iPhone 12 MagSafe is the sleeper feature that could outshine 5G

Commentary: The fast-charging feature that snaps into place opens up the possibility for an array of wild new attachments and could be more useful than 5G as the next-gen tech waits to mature.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

The MagSafe is one of the quietly coolest features on the new iPhone 12. 


Apple's  MagSafe, which allows you to magnetically snap on attachments, may be the new feature in the iPhone 12 family that provides you with the most immediate impact. And that's knowing that the company -- and the entire wireless industry -- has spent a huge amount of time shining a spotlight on 5G.

It's almost sacrilege for me to write this. After all, I've been covering the potentially game-changing nature of 5G since 2015, when I first wrote about Verizon's intention to field-test the super-fast cellular technology. But the truth is that initial deployments don't represent huge boosts in speed, and your first experience with 5G may elicit a shrug

MagSafe, on the other hand, offers some tangible benefits regardless of where you live or whether you're near the right cell tower. A MagSafe connection charges faster than previous iPhones , bringing it on par with the quick charge that Android phones have long enjoyed. And, as dumb as this sounds, there's something cool about watching your phone snap into place, visual confirmation that you didn't fumble the placement of your device. 

"There's no more guessing where the sweet spot is," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst with IDC. 

Read more: MagSafe on iPhone 12: I was wrong to doubt Apple's magnetic charger

MagSafe has its own long-term potential that's exciting. The magnetic pins on the back of the phone harken back to other attempts to push an ecosystem of attachments, from Motorola's Moto Mods to the Essential Phone PH-1's modular camera. Neither of those companies moved enough phones -- the Essential , in particular, was an outright flop -- to really interest many accessory makers to take risks on bold ideas. Most of the time, we got extra battery packs. 

Apple's scale changes everything. 

Paving the way 

Apple's enormous reach -- Strategy Analytics estimates it will sell 180 million units next year -- means a potentially huge market for anyone looking to build MagSafe accessories. The opportunity is particularly rich for anyone looking at attachments beyond the basic wireless charging stand. Think game controllers, camera grips, selfie sticks and, yes, wireless charging battery packs that could change the way we hold or interact with an iPhone. 

"We can't wait to see the innovative way that others will use MagSafe, creating a robust and ever expanding ecosystem," Deniz Teoman, vice president of hardware systems engineering at Apple, said in Apple's virtual presentation this month.

That isn't hyperbole. Apple has a way of popularizing and legitimizing tech trends, from mobile payments to wireless charging. Where Motorola and Essential fell short, Apple could popularize the notion of magnetic attachments. 

Apple itself filed a patent for a folio case with additional power supply and the ability to charge AirPods, according to Patently Apple. While those patents don't always yield products in the real world, they're an indication of where the company may go in the future. 

Others are pumped for the opportunity.

"We are very excited to offer new 'Made for MagSafe' cases," OtterBox CEO Jim Parke said in an e-mailed statement. "Apple has the innovative prowess and expansive reach to herald in an accessory ecosystem that can have a lasting impact on how we use our smartphones."

Phone accessory maker Belkin  , meanwhile, has already unveiled two MagSafe accessories, a charging stand that can handle an iPhone 12 , Apple Watch and Apple Airpods , along with a more conventional car mount. Steve Malony, senior vice president of Belkin, said the initial products were more "bread and butter" when compared to future accessories on the roadmap. 

"Some of the ideas that we see come across our desk are pretty wild," he teased. "It's going to be fun to take those ideas and put them in play." 

Modular dreams

MagSafe feels like a spiritual successor to Google's Project Ara, a modular phone that used magnets to attach smaller components to the handset, allowing you to build it up like you were assembling something out of Legos. 

Modular was hyped as a potential breakthrough innovation in smartphones. LG tried its hand with its G5 phone, which allowed you to swap out the bottom of the device for different attachments like grips and hi-fi speakers. The trend died off as quickly as it rose, with  Google  putting the project on hold, then quietly scrapping it. The G5 was such a flop that LG followed up with a far more conventional phone the next year.   


The 5G Moto Mod that gave the Moto Z3 5G capabilities before any other device. 

Derek Poore/CNET

"The bigger issue is that fully modular designs are more appealing to engineers than to consumers," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential. "Smartphones are highly evolved products, and people buy the best phone they can afford that meets their needs now, not a platform to tinker with later."

Moto Mods represented a streamlined version of the modular concept, offering a full phone with different backs you can swap in and out. That concept allowed Motorola's Moto Z3 to be the first 5G phone on Verizon's network, thanks to a 5G Mod that slapped into the back of the device. But even then, a Mod-less phone felt like half of a device, and the gimmick was core to the phone. 

Apple has refined it further, offering a complete handset in the iPhone 12, but with the option to magnetically attach accessories.

"MagSafe is brilliant in its simplicity," Greengart said. 

Malony called the advent of MagSafe a "transformational time" for the accessories market, and he expects a wave of different attachments to come from the industry. 

"Things like this change the game," he said.