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Wireless charging is meh, but it's going to get way better

This year's advances in wireless charging will help us ditch the cable.

Josh Miller/CNET

I just set up a new nightstand in my San Francisco apartment, and realized something: My standard-issue phone charger is barely long enough to snake its way from the wall outlet to my bedside.

I have two choices: Buy a charger with a longer cable, or get a wireless charging pad. Quick-charge cables are faster, but wireless pads provide much more flexibility over where I place my phone. Either way, I'll no longer fall over the edge of the bed trying to use my device while it charges, or worry about yanking the cord out of the wall when checking messages on a sleepless night.

LG V30

Imagine never plugging in the charging cable again.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Soon, I may not need either of these at all.

Although wireless charging has been around for years, it's struggled with mass adoption. For the most part, the gadgets you can buy are bulky aftermarket cases or charging pads that work with only one of two major standards.

But now, those barriers to a wireless charging world are breaking down fast, and advances to the state of wireless charging are bringing us closer to a cord-free charging life than we've ever been before.

How? By doubling today's wireless charging pad speeds and, separately, charging phones over the air.

Advancement 1: One standard, with double the speeds

Powermat has a plan.

Specifically, the company is working on a new wireless charging standard that can power up phones more than 2.5 times faster than they do now. Today, we're looking at a maximum 15-watt output to wireless charging pads. Soon, we'll be able to charge phones at a maximum of 40 watts.

This type of traditional wireless charging -- also referred to as contactless or inductive power -- is riding a big wave of momentum, thanks in large part to Apple's adoption of the Qi inductive power standard (pronounced "chee"), joining Samsung, LG and others. Up until last month, Powermat was Qi's biggest rival. But after Apple made its choice, Powermat decided that if it couldn't beat Qi, it would at least support it.

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Powermat wants to double your wireless charging speeds.

Josh Miller/CNET

The consolidation into one standard is great news for buyers. Now that the industry is working in concert rather than competition, Powermat's efforts to (at least theoretically) double inductive charging speeds should work for all phones that support this kind of technology.

But seeing those faster speeds will take time.

"When we talk about the next generation," Powermat's product VP, Aya Kantor, told me on a call, "We're talking about 30 watts [of power]". Not 40. Still, that's good enough to take your phone from a completely drained battery to 100 percent charge in 25 minutes, Kantor said.

While charging speeds could climb with some phones in 2018 -- Galaxy Note 9, anyone? -- don't expect devices to work with the full 40 watt output this year. The makers of phones, tablets and laptops will still have to take advantage of this faster charging with new hardware, not just a firmware update.

"We do expect that in two or three years down the line we're going to see devices charging at those [40-watt] speeds," Kantor said, adding that it could be too late to incorporate this blossoming technology into next year's devices, which could take up to 18 months from design to production.

airpower-charging

Apple's AirPods can connect to an iPhone when dropped on the same AirPower charger.

GIF by Alexandra Able/CNET

When it does happen, faster inductive charging is expected to meet and even surpass today's wired charging speeds. Wireless charging speeds are hard to pin down, because they can vary. If your phone doesn't hit the target exactly, if you pick it up and put it down a lot -- both those things can impact your charge time. 

Today, inductive wireless charging lags behind the quick-charge cables that often come in your phone box. For example, it took me 2 hours to charge a Galaxy S8 from zero to 100. It took Samsung's wireless charger an hour and a half longer.

Meanwhile, Apple's 2017 iPhones now go to 7.5 watts, up from the 5-watt threshold with which they originally launched. iPhone fans would surely appreciate seeing this new-to-Apple feature double or even quadruple those wireless charging speeds. 

In the meantime, though, the company will be releasing its AirPower charging pad, which adds some secret sauce to the Qi standard and allows an iPhone, Apple Watch and AirPods (with an updated case) to juice up simultaneously.

Advancement 2: Charging at a distance

Imagine that instead of sitting all the way on one side of the sofa so you can use your phone while it's tethered to a charger, you could sprawl out anywhere and still see your power reserves fill while you tap away?

Companies are starting to bring over-the-air wireless charging to a bunch of devices. That means that your phone, fitness band, laptop and tablet could get a top-up just by passively resting on the shelf -- so long as it's a paired device, within range and in need of a top-up.

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One of these pioneers, Energous' Mid-field WattUp, works a lot like a Wi-Fi network. It uses radio frequencies (RF) to power up multiple devices in order of your priority, with an app to set your preferences. This particular WattUp transmitter can extend to gadgets about 2 or 3 feet away, but Energous is also working on a far-field version (which isn't certified yet) to deliver power up to 15 feet away.

Another new entrant, Ossia, made Cota Tile, a prototype that looks like a ceiling tile cleverly camouflaged in your home. Ossia claims that its Cota technology can send over-the-air energy through radio waves to your thirsty devices at a 30-foot radius. Cota is under FCC review, and Ossia hopes it can announce approval in the coming months.

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Just on top-tier phones for now, expect wireless charging capabilities to come to more devices in time.

Josh Miller/CNET

But the winner of the distance challenge is Powercast PowerSpot, which received FCC approval this past December with an over-the-air transmitter that can stretch up to 80 feet away. The big difference here is that PowerSpot's radio frequencies target devices with very low power appetites, like game controllers and keyboard. While it won't benefit your phone at all, it's promising to see a long-distance wireless charger get the green light.

With any over-the-air charger, keep this rule of thumb in mind: The farther the items are from the power source, the slower they'll accrete power. More resource-hungry gadgets will charge faster when they're closer, but lower-power devices -- like keyboards or a temperature sensor -- can sip power at greater distances.

So, until wireless charging pad speeds double and over-the-air chargers arrive, I still have to make a decision for my bedside nightstand: a faster, longer cord or a slower, wireless pad? My heart wants the wireless charger. My brain wants the cheaper cable that means my drained battery will still power up while it's in my hands.

You win this round, brain. But -- hopefully -- not for long.

Read next: 2018 could kick off a cord-free life, for real

Another great read: Wireless charging reaches beyond the charging pad, finally