Mag….Safe?

With the introduction of the iPhone 12 in October 2020, Apple resurrected its MagSafe trademark and gave it new life. MagSafe was reimagined to establish a new accessory ecosystem for the iPhone and solve a few problems along the way. But does MagSafe succeed in solving problems? Does it offer real benefits over previous solutions and what does it signal about the direction Apple is headed in?

The MagSafe ecosystem currently comprises of three categories. Charging, Protection and Attachments. In this review of MagSafe, we’ll take a look at each of these. First, though let’s take a closer look into the problems Apple wanted to solve with MagSafe.

Chargers, Protective Cases and Attachable accessories.

A Bumpy Start

Apple first began to experiment with wireless inductive charging with the Apple Watch in 2014 using a proprietary magnetic charger. Later in 2011, Apple added wireless inductive charging to the iPhone 8 and iPhone X using the open Qi standard. The former was born out of necessity to some extent to enable the form factor of the Apple Watch. The latter was a welcome move in the industry that helped to usher in wider adoption of wireless charging. Apple certainly wasn’t the first to add wireless charging to a smartphone but thanks to their unquestionable market power, it encouraged others to follow. Now wireless chargers are everywhere. Existing wireless chargers do come with some drawbacks, however.

  • They tend to be slower than wired charging
  • Wireless charging is less efficient and the heat generated by the induction process can damage your battery when using certain cases
  • The precise alignment required to ensure charging takes place can be easily disrupted by the slightest nudge. All too often this results in checking your phone to find that it didn’t charge

Apple was well aware of these problems and tried to solve some of them with its failed AirPower concept. AirPower would have allowed you to drop your phone anywhere on the charging surface without the need for precision alignment. It would have also enabled multiple devices to be dropped onto the charger at the same time. Sadly the prototypes just didn’t yield the quality and safety that Apple needed to meet. The multiple stacked charging coils in the product did succeed in negating the need for precision alignment but came with unfortunate consequences. The coils created far too much heat to operate safely and consistently. The failure here though wasn’t that Apple tried to do something new. Apple’s failure was they that pre-announced AirPower several months before it was due to ship. The company just assumed that the engineers would solve these problems but they didn’t. AirPower was cancelled and Apple had to publicly admit its failure. That’s where MagSafe comes in.

Apple’s scrapped AirPower charger. Image – Apple

Charging

The entire iPhone 12 range supports Qi wireless charging in addition to charging via the companies proprietary lightning cable. This time, however, Apple has added a carefully arranged system of magnets and radios positioned around the Qi charging coil. These magnets are attracted to opposing magnets on Apple’s new MagSafe charger and MagSafe Duo charger for iPhone.

Image – Apple
MagSafe Duo. Image – Pixel and Polygons

This system is clever because it ensures precision alignment with the charger every single time. Similar to the Apple Watch, the MagSafe charger just snaps into place. No more waking up to find that your phone hasn’t charged. Precise alignment also ensures the most optimal charging speed. Apple also added in nano-crystalline shielding to the iPhone to mitigate some of the heat and power fluctuations generated during wireless charging. The connection to your phone feels firm and it easily lines into place. The magnets have just the right amount of resistance to prevent knocking the phone off the charger while still being easy to remove it from the charger. I think charging is the most important part of the MagSafe story and I love it.

The MagSafe Duo adds extra value because it incorporates an Apple Watch magnetic charging puck that can be used upright or laid flat. It’s handy because it means you don’t need to remove your watch band when it’s time to charge. The MagSafe Duo is also very portable. It can be folded in half for travel and even inverted if you want to save space and just charge either your iPhone or your Apple Watch. Being able to charge an iPhone and an Apple Watch at the same time is super handy and is a nod to the promise of AirPower. AirPower was planned to support charging AirPods at the same time. While MagSafe and MagSafe Duo can’t charge three devices simultaneously, the technology does also incorporate Qi. That means you can still use them with an older iPhone model, AirPods or even any Qi-enabled device albeit without the precision alignment.

