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In Depth: How wireless charging will change our devices

In Depth: How wireless charging will change our devices

If you’re anything like us, every time you leave the house you take an armful of cables, chargers and just-in-case batteries to fuel a camera, smartphone, tablet and laptop to amuse you between a constant hunt for the next recharge, the next top-up.

What a terrible way to travel.

Anyone who’s ‘upgraded’ from an e-Ink e-reader like an original Kindle to the Kindle Fire HD or Kobo Arc only to miss the once-a-month quick charge of old will know exactly what we mean. And with wearable gadgets like smart watches and smart glass imminent, it’s only going to get worse.

Luckily, some clever innovations are afoot including wireless charging and power-efficient displays that could help us at last enter an era of ubiquitous computing.

What is ubiquitous computing?

The concept of ubiquitous computing was popularised by Mark Weiser in 1988, and describes a world where people interact with computers that ‘weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it’.

“It’s just another term for mobile or portable computing,” says Kevin Curran, senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). “The biggest barrier to ubiquitous computing has simply been the poor battery life on mobile devices.”

What about solar power?

If you’re going off-grid to hike or camp for a few days but still want to use your tablet-smartphone-Kindle-GPS there are options. If staying at home in a darkened room isn’t one of them, you could invest in something like the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 for £914 (around $1,400 USD/£1363 AUD), a battery with a solar generator that stores an incredible 150W of power within.

That’s enough for about 20 laptop charges, though it does take 20 hours to recharge from light alone. It also weighs a hefty 54kg. Other options include the foldout, pocket-sized Freeloader Classic for £35 (around $54 USD/$53 AUD) that’s good for a few hours charge of a phone, though does take eight hours doing it. The OffGrid Solar Backpack for £150 (around $229 USD/$223 AUD) is another option, its 2W solar panels on the outside good for a five hour charge for a 17-inch laptop stored within. Such blue-sky thinking, however, has its limits – and who wants to carry around extra gadgets?

Could we not just have a phone that uses less power?

Nail on head – especially with some smartphones now using power-hungry six-inch screens. Options here include the single AA battery-powered SpareOne for £65 (around $100), a GSM phone that can last for 15 years if unused, or for 10 hours talk time, but it’s certainly not a smartphone. A more innovative attempt at efficiency is the YotaPhone, a dual-screen phone with a colour LCD on one side and an electronic paper display (EPD) on the other.


“I think many of us in the industry can remember where we were when we first heard of the concept and immediately went ‘why did I not think of that!’,” says Curran, who calls the use of e-Ink – which only uses power when it’s refreshing the screen – a ‘no brainer’. “I expect many smartphones, tablets and laptops to integrate similar displays.” Smart watches, too, could use e-nk; the Pebble already does.

So is e-ink making a comeback?

E-Ink is just one manufacturer in the wider Electronic Paper Display (EPD) industry that’s currently awash with power-saving innovations.

Ubiquitous Energy uses a unique molecular power film across a screen that will ultimately charge a device while it’s being used. “The film is transparent in the visible part of the light spectrum, and absorbs in the near-infrared to generate energy,” says Curran, who expects to see the first batch of prototypes used on e-nk readers like the Kindle.

Could E Ink tech make a comeback?

Such a display could have a colour screen, too, if Liquavista changes ownership from Samsung to Amazon. Don’t forget Apple, either; as we reported back in 2011, Apple patented a method for displaying static content in e-ink while other sections of the screen appear using standard LCD technology.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, UK-based ‘organic electronics’ components manufacturer Plastic Logic has come up with a way of printing – even spraying – electronics on flexible plastic sheets. Such electro-plastic displays (EPD) can show simple Flash-based video animations at 12 frames per second, and in full colour, but they’re really intended to complement an LCD screen, not replace it. The paper-thin screen technology could soon find its way into both high-end and entry-level devices such as bendable phones and wraparound smart watches, or as an extra, though largely weightless, second screen on a smartphone like YotaPhone.

