placed, quickly couple them with coils, and offer just the right amount of power each device needs. For iPhones, the charger will deliver the maximum 7.5 watts Apple allows. For Android phones, you're limited to 5 watts. For smaller devices like AirPods, it can be around 2 watts, depending on what the device asks for.

FreePower comes with another benefit too. Traditional wireless chargers are inefficient, continuously searching for a device to power. Aira claims these standard chargers can use up to 130 iPhone 11 charging cycles worth of power in a 30-day period. So you might think that a wireless charger with 18 coils might be even worse, right? Wrong. Aira's says its tech generates 1.7 iPhone 11 charging cycles worth of power in the same period of time per coil, totaling around 30.6. While that's still a lot of wasted power, it's vastly lower than the inefficient chargers of today.

Still Imperfect

The Nomad wireless charger that houses all of this tech is one of the most attractive wireless chargers I've seen, especially considering it can charge up to three devices simultaneously. It's extremely thin, has an aluminum chassis, and it's topped off with an elegant leather layer. There are three LEDs that indicate whether or not a device is getting power, and the charger itself is powered by an included 30-watt power adapter and a USB-C cable.

Fitting three phones side-by-side is a stretch, but I was able to charge two phones and the AirPods Pro without a problem. I moved the phones around, slid the AirPods case to a different area of the mat, and still, all the devices kept charging. Out of habit I still looked hard and made sure my devices were getting power, but I imagine over time I'll be more carefree.

This system still isn't perfect. First, charging is very slow. That might be unsurprising since wired charging has always delivered superior speeds, but the Base Station Pro is even slower than most other wireless chargers out there. It might be able to charge your iPhone at the fastest possible speeds, but Android phones will take several hours to go from zero to 100 percent.

Other wireless chargers on the market are able to output 15 watts or more to recharge Android phones, but the Base Station Pro is limited to 5 watts for Android handsets. Eric Goodchild, cofounder of Aira, says most wireless chargers spend very little time at that 15-watt charging rate. Eventually, things get too hot and the phone or device throttles charging speeds to stay below a certain temperature.

"It's really only advantageous if you put your phone down for a certain period," says Goodchild, who is also the CTO. "Most of the time, it will be in that 5-watt range of power. We've spent a good deal of time optimizing at peak power and the lower end. Power efficiency drops over time, so we paid special attention to that."

For some charging speed examples, it took around five hours to recharge a Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus from a dead battery. Within one hour, the LG Velvet I'm testing went from 45 percent to 61 percent, and in the same time period, an iPhone 11 next to it went from 29 percent to 42 percent. It took two hours for the iPhone 11 to gain 21 percentage points of battery life. If speed is your priority, stick with a wired charger.

There was only one device out of multiple phones I tested that struggled to charge on the Base Station Pro: the Google Pixel 4. The phone managed to drop from 84 to 83 percent after I left it on the charger for an hour. I placed it in various positions, and despite the Pixel saying it was charging, I had no luck. Aira says it has seen this issue with some Pixel 4 units and it's "actively working on a fix and connecting with Google's engineering team to troubleshoot." Expect a firmware update to correct it soon.

Perhaps more importantly, two of the most popular smartwatches won't be able to recharge on the Base Station Pro. That's not Aira or Nomad's fault. Apple and Samsung use the Qi charging protocol, but the former uses a proprietary system that only works with Apple chargers, and Samsung's coils in its watches are so small that they need to work with equally small coils to recharge. That means you can't recharge your entire mobile ecosystem simultaneously on this pad, whether it's the iPhone, AirPods, and Apple Watch or a Samsung Galaxy phone, Galaxy Buds, and Galaxy Watch.

The Base Station Pro is $230, so it's expensive too. If charging three devices without the risk of a dead phone in the morning is worth that price to you, then this is the AirPower alternative you've been looking for. If not, expect more affordable wireless chargers with Aira's tech inside soon.

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