We live in a constant web of phone chargers.
At home, in the car, at work—our “wireless” phones spend an annoyingly large amount of time attached to wires. All so that we have enough power to perform the vital tasks of deleting work e-mails and snapchatting selfies. Now Ikea wants to untangle the web.
With its new line of wireless charging furniture and components, Ikea envisions a world in which surfaces at coffee shops, airports, bars, and workstations can quickly and easily juice up your phone. The Swedish furniture giant wants to make wireless charging “a lot more accessible, yet a lot less obvious,” says Holly Harraway, sales leader in lighting at Ikea U.S.
The line of products, which range from the $9.99 Romma cord management box to the $119 VARV floor lamp, is simple, minimalist, and immediately recognizable as Ikea. There are standalone charging pads, several desk lamps, bedside tables, and a special pad that users can install into any piece of wood furniture they already own (if you’re willing to do the drilling yourself).
The charging pads themselves consist of a cross about an inch wide in the middle of a circle about two inches in diameter, and they use the Qi wireless standard, which theoretically means compatible devices don’t have to touch the pad directly to charge.
Most phone manufacturers support the Qi standard with the notable exception of Apple. Ikea gets around that with the $15-$25 Vitahult iPhone cases, which include a Qi adaptor.
We tested the Riggad work lamp and Nordmärke wireless triple charger with a Samsung Galaxy S6, an iPhone 6, and an older LG Nexus 4. Whether it’s the Qi-compatible Samsungs or the Ikea-cased iPhone, it can take a few tries for the phone and charger to sync. Realistically, the charging coils on the devices need to be within a few millimeters of the charging cross on the pad to work. It takes a little longer than if you used a cord to get a full charge but otherwise, the pads work as promised.
Now all you have to do is leave it alone. That’s no easy feat for even the most disciplined smartphone addict who has to contend with the constant nagging of push notifications. And that’s a major drawback, not just with Ikea’s line but with all wireless charging: It stops as soon as you pick up your phone. Even if you’re tethered to a wall charger, at least you can tweet without interrupting your charge.
The Vitahult case for the iPhone is a problem, too. It’s bulky and inelegant, and it feels as if it’s made of the same cheap plastic the company uses to make drawer organizers. Bizarrely, if you do want to plug it in with a traditional wire charger while using the case, you need a Micro USB connection (used to charge Samsung and other phones) instead of the Lightning connector needed for Apple’s latest devices. That potentially means more wires added to your repertoire, not fewer. The hole for the headphone jack is also so deep that you have to pull out standard Apple Earpods by the wire instead of the plug, which can damage the wire. Some headphone plugs, such as those on Etymotic mc3 headphones, can't even reach the phone.
The physics of wireless charging also generates quite a bit of excess heat that can potentially damage devices. The heat is the first thing you notice after picking your phone up from one of the chargers. Ikea says its products meet all the relevant regulatory requirements and are designed to shut off automatically in case they reach the Qi standard’s maximum operating temperature of 140 degrees. Ikea seems to acknowledge the technology’s shortcomings by also including a USB port if you want to plug in without scrambling behind the couch.
To be fair, Ikea is really just trying for a stylish solution to a problem saddled on us by device makers. The real problem with phone batteries isn’t the method we use to charge them; it’s how much we have to charge them. There’s been a general “lack of progress on battery technology,” says William Stofega, program director of mobile device technology and trends at the International Data Corporation. Batteries in mobile devices are “five to 10 years behind the other components of the device,” he says. So far, manufacturers have been able to get away with subpar batteries by packing larger batteries into ever-larger devices (see iPhone 6 Plus), but this solution won’t last forever.
The bottom line: If your phone supports Qi wireless charging and you like Ikea’s design, go for it. If you’re an iPhone addict, perhaps hold off for a better option.