Did you ever hear ‘The Tragedy of Finding a Third-party, Fast-charging Apple Watch Power Bank’? I thought not. It’s not a story Apple would tell you. It’s a wearable reviewer legend.
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Today was simply another Thursday when my colleague and The Verge’s senior news editor, Richard Lawler, tagged me in a Slack thread. Upon opening said thread, I pterodactyl screeched. Behold, the Belkin BoostCharge Pro — a $99.99 10,000mAh power bank with a lil divot that lets you fast charge a compatible Apple Watch or second-gen AirPods Pro on the go (and any device that charges via a USB-C cable at up to 20W).
Is it expensive? Yes, especially since it’s not yet available and only open for preorders. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who isn’t a wearables reviewer or smartwatch devotee for scoffing. It’s a sensible reaction, and I fully understand why you may think I’m a Dingus of the Highest Order for being this happy about an unproven gadget. I also understand that I may have done the equivalent of flushing $108 (with sales tax) down the toilet if this power bank turns out to be a dud.
Here’s why I’m willing to take that risk.
Smartwatches have the distinction of being one of the few gadget types that still rely on proprietary chargers. I have a Medusa’s nest of smartwatch chargers from Apple, Samsung, Fossil, Google, Fitbit, Garmin, Mobvoi, and a dozen other miscellaneous wearable brands divided into several drawers and bins. Whereas legislators can nudge phones, tablets, and other gadget makers to unite around a charging standard, powering wearable tech comes with unique challenges.
Frustrated with my “collection,” a few years ago, I called up designer Gadi Amit, who founded the NewDealDesign agency that Fitbit previously used for several products. He told me that every standardized connecter, be it USB-C or something else, is essentially too large to work with a wearable that’d be small enough to comfortably wear. That also extends to wireless charging coils.
Another issue? Smartwatches place health tracking sensors on the bottom so they can sit on your skin, while the display is placed on the opposite side so you can actually see the dang display. That leaves device makers with very limited options as to where they can physically place a charging mechanism. Complicating matters further, companies may not use the same sensors or components from one device to the next. Any dramatic overhaul of internal components or design change may then require a totally new charger, even if it looks nearly identical to the old charger.
Flagship smartwatches also have a reputation for unimpressive battery life compared to the more power-efficient fitness bands of yore. Advanced GPS, always-on OLED displays, continuous health tracking, cellular connectivity — all of these are battery-zapping features. The more advanced the watch, the worse the battery life will be. Software innovations have improved battery life over the years, but fast charging is a quick, easy, and comfortable compromise to the smartwatch battery conundrum.
The only issue is that fast charging has different technical requirements than regular charging. And that means — you guessed it — adding this feature requires a brand-spanking new proprietary charger. In the case of the Apple Watch, once Apple introduced fast charging with the Series 7, it meant you needed the new USB-C Apple Watch charger and a power brick that could deliver more than 5 watts of power. Those tiny cubes that used to come with Apple devices? Those won’t work. And for “e-waste reasons,” the newer power brick is not included when you upgrade to fast charging-compatible Apple Watches.
And this is why it can be confusing for the average consumer to tell at a glance whether they’re using the right smartwatch charger and power brick combo to enable fast charging. As my spouse says, “It does not help that the old and new chargers look pretty similar.” (Pro tip: always check if it has a USB-C connector and silver backing on the puck.) That’s just with Apple’s own chargers, which cost an arm and a leg to replace if you lose them. It can be a wild free for all on the third-party market if you don’t do your due diligence. And even if you want to stick to Apple chargers only, those don’t always work, either.
Case in point: Apple’s MagSafe Duo. Although it costs an absurd $130 for the privilege of charging your iPhone and Apple Watch on the go, you cannot use it for fast charging the watch.
Those third-party 3-in-1 charging stands? Only some of them support fast charging for the Apple Watch Series 7, 8, and Ultra. Even if you’re buying them from accessory makers that Apple works with — like Belkin. I made the mistake of asking for a 3-in-1 Belkin charging stand for Christmas, and my relatives did not check to see if the one they got me supported fast charging for the watch. I am now stuck with it, even though it doesn’t have the one thing I need in the mornings when I wake up for an hour-long run and my Apple Watch battery is at 10 percent. The result is my nightstand is a spaghetti mound of labeled cables so that even half asleep, I can pick out the correct charger for the correct device to charge at the correct speed.
Forget travel. I do my best to pack the correct chargers, bricks, and power banks for the three to five wearables I’m testing whenever I’m away from home. I have goofed in spite of myself. Worse yet, the magnetic wireless pucks and pins used by wearable chargers are not what I’d call secure. You can plug your phone into a regular power bank, throw it in your backpack and be confident your phone will charge. This is not true of smartwatches. It depends on whether the spirits of your ancestors will bless your magnetic charging puck on a given day and whether you jostle around in transit.
This is a me problem, sure. But even if you don’t review wearables and have dozens of cables to choose from, there’s always a risk of leaving a cable behind, grabbing the wrong one while packing, and having the choice of either buying a new charger… or accepting your watch is dead until you get back home.
I do not know whether this Belkin BoostCharge Pro will live up to its promise. I’ve been burned so many times that I’m trying to temper my expectations. But the idea that this little divot in the picture, the one where it looks like I can securely strap my Apple Watch to it and plug in my phone? And potentially eliminate two or three extra cables from my bag? And give me confidence that if I grab this one thing, I’ll be 100 percent confident it will fast charge my device? And maybe let me toss my smartwatch cables in exchange for an assortment of 3-5 power banks? For once, enough hope burns in my shriveled heart that I preordered the damn thing to test it myself.
Bless Belkin for even trying to conjure this into existence. Bless the army of copycats that will likely get on board and do it for a cheaper price. Bless the inevitable copycats of copycats that will do this for Samsung, Google, Fossil, and other smartwatches.
I will report back as soon as this thing ships.