Industrial designers have clearly got a lot of work to do; the ‘death of e-ink’ predicted a few years ago was a false dusk indeed.

Plastic Logic has developed spray-on electronics to create low-power, bendable plastic screens

What about wireless charging?

“When they come to write the history of computing, 2013 will be the year that they select for the arrival of wireless power,” says Curran, who expects to see wireless chargers outselling standard ones very quickly. Wireless charging is achieved through a process of electromagnetic induction whereby a current is sent from a coil in a charging pad to a coil embedded in a gadget placed a few centimeters away. As the device has to be either laid down on, or a very short distance (about four centimeters) from its charging pad, it’s also not that easy to use a smartphone or tablet while it’s charging. The designers clearly have some work to do for those who like to use their smartphone or tablet while it charges.

So far we’ve seen various devices under the umbrella of Duracell’s Powermat, and Palm’s magnetic Touchstone dock for its Palm Pre, which uses a proprietary wireless charging system, but more are coming. Many, many more.

Proprietary? That spells ‘format war’!

Well spotted. Just like the Blu-ray Vs HD-DVD bore-fest, and lately the shenanigans between Panasonic’s active shutter and LG’s polarised systems that helped ruined the whole 3D TV idea, battery boffins at Duracell and Energizer have each come up with their own systems that they each believe is superior. Duracell’s is based upon the Powermat idea it’s been long developing, with supporters shielding behind the Power Matters Alliance (PMA). It’s same the yearning for worldwide licensing royalties that causes every format war (isn’t unrestricted capitalism awesome?).

On the other side of the fence is the Qi standard created by Energizer, which is supported by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC).

Another Qi supporter is Nokia, whose Lumia 920 already includes wireless charing

There are others, including PowerByProxi, a technology that can charge several devices simultaneously on the same charging pad, unlike Qi or Powermat. It also uses a ‘loose coupling’ array to enable a device to receive an equal charge anywhere on a charging mat. “Many systems like Qi only report peak efficiency, which occurs at such precise alignment and positioning on the pad that most users will never experience it,” a spokesperson told TechRadar.

PowerByProxi’s ‘killer app’ could be the freedom and ease of placement offered by its unique charging box idea. “Household devices can simply be put in the box when the batteries get low.”

Wireless Qi charging is possible on the Penatx Option WG-2 GPS camera

Who’s in the PMA camp?

BlackBerry, LG, Google, NEC, Texas Instruments, AT&T, Starbucks, Otterbox, IDT, ZTE (the world’s fourth-largest handset manufacturer) and wireless charging spot provider PowerKiss are on Duracell’s side, among 57 members in total.

The latter joined the PMA in February 2013, stating that it would deploy wireless power in select McDonald’s restaurants in Europe. It already operates conventional charging points train stations including in London Paddington and the Gare de Lyon in Paris, 16 European airports (including Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle). Expect wireless upgrades soon. “Our decision to become a PMA member was based on several factors,” said Maija Itkonen, CMO and Founder of PowerKiss.

“The PMA system has a unique layer of telco-grade intelligence that allows venues to monitor the health, usage and policies of all their charging spots. Secondly, we believe the PMA now enjoys the momentum and the necessary investment from major industry players to bring wireless power to life for consumers.”

Who’s in the Qi camp?

HTC, Huawei, Hitachi, LG, Motorola Mobility, Nokia, Pentax, Philips, Samsung, Sony, Toshiba … and 120 in total. About 15 million devices already have Qi technology inside, according to the WPC, most notably the new Samsung Galaxy S4. However, Qi isn’t a native feature in the Galaxy S4, but rather an add-on accessory that comprises both charging pad and battery cover.

Though LG is hedging its bets by belonging to both bodies (not an unusual stance in this kind of scenario), its Nexus 4 is fitted with Qi despite Google-love for Powermat.

Which format will win?

