Cheap and easy wireless charging sounds like Nikola Tesla's fantasy brought to life. It's downright futuristic to think your smartphone could suck up juice just by placing it near a power source. And that's exactly what IKEA wants to do with its new wireless charging devices. Yes, that IKEA -- the Swedish furniture empire.
AU Editor's Note: according to an IKEA Australia representative, "the wireless charging furniture will launch later this year".
Perhaps you aren't aware, but IKEA has been inching into the electronics space as of late. Remember IKEA's motorised standing desk? Now the company has smart light bulbs and wireless charging solutions too, each as unique and utilitarian as you'd expect.
After all, as an IKEA executive told me recently, the company isn't interested in making "gadgets". It wants to sell simple products that everyone wants and everyone can afford.
I spent a couple of weeks with two of the mainstays from IKEA's new wireless charging lineup: the Nordmärke triple charging pad ($US65) and the Riggad work lamp ($US80) which has a charging pad built right in. Everything worked as advertised. Still, there are a few wrinkles which keep these devices from being truly ready for the masses.
What Is It?
IKEA's wireless charging technology is exactly what it sounds like. It's a feature being built into a small number of furniture items -- namely, lamps and nightstands -- but also sold independently as charging pads that you can set on top of a surface or install in any piece of furniture. Once the charging pad is plugged in, you just set your phone on top of a rubber "+" sign. And it charges!
There are a couple caveats, however. The main one is that your phone needs to be equipped with Qi-certified wireless charging technology. If you use Android, there are a bunch of newer smartphone that come with Qi capabilities built in. If you have an iPhone or any of the Android phones that aren't Qi-certified, you'll have to buy a special case that adds the wireless charging functionality. The second caveat is that, as with some other wireless charging mats on the market, your phone placement needs to be pretty precise in order for the wireless charging to work. More on that in a bit.
Why Does It Matter?
Wireless power was the future we were promised over a hundred years ago. Towards the end of his life, Nikola Tesla laid the foundation for today's wireless charging technology and even believed that wireless electricity could power the entire planet. That hasn't happened yet, but we're getting closer.
The IKEA technology uses induction charging, not unlike the techniques that Tesla developed so many decades ago. However, the flatpack furniture giant has made wireless charging cheap and -- here's the real kicker -- compatible with furniture. You can integrate a wireless charging right into a nightstand or table now. IKEA is sure to introduce millions of people to a new convenience they hadn't considered before. Plugging things in and out all the time is a pain in the arse. Wireless charging makes it easier -- except for when it doesn't.
The Case Issue
I like my phone naked. And since I just got a beautiful new iPhone 6, I enjoy how the thin sliver of aluminium and glass slides in and out of my pocket. However, iPhones are not Qi-certified, so in order to use IKEA's wireless charging technology, I had to cover my phone with a plasticky, ugly, and surprisingly bulky case. The iPhone 6 cover ($US25), for instance, juts out an extra inch at the bottom, and the extra hunk of plastic makes it almost impossible to plug in my headphones. The jut issue is less severe with the iPhone 5 and iPhone 4 cases that IKEA sells. Unfortunately, there aren't many great alternative third party options for Qi-compatible iPhone cases.
It's not just iPhones that might have trouble. Samsung Galaxy owners will also likely need to buy a replacement IKEA backplane ($US15) in the same sure-to-get-dirty bright white colour as the iPhone case. This is a little less annoying than the chunky iPhone version, but it's not quite the seamless experience you might've been hoping for with the future of wireless charging -- unless you're lucky enough to have a Qi-certified phone. You can also buy a dongle that enables wireless charging but, let's be honest, dongles are pretty dumb.
The good news, I guess, is that the Qi standard is becoming more widespread, so future generations of iPhones might not need any help at all. The new Galaxy S6 already has wireless charging built in. The bad news is that there are competing standards for wireless charging, and it's still unclear if Qi will come out on top. Inevitably, Apple could decide to takes sides with PMA -- Starbucks did just that last year when it installed wireless charging pads in its stores -- and then IKEA's Qi-powered system would make even less sense for iPhone users.
Once I got over the case situation, I found the wireless charging pads to be pretty magical. You just place the phone on the charging pad, and it magically charges. Simple! Much to my delight, the wireless charge time wasn't noticeably different than with my Lightning cable. And despite the many warnings about wireless charging generating excess heat and damaging my battery life, it didn't fell like my iPhone got very hot at all. Generally speaking, it was pretty easy to pick my phone up off the pad, check a text, and put it back down to continue charging up. Sometimes it requires a little bit of finesse to get the phone positioned correctly. You have to place the center of your phone over the center of the "+" sign, but it will charge regardless of orientation. Eventually, I got used to it.
On the design side of things, I really loved the look of the lamp and pad. Both were certainly items I'd be proud to have in my home. The wood details on both items feel luxurious, and there's a nice heft to the lamp thanks to its cast iron construction. There's also a spare USB port on the lamp and larger pad, so you can technically charge more devices at once.
I hate the case. Like I said earlier, I'm generally a case-hater, but this one is bad. The plastic feels like an aeroplane tray. The extra space on the bottom made it stick out of my pocket. The button slots on the side felt squishy when I pushed the lock or volume buttons. I just hated it.
Should You Buy It?
That depends. Do you have an iPhone and hate cases? If yes, you should probably wait for a Qi-certified iPhone, because you're especially going to hate the IKEA wireless charging case.
That said, plenty of people won't need cases. IKEA has a handy tool that will tell you if your phone is Qi-compatible. The list of devices includes smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S6, the Google Nexus 4 through 7, most newer Nokia phones, and select Motorola phones. If you have one of these phones, you're probably going to love IKEA's wireless charging technology.
With pads starting at just $US28, this is one of the cheapest ways to get into wireless charging yet, and if you like it, you can integrate wireless charging into your furniture as well. Personally, I think the ease and simplicity of a cord-free lifestyle is worth the small investment it takes to get started.
But for now, my Lightning cable is sticking around.