What is the deal with cellphone charging?

Cellphones got a lot “braver” last November when Apple dropped the headphone jack. It seems now that we are on an unrelenting course for the elimination of phone holes. This means that we need get rid of that final gaping maw on all our phones, our charging/data port. Most phones have been able to transfer data wirelessly since cellphones came about in the 1970s (telephone calls are data) and have been in digital packet form the early 1990s. Transferring data wirelessly, like songs and contacts, has been on cellphones since the late 90s. The only thing that we actually need out of the charging / data port is for charging. We only have data through wires because transferring large amounts of data through the air is hard, expensive, and inefficient when compared to shoving in a plug.

This seems like meaningless pre-amble but I promise it isn’t.

So now we come to today’s cellphones. Wireless charging is a feature of both Samsung and Apple’s flagship phones. Some other manufacturers, Google, have instead gone with fast charging formats. The real question is what do both of those mean, and why did I bury it under that first paragraph.

WIRELESS CHARGING

Wireless charging is the ability to flop your device in a receptacle and have it fill its batteries. There is essentially one standard for wireless charging. It is called Qi and is pronounced chee (like cheese without the “se”). Qi is an open interface standard. Which means that it is owned by a consortium of companies like Apple, Microsoft and Samsung. They all developed the standards for this charging together. This sounds great, right? No more 14 different types of chargers laying around. No need to go buy new cables. Wireless charging isn’t like wireless data. It doesn’t work using radio waves, it works using magnetic induction.

Short physics lesson: radio waves travel basically forever. They are scattered by crashing into other waves, but otherwise are not really affected by distance. So, the Olympic opening ceremonies broadcast in 1936 are drifting away from us at light-speed, some 82 light years away. This is great, because we are essentially beaming information on a wave form. Magnets, like in our induction chargers, are trying to exert work over a distance, which means the further they are from the thing they are working on the more force they need to excert. This means that magnets don’t have any effect unless they are powerful and close. Remember before when I said that wireless data was hard and inefficient? It uses radio waves, our infinitely traveling friends. Wireless charging uses magnets. We have put the challenge rating at 11.

Wireless charging is slow

You are using AC current and magnets to stimulate the coils inside of a phone to charge its battery. It is very hard to run that transaction efficiently. This is why we don’t have wireless charging cars etc. You can get wireless fast chargers, Samsung already has one on the market and Apple will sometime soon, but they typically need a fan to keep cool and are power hungry. Also slower than just regular charging with USB.

Wireless chagrining isn’t (as) reliable

Plug a cable into your phone and it immediately starts charging. Put your phone on a wireless charger and it should be charging. There are a lot of things that can trip this up, including the materials of your phone, the case it is in etc. This is why you see iPhone 8, iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy 8 etc. being made of particular materials. When you combine it with your protective case for your $1,500 iPhone you end up adding extra interference between charging coils. Which can slow or more likely render you incapable of charging wirelessly.

Wireless charging doesn’t eliminate cables

This seems obvious, but the actual goal of wireless phones is that you aren’t tethered to things. The same can’t be said for wireless charging. The goal of wireless charging is to make it so you don’t have to put a plug in your phone. You still must have the pad or dock or charging place that still has a cable to your 110-volt AC.

WIRED CHARGING

Maybe not as sexy, or needlessly confusing in its pronunciation, as wireless charging is good old wired charging. But here we’ve got our own set of issues with wired cellphone charging thanks to USB standards. USB, much like Qi, is a standard controlled by a bunch of companies. The fun part is that USB isn’t just a data standard, it is also an electrical standard, and a connector standard.

Most phones come with one of two charging/data ports. USB Micro B Type or Lightning. This is changing as we get USB C Type taking over the market. Most tech companies have all deployed USB Type C in some form or another (Apple puts in in laptops, Google puts it in everything, Samsung puts it on random things including a fridge). The main difference to people who don’t care about the tech aspects of USB connectors is that USB C is reversible, eliminating the four-dimensional USB conundrum.

usb-4d.png

This is something that Apple’s lightning cable figured out first, and achieved by being easier to break. USB-C on the other hand is plagued by not having and enforceable patent which means tones of shitty cables on the market.

Next there is the data transfer protocols. So, when you see things that say USB or USB 2.0 or 2.1 or 3.0 or 3.1 or 3.2 it essentially means that they have different abilities to conduct information. For example, the original USB transfer rate was 1.5 Mb/s or it would basically transfer an mp3 of a song in about the amount of time it takes to play that same song. Fast forward 21 years and that song will transfer across USB 3.2 in about a tenth of a second. So as a short hand the higher the number, the faster the transfer of data.

What about charging? So far none of this has to do with charging! 

Correct hypothetical reader / straw man / rhetorical device.

The final part is that USB is also an electrical standard. This doesn’t have nice or easy to remember numbers and is genuinely a pain in the ass. The standards for power delivery are a garbled mess of “USB Power DELIVERY revision” number.number. Unless they aren’t. Because in 2014 when the Type-C standard was being created they also wanted to standardize all the “USB Power Delivery” standards to coincide with the connector type. That lasted for approximately 15 minutes until Samsung declared "Fast Charging" during the delivery of the Galaxy S7, which totally didn’t blow up in their faces. Just kidding, it blew up in their customers faces, and laps, and bags. It didn’t blow up aboard an airplane because the phone got put on a global no-fly list like it spent a suspicious summer in a questionable place. In reality, the Fast Charging standard isn’t directly to blame for the phones exploding, because Samsung said it wasn’t. Just kidding it totally was. The scientific fact if you add too much current while recharging a battery you create hydrogen gas. Hydrogen gas explodes when it is heated in a confined space - like say inside a battery. Which is probably what was happening on-board the Galaxy S7. Samsung did eventually eliminate the ability to fast-charge in their operating system while they were doing the global recall.

Anyway, this all leads to the two most common USB electrical profiles, USB Power Delivery revision 3.0 (version 1.1) which delivers 20 volts at 5 amps and is commonly used to power laptops, wireless charging mats and fast chargers; and USB Type-C 1.1 which delivers 5 volts at 3 amps, which is used a lot of the time in USB C devices. These standards are safe when they are used appropriately. If you are in doubt, buy the original manufacturer’s devices. Fast charging requires communication between your device and its charger, so most of them won’t charge on anything but the appropriate fast charger. Yes, paying the few extra dollars for the OEM cable is disappointing, but it is better than shoveling out for a new phone…or leg.

The long story short is that phone manufacturers are so out of ideas that they are including wireless charging in their phones – which they mocked Nokia for when it was originally release in 2014. Wireless charging doesn’t untether your phone or make a significant difference in how you use it. You still must return it to a place make sure it is positioned and is doing the thing. There are still cables that will run 99/100ths of the way to your device. You even still get to pay $40+ for a charging device, something Apple consumers will be happy about. The only real advancements in charging are fast charging platforms and when they are done incorrectly you end up with a human-Hindenburg. A Humindenburg if you will.

Next time I am going to talk about how USB Type C and Lightning are the craziest standards ever developed and why they should be in everything.