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Hands on: Starbucks wireless charging

Starbucks' wireless charging can perk up your phone, but needs more time to brew

Starbucks’ wireless charging offers latte sippers a glimpse into the future, but until the technology becomes more widespread, it remains just a glimpse.

I have seen the future, and wireless charging is everywhere. In this ideal world, it’ll be available in all the places I regularly frequent, and it will keep my gadgets happily topped up with power. I won’t need to carry a standard charger or a special cable with me, and wireless charging will be free to use wherever I go. At least, that’s what I hope, after trying one of the earliest examples of public wireless charging at Starbucks.

The Starbucks on Great Portland Street in London is much like any other. It’s not very big, but it does have a cool low-level seating area against a long window, overlooking the street outside. What makes it different is that it’s one of a handful of locations in the city that has a wireless charging system in trial.

Circular Powermat charging spots are built into the long bench against the main window, and they are about the size of a CD. The charging mats sit flush with the tabletop, and a casual observer would easily mistake them for placemats. This is where the magic happens. Place your wireless charging compatible device on the spot, and let the power flow. I sat down, drank my coffee, and all the while, my phone was happily charging up.

Adapters, standards, and other irritations

In my ideal world, this would be where the story ends — Except it doesn’t, because the world of wireless charging is a rather irritating one. Not just due to the various competing formats out there, but also because only a select few devices come with wireless charging built-in. My iPhone 6 Plus, for example, is missing that feature.

Hands-on Starbucks Wireless Charging
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Given that a few customers are going to come in with iPhones, Starbucks sells special wireless charging accessories to enable wireless charging on Apple devices. The same devices can be purchased with a Micro USB connector. It’s a specially packaged Duracell Power Ring, which plugs into the charger port on the phone and is placed over the wireless charging spot on the table. If you’re a regular, you may decide to buy one of the rings, but for casual use, Starbucks offers the adapters to customers for free.

It’s not the best solution, but it’s better than a hefty specialized case, and it’s definitely better than no wireless charging at all.

What about phones that do support wireless charging? This is where it gets confusing as well as irritating, because it all depends which wireless charging standard your phone favors. Starbucks has chosen the Power Matters Alliance (PMA), which is less commonly used than the competing Qi standard from the Wireless Power Consortium. If your phone uses the latter, it won’t charge up without an adaptor.

I have seen the future, and wireless charging is everywhere.

Samsung may have come to the rescue with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, which support both wireless charging standards out of the box — meaning that there’s no need for an adapter. The phones offer compatibility with Starbucks’ wireless charging and any wireless charger made for the Qi standard, which incidentally, is used in Ikea’s wireless charging furniture. Samsung could kick start a similar trend across the industry, opening up the annoyingly closed wireless charging system for everyone.

Convenient, and free

Provided you can overcome having to plug something into your phone to make use of wireless charging, it’s incredibly helpful. I sat for 20 minutes, and easily topped up the 10-percent needed to max out my phone’s battery. If it had been completely dead, that 10-percent would have been enough to get me out of trouble, should a call, message, or email have been important. Now imagine doing that on the train, in a taxi, at a restaurant, or in line at the bank. Public wireless charging could be as beneficial public Wi-Fi, should it be widely adopted.

Does it come at a cost? Aside from the charging ring itself, Starbucks doesn’t charge money for its wireless charging, but there is some concern over the collection of data. Powermat CEO Thorsten Heins (he of BlackBerry infamy) has said in an interview that Powermat charging spots can provide information on use — which spots are popular, how long they are used for, and how often a particular device returns. There’s no personal data exchanged, though. While no one wants to be tracked, this is the type of benefit that will encourage shops and businesses to install wireless charging spots in the future, so it’s best to view it as a necessary evil.

I sat for 20 minutes, and easily topped up the 10-percent needed to max out my phone’s battery.

For now, public wireless charging remains tantalizingly close to becoming mainstream. The pieces are slowly falling into place — Starbucks and McDonalds have both adopted the Powermat solution, the low-level tracking will encourage others to join up, and Samsung has integrated both standards to make it easier for us to enjoy the benefits. Hopefully, these changes are a sign of things to come in the wireless charging world.

We complain about battery life, buy external battery packs, and fiddle around with power-saving apps, just to get a little more standby time from our phones at the end of the day. Widespread public wireless charging would lessen all this pain. The wireless charging future can’t come soon enough, because even with the hoops one must jump through right now, it’s still more convenient than all these current, temporary solutions to our battery woes.

Highs

  • Charge your phone while you drink coffee
  • Free to use
  • Solutions for devices without wireless charging

Lows

  • It’s not available in every branch
  • Most phones will need a special adapter