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Apple’s MagSafe Charger suggests a confusing future for wireless power

As 2020 nears its long-awaited end, wireless charging technology has become reasonably common, somewhat affordable, and certainly more convenient than fumbling for a traditional power cable. Today, it’s possible to casually drop depleted phones, watches, and/or Bluetooth earphones onto a $12 or $20 inductive charging pad, then pick them back up fully recharged hours later — no simple feat if you realize how long companies struggled to reach this point.

But wireless charging is about to become more confusing. And Apple is surprisingly at the heart of that confusion.

Last week, Apple announced the return of MagSafe, its trademarked name for the magnetic charging connectors found in MacBook laptops before USB-C unceremoniously replaced them. For computer users concerned about tripping over their power supplies, MagSafe was a bona fide sensation, promising the full speed charging of a traditional power plug with the instant detachment of a magnet. Now there’s a MagSafe Charger for the iPhone — a surprisingly large metal and plastic puck that promises a similar mix of speed and convenience for certain iPhones, under specific conditions, at premium prices.

My informed belief is that MagSafe’s late 2020 release has set the stage for iPhones to move away from traditional connectors in 2021, a move that rivals will likely mock before following suit in subsequent years. Consequently, smartphone users will soon care less about fidgeting with cables than finding charging plates, but the transition to fully wireless charging won’t necessarily be smooth for any company, least of all Apple. Here’s why.

Five-plus years in the making

While it could be easy to look back at the 2006 MacBook version of MagSafe to see where this all started, Apple actually began to test the water for fully wireless charging and data with the original Apple Watch. Announced in 2014 and released in 2015, that device used a Magnetic Charging Cable for power and a combination of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to transfer data. No one thought too deeply about the fact that Apple hadn’t used USB or a proprietary all-in-one connector as a replacement, and the only obvious consequences were less than ideal recharging and data speeds.

Subsequent innovations enabled the Watch to charge faster using its magnetic puck, as well as sending and receiving data faster with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth updates — all performant enough that complaints about these facets of the Watch have become relatively scarce. But cutting the iPhone’s power and data cords wouldn’t be as easy. iPhone batteries are roughly 10 times larger than Watch batteries, and their data needs are as different as night and day. It took time for wireless speeds to catch up with wired options.

Now they have, or at least, are close enough that some users won’t care. Prior iPhones supported 18-watt wired charging; New iPhones support 15-watt MagSafe wireless charging. USB 3.0 promises up to 5Gbps wired transfer speeds, and Wi-Fi 6 promises between 1-5Gbps wireless transfer speeds, with Bluetooth 5 as a 2Mbps close-range backup. Even cellular networks are boasting gigabit speeds. Generally speaking, wireless technology is ready for the transition.

There’s some debate over whether users are ready for the transition. Some users would love to be done with Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector standard, and are willing to go fully wireless to achieve that goal. Others would prefer to see the iPhone switch to a USB-C connector, like Android phones. Apple has quietly indicated that it would sooner do away with the iPhone’s connector altogether than adopt USB-C, and that preference is likely motivating the transition to wireless connectivity.

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MagSafe’s hardware implementation with iPhones

Unlike the Apple Watch Magnetic Charging Cable, which is one meter long with a roughly one-inch-diameter magnetic puck at one end, the iPhone’s MagSafe Charger includes a meter of cable and a larger than two-inch-diameter magnetic puck. In person, the difference is striking. Without diving deeply into how ugly the MagSafe magnetic circle looks on iPhone cases or how the puck requires manual detachment rather than just remaining on a surface when the iPhone’s picked up, I’ll note that I’ve seen complaints about both points on social media. I suspect these issues will eventually be resolved by second-generation MagSafe accessories, but for now, they’re more than a little awkward.

