/ Technology

Why can’t all chargers be universal?

Lots of tangled chargers

How many times have you rifled through a mass of tangled cables looking for the right charger? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if all gadgets came with a universal charger – so just how far off that day are we?

Working in the Tech Team at Which? means I’m regularly asked if I have a battery charger for an X, Y or Z.

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but I always have to check the knotted mass of cables in my drawer – and each time I do I ask, ‘wouldn’t it be nice if there were just one cable to rule them all?’

A couple of years ago things were even worse when each mobile phone handset had its own peculiar charging port. The proprietary charging port of Sony Ericsson mobile phones was, in my mind, the most unique, but the question I was asked the most was ‘do you have an old-style Nokia charger?’

USB – not so universal

And then came along the USB charger and I thought my complaints had been addressed – but it hasn’t been the case. While a USB port on a computer is (as the name suggests) universal, the other end of the cable is a little less uniformed. In fact, there are many different types of USB – and the charging device hasn’t been the panacea I had hoped for.

We have the type A, the type B, the micro A and the micro B, and also the mini A and the mini B, plus there are 8- and 5-pin varieties of the mini B. And then there are still all the manufacturer’s own models (think iPhone USB connection).

Many of them will have different properties, I concede, and each new development is an improvement on the previous version. Still, surely a truly universal and future-proof charger isn’t beyond the wit of humankind?

How far off are universal chargers?

It’s not an original question; it’s probably been asked countless times before, and it might not be long before we have an answer. Fourteen mobile phone companies, including Nokia, Apple and Samsung have pledged to make chargers to a common standard and we could see early models arriving any day.

So if smartphones can use a one-size-fits-all approach, surely the remaining technology manufacturers should follow? It would mean that mobile phones, tablets, portable gaming devices and cameras wouldn’t need to be packaged with chargers, which would save as much packaging as time spent rummaging in drawers.

But it would seem that USB’s days are numbered anyway and that the new interface rearing its head on the horizon may provide the universality that USB has failed to deliver. Light Peak is just around the corner and, beyond replacing USB connectivity, it’s likely to replace our beloved HDMI – let alone the age old VGA.

The technology will initially offer 10Gbit/s of bandwidth with the potential to deliver 100 Gbit/s by 2020 – that’s quite something compared with the 4800Mbits/s fastest USB speeds.

But I’ve begun to talk about data transfer and not just charging. There are a number of wireless charging devices that may gradually become more commonplace. They just don’t seem to have caught on yet, but each year at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas we see more wireless charging solutions. If pushed hard enough, one may hopefully become the new universal standard.

Pickle says:
4 January 2011

Good idea – I have a box of chargers and they are all different. Might also be useful to have a common plug – there are a dozen different sizes and shapes of plugs and when you permuate plugs with chargers it gets almost impossible to get it right.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve forgotten to charge the camera before going away for a weekend and not had the charger with me, or left my phone charger behind at a friend’s house/hotel. We’ve got a massive box of wires and chargers and it drives me mad! Bring on a universal charger I say – and I agree with Ben’s point about creating less waste and packaging too. What’s not to like about this idea?

Well overdue, in fact my only thoughts on the subject are “Why didn’t the idiots think of it before?”

Pete says:
4 January 2011

I have just been to the local tip to recycle a large box of wires, chargers and other electrical plugs and connectors… Its not that no-one thinks of it – its that the soft politicians who pay lip service to the green agenda are scared to take on the commercial interests of big business. These companies make proprietary adaptors and connectors because there is big money in it – C’mon governments (UK and Europe), stop pandering to the corporates and actually pass some legislation that makes some real use to people lives! The common USB standard was a start but it doesn’t go far enough.

Rose Lees says:
12 January 2011

I wholeheartedly agree with your comment.

The same annoying thing is the voltage difference between disposable and rechargeable batteries: the most popular sizes (i.e. AA and AAA) are 1.5V when disposable, but only 1.2V when rechargeable. This just does not make sense: since ALL AA/AAA-battery-driven gadgets need 1.5V per battery, a lot of them will not work with rechargeable batteries. Hence, the current wasteful and environmentally unfriendly use of millions of disposable batteries continues unabated.

There is a way around this: if a gadget, for example a GameBoy, runs on 6V supplied by 4 AA/AAA batteries (4 x 1.5V = 6V), I can use rechargeable batteries by simply wiring in a fifth battery and securing it with duct tape (5 x 1.2V = 6V). The duct tape itself usually survives a number of battery changes. A quicker way in the long run is to permanently attach and wire in an additional holder for one battery.


It does make sense – it is the chemical composition of the different types of battery that determines the voltage.

Whether one could force a company to design a piece of equipment to only use .rechargeable cells – with their specific internal characteristics is another matter.

Peter Ford says:
1 February 2011


I have never encountered anything designed to work with disposable (alkaline) batteries that doesn’t ALSO work with rechargeable (NiMH) batteries. See my comment on the 5th of Jan (below) for some example products that DO work.

For more technical information on why this is, please see the voltage section (including the graph) on this webpage: http://www.stefanv.com/electronics/using_nimh.html


TwoLenses says:
4 January 2011

I think this is a great idea, but why stop at chargers?! I have a HUGE collection of power plugs that arrived with various electronic items that I have bought over time, but not only do they require differnt types of mains socket (13A earthed, 3A unearthed), they also have NUMEROUS types of connector at the low-voltage end, AND every one supplies a different voltage and polarity, with a different current rating.

