posted by David Adams on Mon 26th Oct 2009 19:32 UTC
IconThe "wall wart" is one of humanity's worst inventions (not counting all of the inventions that are actually intended to kill and maim each other, I'll admit). AC-plug power supplies are a cheap workaround to various engineering, economic, and regulatory problems that manufacturers face, and they solve those problems by pushing them off onto end users. So what can we do about it? OSNews takes a look at an ingenious workaround to the Wall Wart problem, and some hopeful trends that might make them a thing of the past.

It's generally more expensive to design a small electronic device with a power supply built-in, especially if heat dissipation and electrical isolation are an issue, and it's more difficult to get a product with a built-in power supply approved with the CE and FCC than it is to just buy an already-approved external power supply and build on that. And of course, since AC electrical infrastructure is such a crazy quilt of voltages and plug types around the world, it's easier for manufacturers to design a single DC-based device and then include the proper adapter for each country it wants to ship to.

So now you know why every small electronic device has one of these, so what's so bad about them?

  1. It essentially divides your device into two parts, and if you lose or damage the power supply, it won't work until you find a replacement.
  2. There's no standardization of voltage, polarity, or terminal type or size, so while it may be possible to use a wall wart from one device in another, there are so many variations, you're just as likely to find that even if the plug fits, it won't work, or will even ruin the device.
  3. If you want to travel with a bunch of devices, particularly ones that need to be recharged, you can find yourself lugging around a whole briefcase full of awkward-to-store, bulky power supply cords.
  4. They are inefficient, turning precious electricity into useless heat. In many cases, the devices they power need just a trickle of current, but a torrent of electricity is burned off as heat, even when the device isn't in use. More efficient power supplies exist, but they're not as common since they're more expensive.
  5. And finally, and most annoyingly, having the power supply housed in an oversized black wall plug makes it difficult for several devices to be plugged into the same outlet or strip, and makes it easy for the plug to fall out, if the wall wart is particularly heavy.
Wall warts have become such a universal nuisance that besides having given them an insulting slang name, we've pretty much accepted them as a part of how the world works, and have developed ingenius ways of coping. You can buy a bunch of outlet saver small extension cords to make room on your power strip, or you can buy a strangely-shaped power strip, such as the squid, flying saucer, pyramid, or just plain big and bulky.

One of the most elegantly-designed wall-wart-friendly devices I've seen recently is the wall adapter from 360electrical. It's a company that's headquartered close to where I live, and I asked them to send me their latest product, the 4 outlet rotating surge protector. As you can see from the picture below, each outlet rotates 360 degrees so your wall warts can be tilted away from each other. It't the perfect accompaniment to the outlet behind my nightstand, where a lamp, cordless phone, mobile phone, and sometimes a laptop need to be plugged in. It replaced a very bulky traditional surge protector/power strip, and I love it.

360 electrical

If you're really cool, you could install the built-in 360electrical outlets into your wall (but I honestly don't think they're as useful, partly because the 360 degree turning is mostly useful when you need four outlets, and partly because a surge protector is pretty useful).

But enough capitulation to an unnecessary nuisance! What we really need to do is get rid of wall warts altogether. On this front, there is a very promising trend that's worth examining: USB-power. No, I'm not talking about the proliferation of ridiculous USB-powered desktop appliances, such as eye massagers, room fresheners or foot warmers (see this link). I'm talking about regular, useful devices that draw their power from a standard USB outlet. The two that I have are the iPhone and the Jawbone Bluetooth headset. Each can be plugged into a computer's USB port or an included (small) AC adaptor. When I travel, I only need to bring the cables, which I can plug into my laptop at night. If I need it in the car, I only need an auto-USB adaptor, not a special cable. Very handy. However, both of these devices are lacking the final step: they still require a special cable, because they use proprietary connectors. The iPhone, at least, uses the iPod connector, which is proprietary but ubiquitous. The Jawbone uses a nifty magnetic connector, but if I lose it, I'm screwed.

Back in February,  at the GSMA Mobile World Congress conference, 17 handset manufacturers indicated that they would be standardizing their chargers on the Micro-USB format. Then, last week, the International Telecommunications Union threw its weight behind the initiative.  Though this standardization push covers only phones, undoubtedly phone accessories and other small peripherals will follow, and the micro USB plug is small enough that it will be a good fit for even featherweight accessories like Bluetooth headsets. Early in the process, RIM, Palm, and Apple weren't on board, but now the newest RIM and Palm devices use micro USB, and I've seen some reports that say that Apple has signed on to the initial agreement, but no hard evidence that this is so.  Apple is alone among handset manufacturers in that its decade-long drive to make the iPod connector ubiquitous has made things quite convenient for iPod and iPhone owners, therefore the buyers of any theoretical Apple device with only a micro USB connector would be at a major disadvantage, being unable to use all of the thousands of iPod-enabled accessories. So Apple has two bad options: embrace the new standard and make a staggeringly large installed base of accessories obsolete, or ignore the standard and slowly see accessories moving to micro USB, requiring Apple device users to use an adapter.

Despite all this, even if not everyone can agree that to have micro USB on one end of the cable, if they can at least agree to have standard USB on the other end, it will make a big difference.  If the trend continues, I could even imagine homes being wired with a centralized DC power supply sending power to wall-mounted USB power ports throughout the house.  Now, USB is limited to 500mA, so more power-hungry DC devices, such as halogen lamps, wouldn't be able to use that kind of infrastructure, but many devices around the house would, such as all the various battery chargers, cordless phone bases, postage scales, clocks, and office appliances.  Making this move would not only be convenient, but it would save a lot of electricity, replacing a house-full of inefficient, cheap power supplies for one efficient one.  Perhaps even devices like TVs and Audio equipment that are notorious for sucking power even when on standby could be configured to draw from a central DC source while on standby and only pull AC when in operation.


OSNews contributors do not receive direct compensation from any covered company when writing product reviews or articles. Most products reviewed are sent to OSNews by their manufacturers or distributors, some of whom ask for their products back, some of whom don't. Though we do sometimes decline to write a review of a product that we find to be particularly lacking, our coverage of a product is based purely on its merits, and we do not participate in any paid placement or quid pro quo.

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