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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 01/ 9/2011

A different sort of wireless at CES: electricity

By Rob Pegoraro

LAS VEGAS -- One of the cardinal rules of reporting from the Consumer Electronics Show is "If you're sitting next to an outlet, recharge devices." Batteries will have to get a lot better before that ritual goes away, but a few companies here want to eliminate the plug from that equation by letting you place a power-starved device on a charging mat.

And unlike such past, proprietary efforts as Palm's Touchstone charger, these firms want to make standards that would work on any new phone.

One, Powermat, has been selling inductive-charging mats and receiver adapters for mobile phones and other devices since 2009. At this year's show, it announced an agreement with General Motors to add its mats to the Chevy Volt and other upcoming models.

A Volt parked in its exhibit area featured a charging mat in the center console, just in front of the cup holders. A few feet away, a set of airport seats features a charging mat built into a table between them.

Under a separate deal with Qualcomm, the mobile-systems firm will work on ways to integrate Powermat technology into phone components.

Several hundred feet away in the central hall of the convention center here, however, a different lineup of companies is pitching its own wireless-charging standard. The Wireless Power Consortium, a group of 69 firms that includes HTC, LG, Panasonic and Samsung, published its Qi standard (pronounced "chi") in August after showing an early version of it at last year's CES.

Founding member Fulton Innovation, which I first saw at 2007's CES, used its booth to demonstrate such current and upcoming Qi-compatible products as a charging mat from Energizer and an upcoming LG smartphone.

(Fulton's exhibit also featured a demo of a technology further from the market: a modified Tesla Roadster parked over a manhole cover-size pad that charged the electric sports car from a few inches away.)

So which no-plug charging solution should you get in your next phone? I don't know. Powermat vice president Beth Harrison Meyer said her firm's system offers better performance, charging as fast or faster than a wired charger.

By contrast, Qi delivers power at a slower rate, about as fast as a computer can recharge a phone over a USB cable. Its initial version is also limited to 5 watts, enough for a phone but not an iPad or a larger device.

Technical merits could have little to do with which contender gets more support from the manufacturers of mobile devices, however. And in that case, a more open system like Qi might have an edge. (Or not. It's difficult to predict the outcome of format wars like this.)

After three days of watching battery-life indicators on multiple phones and one laptop, I can only look forward to the day when smart CES exhibitors have charging pads at their booths at which visitors can top off their phones' batteries. But the industry has to settle this disagreement first.

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 9, 2011; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  CES 2011  
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