From a device perspective Qi stands a good chance if Samsung actively popularises it, though no doubt Apple has its own in-house plans for the iPhone 5S and next iPad/iPad Mini that could scupper any kind of universal cross-brand charging system. A third format? Yes, that’s what we need.

Don’t rule out the PMA standard; as well as PowerKiss, it also finds favour with Starbucks. Could its tables and chairs be embedded with charging pads? Yes, they could, which suggests that the ‘winning’ format could be the one that creates the biggest and best charging infrastructure, and fast. After all, device makers don’t operate on loyalty and will very quickly swap to whichever emerges as the industry standard. We’ll drink to that.

What kind of wireless charging products can we look forward to?

Intel-powered ultrabooks that can ‘beam’ charge to a smartphone placed next to it, in-car charging cradles, and furniture with integral charging pads. Meanwhile, Apple has filed a patent application for wirelessly powering keyboards and mice without the need for batteries.

Among a slew of new innovations at the Mobile World Congress 2013 was a demo of a smart wireless charging mat from NXP that used NFC to trigger wake-up, thereby allowing the charging pad to remain completely switched off when not in use. As well as a ‘true-zero standby mode’ the use of NFC could also mean a handshake to kick-start Bluetooth audio streaming without the need for pairing. Best of all, NXP’s prototype supports multiple wireless charging standards, automatically detecting which standard the device is using.

We’re in for some big changes in terms of product design, but there’s bound to be a long interim period where gadgets come with optional wireless charging packs and cables, too. They might be a pain to travel with, but USB cables are on the cusp of becoming universal … achieving the same with wireless induction charging mats could take a very long time.

Posted in Computing, Gadgets, Mobile Phones, Technology, WirelessComments Off

Lenovo set to design its own mobile processors following Samsung snub

Lenovo set to design its own mobile processors following Samsung snub

Chinese PC manufacturer Lenovo will aid its mission to build a larger global presence in smartphones and tablets by designing its own line of processors, reports on Monday claimed.

EE Times’ sources said the company will hire 100 engineers by the middle of the year in order to aid a small chip engineering team it has kept on the books over the last decade.

The decidion may be in response to Samsung’s reported refusal to supply Lenovo with the latest generation of Exynos 5 Octa processor, an eight-core beast currently in production.

Until this point, the report claimed, Lenovo had enjoyed the freedom to pick and choose its processing suppliers, which have included Samsung Exynos, Intel Atom with the K800 and MediaTek.

NEC and BlackBerry on the menu?

The speculation comes following reports this weekend that Lenovo had entered talks with struggling Japanese electronics company NEC over a potential takeover of its ailing mobile business.

In recent weeks the company has also spoken of its potential interest in taking over BlackBerry, but appears to be considering all options to boost its global presence beyond PCs.

Posted in Computing, Mobile Phones, WirelessComments Off

Dell reveals Latitude 10 business version

Dell reveals Latitude 10 business version

Dell has launched a new version of Latitude 10 tablet computer with a security configuration aimed at the business market.

It has been given a dual-authentication function, with an integrated smart card and fingerprint reader, to add to its end point security management suite.

The suite uses the readers in the Latitutude 10 as well as third party security devices. A Dell wizard supports the setup.

Other security features include the Trusted Platform Module 1.2 hardware, to allow networks to check the integrity of devices, and Microsoft BitLocker Drive Encryption. There is also Computrace Support for stealth tracking software to help recover lost or stolen devices, and a Noble Lock slot.

Right tablet for the job

“Other tablets being deployed in business environments can cause more harm than good in the long run with unforeseen management costs and unsecure data protection and access,” said Neil Hand, Vice President of Tablets and Performance PCs, End User Computing at Dell.

“With Latitude 10 enhanced security configuration, our customers will be able to give their workers the mobility and productivity they want while having the peace of mind they can easily enforce and adhere to some of the most rigorous security regulations.”