MagSafe Duo laid flat with an Apple Watch charging. Image – Pixel and Polygons

Both the standard MagSafe charger and the MagSafe Duo provide 15 watts of safe, efficient and fast wireless charging. This does, however, require a 20-watt power adapter that isn’t included in the box with the iPhone 12 series or indeed either of the chargers. Both of the MagSafe chargers are sold separately. The MagSafe charger costs £39 in the UK and the MagSafe Duo costs £129. The 20-watt power adapter is an extra £19. MagSafe

Protection

The second category of accessories in the MagSafe ecosystem is protective cases and covers. This doesn’t necessarily solve a problem in of itself. Regular phone cases for the most part are easy enough to fit. MagSafe cases do however have a few tricks up their sleeve. They incorporate magnets just like iPhone 12 to ensure that the precise alignment afforded by MagSafe chargers is not disrupted. A regular protective case would act as a barrier to the magnets in the phone which defeats the purpose of using a MagSafe charger. By adding magnets to the cases and covers themselves, it means you don’t need to remove them each time you want to charge your phone to benefit from using a MagSafe charger.

The circle of magnets are indicated as such on the inside of the MagSafe case. Image – Pixel and Polygons

Magnets aren’t the only thing that Apple has added to its MagSafe cases. They also added an NFC chip to the cases that pairs to a corresponding NFC chip built into the iPhone. The NFC chip contains data that tells the iPhone what colour case you’ve put on your phone when you put the case on. The iPhone then displays an animation that is colour matched to the case. Is this necessary? no. But it does add that bit of extra magic to the experience that makes it all the more delightful. An NFC chip is also embedded in Apple’s MagSafe chargers. That means you’ll see an equally pleasing animation each time you lay an iPhone 12 down to charge (regardless of if you have a MagSafe case on or not).

Attachables

The last category of MagSafe accessories are extras that attach to your phone to add functionality beyond protection. For its part, Apple has created the MagSafe leather card wallet (£59). The wallet is slim, elegant and can store three credit cards. The wallet attaches to your phone with a pleasing thud that like the MagSafe charger lines up easily and feels satisfying. It can be used with your iPhone 12 with or without a MagSafe case. It also has an embedded NFC chip and when you attach it to your iPhone, you’ll see an animation appear on the display in the shape of the wallet. More of that surprise and delight from Apple!

Apple’s MagSafe Leather Wallet. Image – Pixel and Polygons

Some reviewers have suggested that when putting their phone into their pocket that the wallet is easily knocked off. Personally, I wear skinny jeans most days and the wallet hasn’t once fallen off of my phone. I totally agree with Peter McKinnon that this is a total non-issue. If you can’t put your phone in your pocket with the wallet attached then wait till you discover shoelaces….sigh. I was sceptical about the wallet but when using it myself daily I haven’t encountered a problem.

The other type of attachable comes from Belkin. They have created the ‘Magnetic Car Vent Mount Pro’. This is essentially a regular vent mount for use in the case but with embedded magnets that align perfectly with the ones that Apple has built into the iPhone 12. It means you can easily mount and dismount your phone from your car dashboard. Before this, you could buy magnetic car vent mounts from third parties that supplied you with a magnetic strip in the box that you would attach to your phone case. The Belkin solution doesn’t require any such strip because the iPhone 12 already has the magnets built-in. This product is the first officially supported third-party MagSafe product but I highly doubt it will be the last. I haven’t tried it yet but check out this video from trending reviews for more detail.

Wrap up

With MagSafe, Apple has solved many of the pain points associated with wireless charging. They’ve redeemed themselves to some extent of the failure that was AirPower and has spawned a new ecosystem of delightful and yes, innovative accessories. I think if you look to the horizon Apple has laid the groundwork for some interesting possibilities in the future and the hints are already there. We’ve even started to see a few unofficial MagSafe products emerge including a MagSafe battery pack!

I’m quite intrigued to see what third parties come up with over time. The fact that MagSafe can transmit data via NFC, as well as power, does hint at wider use cases. I suspect the limiting factor will be the speed and amount of data that can be passed through via NFC but that remains to be seen. There is also the question of what Apple will and won’t permit. As with their ‘MFi’ (made for iPhone) program, officially supported accessories will need to seek a license from Apple. That means accessory makers will incur a royalty fee to embed MagSafe and will need to comply with strict regulations imposed by Apple. Hopefully, that doesn’t stifle the potential of MagSafe but that success or failure will be of Apple’s own making.

The longer-term implications of MagSafe suggest an ever more wireless future for the iPhone. The European Union intends to legislate to force all manufacturers to use the same charging port (USB C) to reduce e-waste. Rumours have suggested for several months now that Apple plans to kill the charging port on the iPhone. By eliminating the charging port in favour of wireless charging, the legislation would no longer apply to Apple. And with MagSafe, the company can continue to charge license fees via its MFi program while avoiding scrutiny thanks to the continued support of regular open standard Qi chargers. Well played Apple. I’m on board.

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