While Apple Watches can recharge with Apple’s ultra-common 5-watt USB power adapters — items that were until recently included with iPhones and Watches alike — the MagSafe Charger requires a new 20-watt USB-C wall power adapter. It won’t work at full speed with the USB-C ports on most computers, but it’s notably able to draw three amps of power from the latest Apple laptops, and perhaps other Macs as well. Most users will want to use wall adapters, though, and neither Apple’s $19 power cube nor the $39 MagSafe puck are bundled with iPhones. (You can save a few bucks and some physical space with Aukey’s impressive new Omnia Mini, shown here, which delivers the same 20-watt USB-C output as Apple’s adapter in a much smaller form factor.)

Above: Aukey’s Omnia Mini delivers 20-watt USB-C charging for the MagSafe in the same form factor as Apple’s old 5-watt iPhone and Apple Watch USB charger.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

I’ve been tossing around numbers like “15-watt,” “18-watt,” and “20-watt” because that’s how Apple and others measure charging power, but what does that actually mean? To make a long story short, the higher the number, the faster a charger can — at peak — refuel a battery, though in reality, charging systems generally spend some portion of their time charging at peak before slowing down to avoid damaging batteries. Since battery sizes differ from device to device, the easiest shorthand is to offer 0-100% recharging time estimates in hours, and note that two-hour recharging is typical (not cutting edge) for today’s wired charging systems.

There used to be a big gulf between the iPhone’s wireless and wired charging speeds — roughly the difference between recharging in four hours rather than two — but that’s largely evaporated with the iPhone 12 family. Starting with the 2017 iPhone 8 and iPhone X, Apple began supporting both 5-watt Qi wireless charging and a proprietary 7.5-watt “Made for iPhone” wireless variant that could only be accessed using Apple-authorized accessories; even so, wireless recharges could take over four hours depending on the model. The iPhone 12 now supports 15-watt wireless charging, which means some models will charge in around two hours using MagSafe, comparable to wired speeds.

Achieving that speed will require an iPhone 12, a 20-watt adapter, and a MagSafe puck. Magnets inside the puck and phone will precisely align their charging coils, a physical trick older iPhones can’t perform. Technically, MagSafe is backwards compatible with iPhones as old as the aforementioned 8 and X — Apple’s online store even promotes this — but the puck’s magnets don’t attach firmly to those iPhones’ backs, and the resulting charging speeds are no better than Qi. In my testing of an iPhone 11 Pro with MagSafe, going just from 30% to 100% took nearly four hours, the same sluggish pace one would expect from non-MagSafe chargers.

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MagSafe’s ambiguities in the iPhone UI

Wireless charging was already ambiguously implemented on the iPhone before MagSafe, and that ambiguity appears likely to expand in this generation. Unlike Android phones, which sometimes conspicuously flag that they’re “fast charging,” iPhones have never let users know that they are using one charging standard or another. This was a small problem before with 5-watt and 7.5-watt wireless chargers — despite Apple’s marketing, independent tests found little or no actual recharging speed gain with more expensive “Made for iPhone” accessories — but is set to become bigger now with MagSafe, where the gulf is bigger.

One problem is that most of the technically supported iPhones won’t flag that they’re not refueling faster using MagSafe. Spending $39 for the unwieldy puck and $19 for the wall adapter won’t get you either better performance or an otherwise better user experience. Even running the just-released iOS 14.1, pre-iPhone 12 models still offer no clue as to their wired or wireless refueling speed either before or during recharging. You just get what you get.

The latest iPhone 12 models briefly display an animated circle and lightning bolt icon on initial connection to MagSafe, just like Apple Watches do with the Magnetic Charging Cable, but that’s it. Once you’re on the Home Screen, all you see is a standard lightning bolt battery icon for however many hours the phone is recharging; there’s no special indicator. The absence of a charging speed indicator might be forgivable if the only choices are “slow” and “maybe not as slow,” but when there’s also a “fast” option, it would be nice to know that it’s working.

