A new company called Aira thinks it can build what Apple couldn’t: a Qi-compatible wireless charging pad that allows people to charge multiple gadgets, regardless of how they’re placed on the mat. I got to see early demos of the tech at CES this week, and while I see the promise and feel relatively assured that the charging pads will eventually work, they aren’t ready for primetime just yet. The closest thing to AirPower still needs more work. (And before you get too excited, no, it can’t natively charge an Apple Watch.)
Aira made its big debut at CES with multiple closed-door meetings to show off the tech. Aira isn’t making pads itself; for now, the tech is being licensed for use by Nomad, which also set up a floor booth to give demos of its Aira-powered Base Station Pro.
Nomad announced the Base Station Pro in October with initial plans to release it by the end of 2019. The pad can charge up to three devices simultaneously, and I had no problem charging my iPhone 11 Pro, regardless of where I placed it on the mat. But I can see why the pad was delayed: the Base Staton Pro struggled to detect my AirPods Pro, and when I put my phone on the edge of the mat, its OLED screen flickered on and off. At another point, a coil “went down” on the left side, meaning nothing placed on that side could charge, which required me to only use the right side of the pad. Nomad’s team says they’re working alongside Aira to fix these issues and that they’ll only release the pad when it’s ready. Nomad is currently aiming for early 2020. The pad will cost around $200, but Nomad says it hopes to eventually release cheaper, smaller pads that only charge two devices.
Aira says the fix for these issues requires a software update, which the company has been working on. “The bugs experienced with the AirPods and the flickering have already been solved in the final firmware that will be shipping with the first product (and beyond),” an Aira spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We just weren’t able to finalize the firmware in time to get it on demo devices here at CES.”
The Base Station Pro can’t charge an Apple Watch since it relies on a proprietary charger, and Aira CEO Jake Slatnick says it’ll be up to charging pad manufacturers to decide how they want to address that limitation. “It’s unfortunate that the Apple Watch is locked down,” Slatnick tells me.
Slatnick says he doesn’t think most people will necessarily need this specific wireless charging tech for their Apple Watch, suggesting that people charge their device on their bedside table at the same time every day, using the same Apple Watch holder. His company’s technology, he says, is ideal for the car or work when people aren’t settling in for the night. I don’t buy that excuse, though — the dream is all of my wireless gadgets charging at once! Presumably, Aira’s partners will come up with something to attach to their pads. (No third party has figured out how to natively charge an Apple Watch, for what it’s worth. Many include holsters that an official Apple cable can be slot into.)
Nomad’s team plans to eventually release a version that includes a dedicated Apple Watch holder attached so people can place their other devices on the mat and then set the Watch in its rightful place. That product might come as soon as May. The pad itself is relatively thin, at least no thicker than any other wireless charging pad, and it features a leather top. The team went for a classy, subdued look. Although Nomad has issues with the product, it says it’s serious about releasing it, albeit only when it’s foolproof. It’s already ordered 20,000 units-worth of components.
Strangely enough, I didn’t have any issues with Aira’s demo charging pad. It worked as advertised. I placed my AirPods, my iPhone, and Slatnick’s iPhone on the pad, and it didn’t have a problem recognizing and charging the devices. I placed my phone sideways, too, with no problems. Granted, the pad was small, so there wasn’t a ton of space to play around with, but Aira seems to deliver what it said it would. The pad’s also surprisingly thin because the company didn’t have to stack coils on top of each other to pull this off.
Slatnick says Aira’s technology could be applied in a variety of ways and in various places, like in cars or furniture. The pad I demoed requires 18 hexagonal coils to charge three devices. The coils and the circuitry are proprietary, and Aira didn’t allow me to shoot the back of the complete pad for this reason. Slatnick says the company’s software is the key to the entire operation, though. It allows for “rapid device detection” using less power than what’s currently on the market. It also creates what Slatnick calls “dynamic sweet spots,” finding the best combination of coils to create a “sweet spot” under each device to charge it.
The tech supports up to 15W wireless charging, and Slatnick says Aira’s software keeps the pad from overheating. Aira’s solution also apparently works even with bulkier cases, like OtterBoxes, as well as with PopSockets attached. Slatnick says the phone can be 9 to 10mm away from the charging pad for it to charge. I didn’t test it with a bulky case, although I do have a case on my phone.
So what went wrong with AirPower? Why couldn’t Apple launch it? Slatnick wouldn’t speculate, but Nomad co-founder Brian Hahn thinks it might have to do with the coil size inside the Apple Watch. He says his team hasn’t run into overheating problems, which was widely speculated as a reason for AirPower’s failure. “We don’t believe we solved something Apple couldn’t do,” Hahn says. But part of the struggle with charging AirPods, he says, is its small coil size, and the Apple Watch’s is even smaller.
We all wanted AirPower to exist so we could charge our Apple Watch, AirPods, and iPhone at the same time. But that reality doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen — at least not until Apple opens up the Watch’s charging standard and, if Hahn is right, possibly opts for new hardware. Regardless of the actual reason AirPower failed, what Aira and Nomad are releasing is the best and closest option we have to it so far.
Photography by Ashley Carman / The Verge