Smartphone charging: Toward a faster fill-er-up

Big batteries help keep our phablets going, but filling them can mean a long wait at the electron pump. New standards promise to top our mobile devices off faster than ever.

iPhone battery charge
Apple/Screenshot by CNET

Here's what makes our mobile devices ever more spectacular: larger screens, higher resolutions, faster modems, and speedier processors. And here's the oft substantial cost of all that: big-time battery consumption.

Handset makers constantly strive to squeeze more milliamps per hour into a phone battery. The challenge of so while keeping a slim profile is clear to anyone who has used a charging case. But even here there is a tradeoff beyond potential girth. As batteries get larger and chargers send a fixed amount of juice using the microUSB specification, charging times can increase dramatically.

Some manufacturers, particularly those like Amazon that offer tablets or other devices with larger batteries, provide power chargers that can supply more juice. But since they look similar to other chargers on the market, it's easy to get things mixed up if you have multiple USB devices. Try charging a device with a charger not designed for it and you may get an error message that it's charging slowly, or not at all. Worse, you may be under the impression that your device is charging as you use it heavily, only to find out the battery meter hasn't made much progress at all (as recently seen on the new reality TV show "When Devices Deceive").

USB 3.0 provided some relief to the issue by raising the ceiling for power from its previous limit of 500 milliamps to 900. But a new version of the Quick Charge standard developed by Qualcomm (a client of my firm, Reticle Research) would enable charges up to 75 percent faster than conventional technology. In order to prevent lower-power devices from being blown out by receiving too much current, the company is working closely with mobile device makers and major battery and charger suppliers to help ensure that each device gets only as much juice as it can handle.

What needs to happen for device companies to implement Quick Charge 2.0? Support for the standard is already present in the high-end range of Qualcomm's ubiquitous mobile system-on-chip series; over 70 handsets supported version 1.0 of the standard. Handset companies would simply need to activate the technology, which would make sense mostly if if they opted to toss in a Quick Charge 2.0-compatible charger in the box. We should see these later this year.

Quick Charge 2.0 is not the only option coming to push more electricity via the microUSB connector. At CES, the group responsible for the USB standard showed off USB Power Delivery, which supports up to 100 watts. That's enough to power virtually any laptop on the market today as well as monitors and other devices. However, the standard requires new USB cables in order to deliver its higher payload and may also require larger power blocks for higher-power devices. But fear not, battle-scarred veterans of the standards wars. Qualcomm does not view the other standard as a competitor and is supportive of it.

Those who will most likely find the most value in the new Quick Charge are mobile users who pound on their battery. Nomadic types who get in bits of work at coffee shops can appreciate the value of being able to "top off" -- or get a lot closer to doing so -- with only 15 or 20 minutes of outlet access. Along with improvements in battery life longevity and conservation, faster charging will be a part of the total effort required to keep one's mobile life going.

 

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