The move is part of Dell’s effort to make itself a serious presence in the market for business tablets. While the Latitude 10 has been aimed at the education and consumer markets as much as small business, the company believes the extra focus on security will help to strengthen its appeal to the latter.

“Small businesses are asking how they can enable workers to move around, access data, meet compliance regulation and keep company information safe,” says Brett Hansen, Executive Director, Client Software Planning and Management for Dell.

He says the company’s recent acquisition of security software firm Credant Technologies has made it possible to introduce a new approach to data encryption on the Latitude 10.

Encryption made easier

Data kept on the Latitude’s hard drive can be kept to 128 bit encyrption and shared in that state with other devices. IT administrators can specify the people with whom a user can share different data sets, or allow them the freedom to share some data with they consider appropriate.

Dell has attempted to reduce the effort involved in programming the Latitude 10 to match compliance requirements of a specific business or the country within which it works. It has provided a range of templates for the appropriate level of security, although these can be modified by administrators.

“It’s provided a lot of restrictions, based on our understanding of the laws of different places and their regulations for various industries,” Hansen says.

The Latitude 10, which is priced at £586 in the UK market, is also enabled for the transfer of data to Android or iOS devices.

Dell has introduced a longer lasting version of the tablet’s battery, capable of working for up to 20 hours without a recharge rather than the standard 10.

It is making replacement batteries quickly available from its customer services, priced at £17 for the two-cell, 30W version, and £40 for the four-cell 59W version. It says these prices make it economical to carry a spare.

Posted in Computing, Hardware, Security, Software, WirelessComments Off

iPad mini, iPad 4 touch down at AT&T, Verizon and Sprint

iPad mini, iPad 4 touch down at AT&T, Verizon and Sprint

Apple fans were biting their nails throughout the first half of November over the device maker’s refusal to commit to release dates for the Wi-Fi + Cellular LTE versions of the iPad mini and iPad 4.

But the two new Apple tablets reportedly began arriving at customers’ doors around Nov. 15 and Nov. 16.

And now, Apple fans can rejoice as the iPad mini and fourth-gen iPad have touched down at three major U.S. carriers as well.

All three carriers discussed the unique ways in which customers can add one of the new tablets to their existing plans.

iPad mini and iPad 4 at AT&T

In its iPad mini and iPad 4 announcement, AT&T emphasized that the iPad mini is 23 percent thinner and 53 percent lighter than the iPad 3, highlighting several of its other features before discussing the iPad 4′s 9.7-inch Retina display and new A6X chip.

“Our customers are increasingly connecting their devices to the mobile internet and our new Mobile Share plans allow them to add a tablet for just $10 a month,” said Glenn Lurie, AT&T Mobility’s President of Emerging Enterprises and Partnership, in an announcement.

AT&T is also offering $100 off the purchase of any new tablet, including an iPad mini or iPad 4, for customers who enter into a two-year contract.

iPad mini and iPad 4 at Sprint

Sprint chose to highlight its contract-free data plans before focusing on the iPad mini’s smaller and lighter frame.

“The data plans are available without a contract providing customers with the freedom to activate or cancel a plan at any time,” the announcement read.

“Sprint doesn’t put its customers on shared pricing plans like some carriers,” said Fared Adib, Sprint’s Senior Vice President of Product Development, in a press release.

“With Spring, you get the best pricing for all the data you need without the worry of overages.”

iPad mini and iPad 4 at Verizon

For its part, Verizon’s official site now features an iPad mini and iPad 4 hub similar in design to an Apple website.

“Every inch an iPad,” read the site’s header, with a direct link to purchase the new iPad mini.

On a tab titled “Why Verizon?” the carrier claimed that the “iPad deserves the best network” before explaining that Verizon has “more 4G LTE coverage than all other networks combined.”

The carrier also emphasizes its “share everything” plans with unlimited talk and text and a pool of data that can be shared among 10 devices.

New iPad availability

Availability of the new iPads varies between carriers, according to each company’s press release and research conducted by NBC.