I can understand Apple’s initial desire for UI elegance: Avoiding different charging icon colors, animations, or markings is certainly simpler than distinguishing between slow, mid, and high speed power connections. But just as I appreciate knowing the speed of my electric car’s recharger, especially how many hours I have left before I hit 100%, some sort of indication — general or otherwise — would really help the iPhone. The iPhone certainly knows based on the connected charger that a full recharge will likely take 4 hours rather than 2 hours. Users should know, too.

MagSafe on a desk or nightstand, and in a car or pocket

Another challenge for MagSafe will be finding its proper place on horizontal and vertical surfaces. Apple anticipated early on that some users wouldn’t want to leave their gold or steel Apple Watches sitting on nightstands or desks, and created magnetic charging docks that held the timepieces upright while charging. Wired iPhone docks have long kept these devices vertical but reclining, and though Apple announced a flat multi-device wireless charging pad called AirPower as an alternative, it was infamously cancelled before release, leaving the market open to numerous competing options.

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Apple appears to be doing something different with MagSafe. It has announced but not released or priced a foldable Apple Watch and iPhone charging solution called MagSafe Duo, apparently designed with separate magnetic charging surfaces for both devices. As with AirPower, the iPhone’s screen will become horizontal — harder to see on a nightstand, possibly fine for a desk — and the solution will presumably be heavy enough to remain stable on a flat surface when the iPhone is removed. This will remedy the recently voiced concern about MagSafe’s puck requiring manual detachment every time one grabs the device, but I suspect Apple will try to charge at least $120 for MagSafe Duo, if not more.

Personally, I would much sooner have a multi-device desktop charger like Case-Mate’s Power Pad Pro, which keeps the iPhone and Apple Watch screens upright and visible, while also including a dedicated space for AirPods to recharge. I’ve been using this $100 accessory for the past week or so, and it strikes me as a much more practical solution than Apple’s, even if charging isn’t as fast as MagSafe.

Car solutions with MagSafe could turn out great or terrible. Apple’s introduction of the iPhone 12 revealed that Belkin was working on an elegant MagSafe car vent mount that many people assumed would also include recharging capabilities — MagSafe implies charging, right? Nope: It’s just a magnetic mount with no power interface. It’s fair to assume that Apple and Belkin were aware that most cars don’t have USB-C ports or 20-watt output, and to the extent most cars do have 5-watt USB-A ports for use with Apple’s CarPlay navigation/entertainment software, are already contemplating how to transition users to MagSafe and wireless CarPlay data interfaces.

For whatever reason, Apple is also promoting solutions such as a leather MagSafe card wallet that attaches to the iPhone for pocketability, but then must be removed if you want to take out a card or use the MagSafe recharging feature. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but my guess is that Apple’s just happy to sell as many $59 leather wallets as people will buy.

A MagSafe future?

Though there’s no guarantee that Apple will go completely wireless for both power and data with next year’s iPhones, MagSafe sure seems to be pointing in that direction, and I’m very curious to see where it goes. I’m not yet convinced that Apple’s $39 MagSafe Charger was a worthwhile investment, and may well wind up returning it if I don’t see some huge benefits with the iPhone 12 Pro I’m awaiting this week. My current wireless charging solutions work well enough under almost every circumstance, and don’t require spending $49 on a plastic Apple case or additional dollars on special wall adapters.

Above: Apple’s $49 iPhone 12 Clear Case is a piece of clear plastic with a magnetic ring on the back for attachment to MagSafe accessories.

Image Credit: Jeremy Horwitz/VentureBeat

That said, given the longevity of the Apple Watch Magnetic Charging Cable and the iPhone’s prior Lightning connector, it seems unlikely that Apple will rush out a smaller or better iPhone magnetic charging solution in the near future, so buying into the MagSafe ecosystem now may eventually pay off. It may not be perfect, and the iPhone’s software could certainly be updated to make it better, but MagSafe is now officially here, and my guess is that it will only become more popular and important over time.

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