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New ways to fuel up power-hungry gadgets

New chips, longer-life batteries and power pads offer hope for travelers used to tangled power cords.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2003


A road warrior can never forget Rule No. 1 for mobile gadgets: pack the power.

Chargers, charging cables and extra batteries have to be lugged along for notebook computers, cell phones, personal digital assistants, digital cameras and other high-tech gear.

Even though battery life has improved over the years, the gadgets they run also have become increasingly powerful and power-hungry. It's easy to forget when your batteries go dead that you can talk hours longer on a cell phone, use a laptop computer more and take additional digital photos between recharging than you could just a few years ago.

Frustrated consumers rank poor battery performance as a top complaint about mobile gadgets. But there's hope travelers will be able to untangle that cluster of cords and chargers and simplify their power needs.

Manufacturers are coming out with more power-efficient devices, and battery companies are incrementally extending the life of their products.

Intel, for example, has introduced a new chip called Centrino for laptop computers. It uses less power and manages the computer's processor speed based on the type of application being used. (Text requires less processor speed, and so devours less power, than video).

Among other inventions, there's a solar-powered charger, the iSun from ICP Global Technologies (www.isunpower.com/html/). The $80 device plugs into products such as cell phones, PDAs and MP3 portable music players. Its solar chargers require a sunny day, and recharging for three hours can give almost two hours of talk time on a cell phone, depending on model.

And there are longer-lasting batteries, such as Panasonic's PowerEdge for digital cameras. The company says the battery lasts more than 40 percent longer than alkaline batteries used in digital cameras. At a list price of $5.99 for a four-pack, it doesn't cost much more than regular alkalines.

Eventually, liberation from cords and chargers could come in the form of power pads.

"Our technology is what we call wire-free," said Izhar Matzkevich, general manager and vice president of marketing at MobileWise Inc. (www.mobilewise.com) in Palo Alto, Calif.

MobileWise's recharging system uses a pad that plugs into a wall socket. It has bumps on the surface that act as contact points.

Devices, including laptops, cell phones and handhelds, would have to be manufactured with an adapter chip inside. Then the devices simply could be placed on the pad, transferring power from the pad to the gadget. More than one device could be recharged at a time, in about the time required for a regular charger.

It's a smart pad, too, Matzkevich says. It regulates the amount of power, making sure not to fry the device. If a user spills water on the pad or one area shorts out, it cuts off current to the affected area of the pad.

"It has multiple layers of safety built both into the design of the base and also the adapter chip," Matzkevich said.

Privately held MobileWise will license its technology to electronics manufacturers. Matzkevich declined to discuss the company's revenues. Among those saying they will use the technology are Acer and Samsung, and the first gadgets with it likely will debut in Asia this year.

MobileWise initially is emphasizing the tech for road warriors because "They understand what being wirefree means," Matzkevich said. But the company also anticipates its pad being used to charge power tools, appliances, even toys.

Also, power pads of various sizes could be built into office furniture, seatback tray tables on planes, hotel rooms, classrooms, even car dashboards. MobileWise says pads that could be rolled up for easier travel are possible.

Prices for the system will be set by manufacturers, though MobileWise chief executive Andy Goren has been quoted as saying bases could start at $175 or so. Adapter kits for older gadgets also will be available at some point.

MobileWise is not alone in developing this kind of recharging system. British company SplashPower is developing what it calls the SplashPad, and devices that work with it also are expected on the market this year.

- Times news researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires. Dave Gussow can be reached at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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