Hands up if you carry more than a phone with you when you are out and about!

Apart from keys and wallet, my pockets hold a BlackBerry 8900 and an iPod Touch. Most executives I met have with them a phone and a BlackBerry (in this case used primarily for emails).

My wife has, would you believe it, three cell phones (no BlackBerry) everywhere she goes. These are all stuffed in her bag which if used properly can knock the wind out of you very easily (I think her bag weighs about 3 kg).

Every piece of portable electronic device requires regular battery charge depending on usage. At home we’ve got 2 sets of charges for my wife’s Nokia phones (all 3 of them) and I’ve got one charger for the 4 iPods I’ve collected. My daughter has a charger for her HP TX2 tablet PC, her mobile phone and her iPod nano. My son has a charger for his Nintendo DS Lite as well as his mobile phone. Between us, we’ve amass quite a collection of chargers. At times the collection of chargers can be very annoying as these tend to tangle every time.

I’ve always wished to have one appliance that would charge all of our devices regardless of make and model. The problem is that most devices don’t have the same power requirements and the makers also have different ideas when it comes to designing how to charge these devices.

A number of vendors like Targus, ESI and Griffin have come up with portable charges primarily designed for laptops and devices with USB connectors. But in most cases you can only charge 1 or 2 devices at a time. To do this, they also have to provide as many ‘tips’ as possible to match the various devices out in the market, including those for the Apple, Creative Technologies, Blackberry, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson. For mobile phones the end to these different ports may be in sight.

The European Commission has managed to get agreement from 10 companies, including Apple, LG, Motorola, Nokia and Sony Ericsson, to agree to manufacture future phones based around an inter-chargeable design. But what about your MP3s, video players, portable video game consoles, laptops, and now ereaders?

 A few vendors have been working on a universal charger for as many devices as possible. One such vendor is Powermat with its Powermat Home & Office Mat and Powermat Portable Mat. Both models include a Powercube with includes 8 ‘tips’ for the most common mobile devices, including DS LIte, DS, Sony PSP, Samsung, LG and Apple. It also includes tip for a micro USB and mini USB. Optional accessories include receivers (adapter may be less confusing) for BlackBerry, iPhone and iPod (dock).

The Powermat uses induction magnetic to charge the target device. Because portable devices have different power requirements, each receiver is fitted with an RFID to tell the mat what device is on it and deliver the appropriate power requirement. Powermat claims this intelligence ensures charging is efficient, clean and safe. Power to the device is cut off once the Powermat detects that the device is fully charged,

How it works

For the BlackBerry device, you need to remove the backplate and replace it with the receiver. For iPhone 3G/3GS you insert the phone into a custom jacket much like you would any of the case accessories for the iPhone. There is a specific spot in the mat where you place the device you want to charge. A magnet locks the receiver in place. A blip sound and led light indicates successful lock and charging begins.

Caveats

Whether its the Home & Office or Portable versions, you can only charge three devices at any one time. The receivers are not cheap! A BlackBerry battery door costs US$29.99, Apple cases and docks cost US$39.99 each, a Nintendo DS back panel costs US$29.99.

My thoughts

Overall the Powermat does help tidy up my messy table removing all those unwanted cables out of the way (forever). While the Home & Office version is designed specifically for use at a near permanent location (desk), the portable version can be brought along to almost any location to charge the devices.

One of the marketing messages that is being conveyed here is that the powermat delivers clean, energy efficient power to the intended devices. To be honest I have no way of measuring how efficient the charger is. I can only assume that the mat consumes very little power when it is not charging anything but itself remains plugged to a power outlet.

Competition

Powermat isn’t the only company to use magnetic induction to charge a device. Gear4 markets a Powerpad Wireless Charger in much the same way. But Powermat’s solution allows for more than one device to be charged. It is also very quiet except for the beep when it detects a receiver in the right spot.

The Palm Pre also comes with its own wireless charger.

WiPower markets a similar albeit more bulky looking product.

UK-based Wildcharge also markets a solution based on the same technology. This is more similar to Powermat’s product offering.

Innovation beyond the office desk

Powermat claims the technology is not restricted to digital or computer related devices. Because it uses magnetic induction technology the risk of electrocution (or getting zapped) no longer exists. At the CES 2009, Powermat showed off a number of areas like the kitchen where Powermat technology is embedded on a kitchen tabletop. A demo of an ordinary baking mixer is plugged into to what looks like an adapter equipped with Powermat receiver. The mixer continued to work despite water being poured over the area where the receiver was sitting.

Finally

Would I use a Powermat? To be honest its too expensive for me to afford if you consider that you need a special receiver for each device. But if the price comes down to a more reasonable level I might consider it. For now, that’s a big ‘if’ since the technology is still relatively new and there are very few competitors, the unit price will likely remain high in the short term.

The prospects for the product category is very positive considering the growing interest in “green” technology and energy efficiency. So there is a market for it. Imagine if you can commercially move the technology beyond the office or work desk and move it into the kitchen as the CES 2009 demo showed or on the dining table (so you can keep food warm in a clean and energy efficient manner). Imagine having a small table in the living room equipped with this technology. You can literally charge anything like phone, MP3, MP4, laptop or even power other smaller appliances like a lampshade.

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