/ 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.

Comments
Guest
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.

Guest

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?

Guest

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

Guest
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.

Guest
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.

Guest

Rose

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.

Guest
Peter Ford says:
1 February 2011

Rose,

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

Regards,
Peter

Guest
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?!

Guest

Err…..

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.