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Apple’s MagSafe technology: Sticky, both literally and metaphorically

My brief mention in the teardown that I just submitted (and you’ll either have already read or will read soon, depending on EDN’s publication order preference), of MagSafe wireless support in the charging dock for the Lenovo Smart Clock 2, reminded me that I’ve intended for a while to deliver some dedicated coverage of this Apple-branded technology. No better time than the present to actualize this aspiration, I suppose…

I’ve actually editorially introduced MagSafe already, in the context of a wireless charging pad teardown I did in late 2022. The term dates all the way back to 2006, when it was first applied to a magnetic coupling technique for powering and recharging laptops:

After taking it through two generations, the second more svelte than the first, Apple phased it out from laptops beginning in 2015, only to bring it back as MagSafe 3 six years later. I’m approximating the approach for the new-to-me Intel-based 2020 13” Retina MacBook Pro I migrated to while on Thanksgiving holiday last week (as I write these words on December 1) by means of a third-party USB-C intermediary that works pretty well (although I admittedly wish the magnets were a bit stronger):

That said, one year earlier, Apple had already resurrected the MagSafe brand name, albeit this time focused on a different product line: smartphones. Beginning with the iPhone 12, the company augmented its Qi-baseline, proprietary-enhanced integrated wireless charging scheme (which had dated from 2017’s iPhone X) with magnets, initially promoted to optimally align the device with charging coils. And even that wasn’t the first time Apple had implemented magnet-augmented wireless charging; it’s been the (proprietary protocol-only, in this particular case) standard for the company’s smart watches ever since 2015’s initial Apple Watch Series 1:

MagSafe got “personal” for my family when I upgraded my wife from the iPhone XS Max she’d had for the past several years (at left in the following photo):

to an iPhone 14 Plus (at right in the following photo) for her birthday earlier this year:

I took advantage of the opportunity, of course, to also pick her up some accessories; a couple of Apple MagSafe chargers along with third-party stands to install them in:

A MagSafe Duo for travel, since she also owns an Apple Watch (the watch charging pad is on the right; recall that as I previously mentioned, its charging scheme is proprietary-only, therefore incompatible with other Apple and more general Qi-supportive devices):

A Belkin charging dock for the car:

Several third-party multi-device chargers (she also has an AirPods Pro earbuds set with a Qi-compatible charging case, don’cha know):

Both Apple- and Speck-branded cases (along with several screen protector sets, of course):

Two Apple MagSafe Battery Packs:

A “wallet” for some paper currency, a credit card, identification documentation and the like:

And a nifty Belkin mini-stand that also does triple-duty as webcam stand and “finger grip”:

Admittedly, at least some of these are primarily-to-completely “convenience” purchases. After all, her existing Qi chargers continue to work fine, albeit in a non-magnetic-attached fashion. Others offer more meaningful enhancements to the status quo. Take cases, for example. The magnets built into the phone aren’t strong enough to grip a charging base through a standard leather, silicone, or plastic case intermediary. Instead, you need specific MagSafe-compatible cases with their own built-in magnets, appropriately polarity-oriented to attract (versus repel) both the phone and charger on either side. To that “attract” point, however, these cases don’t need to intensely wrap around and otherwise cling to the phone as their non-magnetic predecessors did; the magnets do all the “clinging” work by themselves. Which is nice.

Same goes, even more so, for supplemental batteries. She was used to ones like this:

which were not only bulky but also a pain in the derriere to install and remove. Now she only needs to slap a diminutive battery onto the back of the phone, where it’ll magnetically cling when the internal battery charge is low.

The more general charging situation is interesting. As I already mentioned, some companies dodge it completely, selling only stands into which you slip an Apple-branded charging pad:

Others, like my 2022 teardown victim, avoid the word “MagSafe” completely (while, note, still claiming iPhone compatibility), presumably in an attempt to dodge Apple legal attention:

Some, while actually chargers, state only that they’re “MagSafe compatible” (such as the Belkin car dock I showed you earlier). I’m not clear whether the manufacturers of such products are required to obtain a license from Apple so they can officially make such a claim, but they generally don’t support the maximum power output that iPhones accept, for example.

And others are fully “Made for MagSafe”. From what I can tell, among other requirements their suppliers need to put official Apple charging modules in them in order to brand them as such:

That said, Apple still keeps some feature set niceties to itself. Apple’s own battery packs, for example, are the only ones capable of reporting their charged state (specific percentage, versus just approximation LEDs built into the batteries) via a software-enabled display on the phone itself. And Apple’s “wallets” are the only ones with nifty integrated “Find My” location support.

Admittedly, I was initially somewhat cynical of the whole wireless charging concept, primarily due to its inherent environment-unfriendly inefficiency, and I doubled down on my scorn when Apple rolled out what I initially opined as being the MagSafe “gimmick”. Perhaps obviously, I’ve subsequently had at least somewhat of a change of heart since then. Partly, this is due to the admitted reduction of repeated insertion-and-removal wear-and-tear on a device’s charging port (Lightning, USB-C, etc.) that wireless charging affords. And once you take the wireless charging plunge, the magnets are legitimately beneficial in ensuring that the charging pad and device are optimally aligned for peak efficiency.

To wit, as I write these words the Qi consortium and its members are in the process of rolling out version 2 of the specification (and products based on it), also magnet-augmented (among other enhancements) and claimed MagSafe-compliant. And in advance, I’ve already purchased Mous MagSafe-compatible cases for my two Google Pixel 7 smartphones:

along with two Belkin magnetic external batteries:

And although my DJI gimbal has a magnetic mount which isn’t natively MagSafe-compliant:

a third-party adapter sturdily bridges the divide:

One other comment before concluding: as I mentioned a few months ago, Apple’s latest iPhone 15 smartphone family has migrated from Lightning to USB-C, following in the footsteps of several iPad family predecessors. As such, and in a seeming prematurely rushed fashion (the company still sells other Magsafe- and Lightning-based phones, after all), Apple in-parallel discontinued both the Lightning-based MagSafe Battery Pack and Magsafe Due charger, with no USB-based successors (yet, at least) unveiled as I write these words. Odd.

And speaking of the MagSafe Duo, I have “for parts only” examples of both it and the MagSafe Charger sitting in my to-do teardown pile. Stand by for writeups on both products to come, hopefully soon. And until then, I welcome your thoughts on this piece in the comments!

Brian Dipert is the Editor-in-Chief of the Edge AI and Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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