When are we going to get a universal power supply?!


I have two Universal Power supplies – Voltage and polarity adjustable that have multi plug adapters. I’ve managed to add a few extras too.

But it depends on knowing the maximum power that the item to be charged requires. That is not only the correct voltage needed but what maximum current can be delivered.

My camera battery and others can be charged using a car cigarette adapter. In fact I have car adapter which will run a number of mains electrical devices.

James Harrison says:
4 January 2011

The global industries could simply produce ‘standard’ parts and therefore cars, houses and their contents could easily be built/repaired. But this isn’t the capitalists world. We are all capitalists by nature until we see the foolish outcome. But who wants to not make a ‘profit’? Hmmm.

Peter Ford says:
5 January 2011

Even better would be for gadgets to use standard batteries wherever possible. Whenever I buy a new device I try my utmost to find one that uses AA or AAA batteries. (N.B. The latest NiMH rechargeable AA/AAA battery technology – e.g. Eneloop, Hybrio, etc. – is better than disposable batteries in almost every regard.) Example products are the NW-E105 MP3 player, the HX6431 electric toothbrush, HQ40 shaver, etc.. This approach means I am not in thrall to the recharging cycle of batteries that are built-in to these products. When the battery is empty I can simply switch it out and keep using the device straight away with no need to access the mains for recharging.

This also means there is no need to have recharging circuitry built-in to the devices (so there’s one less thing to break), and when a battery dies I don’t have to throw away the whole device or buy an expensive proprietary replacement battery.

When I am away from home I just take at most one single charger (for AA/AAA), and some spare batteries. And if I ever forget to do so, I can simply buy some more (remember Eneloop batteries come pre-charged).

If you agree with these points, vote with your wallets people! Manufacturers will respond by producing more devices that use standard batteries.

All that is missing are some smaller types of standard batteries. Which Magazine, please can you apply pressure for the creation of an “AAAA” standard or something?

Eric says:
18 January 2011

I have 3 laptops and 10 other gadgets. They each require their own individual charger, even though the laptops are the same brand (shame on you Toshiba). Its all very well to say of the irritation to customers and the deplorable waste of natural resources, “well thats OK its just capitalism in action”, but if the electronics industry cannot act more responsbly there is a strong case for capitalism to be curbed.

Interesting – I have 4 laptops all can use the same charger though they are different models. Even the socket in the laptops are the same.. My multi-adapters will provide power for 90% of all of my electronic gadgets even though the sockets are different.

I had a second hand Sony radio with a mains adaptor. The Sony batteries leaked & Sony were good enough to give me a new updated model. One problem the new one was same voltage & plug but opposite polarity so needed a new mains adaptor

Sony is not the only company to do daft things like this. Fortunately you had the sense to check the polarity, as reverse polarity can destroy electronic appliances.

I have a Pure Evoke-1 radio that takes a 12 volt adapter and a Pure Evoke-3 radio that uses a 9 volt adapter that looks identical. The power sockets on these radios are the same, so I have labelled the adapters in the hope that I never make a mistake. If I do, it will be the expensive set that is likely to be wrecked and the manufacturer will get a letter about pure stupidity!

Eddie Reynolds says:
8 April 2011

This story comprehensibly illustrates the problem.
My Son purchased a Canon Camcorder 15 months ago from Jessops for the birth of his Daughter and he recently mislaid the Canon charger cable supplied with the camera, so he went to Jessops for a replacement.
He was told that the camera was obsolete, to which he accused them of selling him an old model 15 months ago. Not so! He was told that there had been numerous model changes in the last 15 months and that Canon would have stopped making this type of charger some time ago.
I can see the problem in rival manufacturers agreeing to a standard one size fits all, but this is Canon who cannot even standardise their own brand of chargers.
It used to be law that parts had to be available for 7 years after manufacture, but now after only 15 months, it’s tough luck. He has since located a cheap generic charger which is a poor substitute.

Mordenman says:
30 May 2011

I can understand the likelyhood of there being different mains adapters (usually a dc supply for charging the built in battery) for portable gadgets that will require to work away from home, but to need one for a device which is clearly home based is quite unreasonable. Voltages and supply frequencies vary from country to country and I guess it is easier to make electronic apparatus, that only needs a low dc supply, as one unit and then supply a mains adapter for the country in which it is used, but there surely is a big enough market at around 230V 50Hz to warrant producing things with the adapter built in so that you simly plug it into the mains.

Mordenman – Using an adapter means that the appliance itself runs on low voltage and I presume it does not have be designed or pass tests that would apply for a mains-powered appliance.

Braun produced some cleverly designed shavers that did not need an adapter. They would plug into any mains supply between 100 and 240V at 50 or 60Hz and also recharge (albeit slowly) from a 12V boat or car battery using the same lead.

I bought a new Braun shaver recently and that was supplied with an adapter, presumably because it could be used in the shower (what’s the point of this?) or cleaned under a tap (very useful). Obviously any appliance designed to get wet cannot be plugged directly into the mains.

I accept the need for adapters but it would be useful if manufacturers labelled them or incorporated a blank label to prompt the user to do this.

home says:
10 June 2012

You could definitely see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to mention how they believe. Always follow your heart.

AllenBaker says:
27 April 2013

Hey really good idea, I don’t know why all these battery chargers are not same, I think they should be same and we can charge any battery with the same charger, If i told you, you wouldn’t believe how many chargers i have. So i think it should be same and no confusion.