The initial question we ask whenever a new iPod, iPhone, or iPad accessory arrives for review is a simple but important one: does this product make sense as a practical addition to the average person’s device? With Powermat’s latest Wireless Charging System for iPhone ($70) — model 1XA — the answer is only a highly qualified “yes,” and then, it’s so qualified that the question of practicality will lead to “no” responses from many users who might otherwise like this combination of an iPhone 3G/3GS case and charging dock. While this isn’t a solution in search of a problem, it’s definitely an option in search of a better solution.
For the $70 asking price, Powermat sells a bundle containing an iPhone 3G/3GS-specific case, a cable, a small hard plastic mat—the latest version is called the 1XA Mat—and a wall power adapter with its own cord management solution. The idea is that you keep the case on your iPhone at all times, and just lay the iPhone on the flat, portable mat surface whenever you want to recharge it. Doing so leads the iPhone to chirp and/or vibrate, while a set of two thin lights on the Mat illuminate underneath, and a charging sound effect briefly plays. There’s no need to connect a cable to the iPhone 3G/3GS for charging; plates on the back of the case and top of the Mat transfer the power automatically. As expected, the charging system works, and though the Mat and power adapter combination aren’t as portable as, say, just bringing along Apple’s own wall charger and cable, they look cooler and don’t take up a lot of space.
A few caveats about the Powermat solution are worth noting. First, although the case is otherwise a fine enough design—protective of the iPhone’s body, save for generous holes on its front, top, sides, and camera lens area—it blocks the iPhone’s Dock Connector port, completely preventing the use of any bottom-connecting accessory. If you need to sync the iPhone, a Micro USB port’s on the case’s bottom, and an included Micro USB to full-sized USB cable can be used, but frequent accessory users—particularly those who need in-car charging, audio access, or in-home speaker connectivity—will find this case to be stifling.
That said, the iPhone speaker and microphone are both accessible via vents, and usable without problems for speakerphone and regular calling purposes. Signal strength was off by roughly a bar inside the case, and a light magnetic system that holds the case in the 1XA Mat’s charging groove created an interference warning from the iPhone 3GS’s finicky compass, but only when the case was placed atop the Mat—not a serious problem for most users.
A small issue is the unit’s power. The 1XA Mat’s output is specified by the company to be 0.83A, short of the iPhone’s maximum 1-Amp “fast charge” specification, which means that recharging likely won’t be as fast through the Powermat as with the iPhone’s included wall adapter, but may surpass the charging speed obtained through some computers’ 0.5-Amp USB ports.
The final issue—and the one that we consider critical here—is the pricing. Though the concept of inductive charging is attractive because of its simplicity, the idea of spending $70 for this feature and losing Dock Connector access in the process strikes us as unappealing. Buying into Powermat requires that iPhones used on a daily basis with speakers, car chargers, and other Dock Connector accessories either give them up or repeatedly swap this case on and off. Neither is a good option, and given that iPhones come with free charging cables and wall adapters, there’s little reason other than vanity to spend your precious dollars on a solution like this. There are better-designed cases that sell for half or less the price, most offering superior protection and considerably more accessory compatibility.
That having been said, Powermat looks good and works well enough that users who have both the extra cash and no further accessorizing needs will find that it does the trick for charging—the reason for our limited recommendation—but our feeling is that the concept needs further work before it’s a viable mainstream accessory. Ideally, the case would either include or not hinder in-car charging hardware, and would provide an easier option for users who want to use the iPhone with speakers and other accessories, but simply solving one of these issues or dropping the price would make it an easier pick.
Company and Price
Company: Powermat USA
Model: Wireless Charging System
Compatible: iPhone 3G/3GS