AT&T claimed on Friday that the iPad mini and iPad 4 are available at retail locations, while online the iPad mini will reportedly ship within seven to 14 days, and the iPad 4 will ship in five to seven days.

Verizon, meanwhile, will reportedly ship either device by Nov. 19, while in-store availability is iffy.

Sprint is offering only the iPad 4 online; those looking for an iPad mini should call their local retail store.

The iPad 4 and iPad mini may be out, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be a mad dash for those who actually want one.

Posted in Computing, Internet, Technology, WirelessComments Off

Gary Marshall: The new MacBook Pro: unbelievable, or unforgivable?

Gary Marshall: The new MacBook Pro: unbelievable, or unforgivable?

Whenever I bought a used car, I’d go crazy with the car stereo. I’d rip out and replace the speakers, cut holes in the parcel shelf to make room for more, stick amps under seats and subwoofers wherever they’d fit.

And then I stopped.

I didn’t stop because manufacturers started making their stereos in unique shapes, although that was a pain, and I didn’t stop because stereos became part of a wider system, integrated with trip computers and phone kits and other odds and sods. I stopped because once the manufacturers started fitting decent stereos, upgrading was no longer necessary.

I upgraded the stereos because the factory-fit ones were crap. When they were no longer crap, I stopped upgrading them.

I think the new generation MacBook Pro, the one with the retina display, is a bit like that. The standard spec is good enough that you shouldn’t need to upgrade, which is just as well, because you can’t. Want to upgrade the RAM later on? No can do. Replace the battery? Nope. Repair the trackpad? Uh-uh. According to iFixit, it’s “the least repairable laptop we’ve ever taken apart.”

If you’re in the business of showing people how to repair or upgrade laptops, as iFixit just happens to be, then of course that’s bad news. But is it bad news for the rest of us? Are we, as one iFixit commenter suggests, “building our own prison”?

Locked down

There are two key objections to kit you can’t easily upgrade or repair. The first is practical and the second is philosophical.

Practical first. Having a non-removable battery isn’t ideal, because batteries have a finite lifespan: my ageing MacBook Pro’s battery went all bulgy a year ago, but the laptop itself is doing just fine. Traditional Apple batteries are pricey enough, so I wouldn’t fancy paying Apple prices to replace the kind of battery you see in the new MacBook Pro.

It’s nice to be able to upgrade the RAM, too, but I’m not sure that’s a deal-breaker here: the only time I’ve had to upgrade laptop RAM is because I under-specced it in the first place to save a few quid. 8GB or 16GB on-board seems future-proof enough for three years. The other thing that’s likely to go, the SSD drive, should see third-party options appearing before long.

Those are the practical things. What about the philosophical issues? Apple is removing your freedom to tinker, turning the computer into an appliance whose innards are untouchable by mere mortals. That may be true, but laptops were never the most expandable or upgradeable computers in the first place – and the same lack of user-serviceable/upgradeable parts applies to pretty much everything inside and outside my house: my TV, my set-top-box, my Xbox, my central heating, my tablet, my smartphone, my coffee machine, my car.

Yes, some of those examples are silly, but the car one is probably the closest: the newer, better and more expensive the car, the less likely you’ll be spending your weekends crawling underneath it with a tin of Gun Gum and a Haynes book. When the car goes wrong most of us go to the dealer and pay them to fix it, and if it costs too much to fix we take it into the hills and torch the bugger*.

Is the new MacBook Pro the shape of things to come? Maybe, for Apple at least. Should people be worried? Possibly: as a whole bunch of original iPad owners discovered this week with iOS 6, just because it has an Apple logo on it doesn’t mean it’s future-proof. Is it the end of the world as we know it? Probably not. I think that for most laptop owners, “upgrading” means buying a new one.

* not really**
** better to pay Mad Danny to do it for you***
*** no, not really. Anyway, he’s in prison now

Posted in Computing, How To, Mobile PhonesComments Off