Choice and Power Supplies

So Many Connectors

Being a gadget guy, I find I end up with a load of power adapters. There are two basic types:

  • 'Wall warts' with a build-in mains plug (or sometimes with an integrated mains flex)
  • Bricks with a connector to plug in a mains flex

I generally prefer the latter, since as Sin-Yaw observed there are multiple international standards for mains connectors and I prefer not to have to use an conversion dongle for long term use. Additionally, wall warts tend to have a fixed voltage corresponding to the country whose plug they carry (since there are multiple standards even after a century of use) whereas bricks tend to accept any mains voltage. The down-side of bricks is that the connector for the mains flex can vary, but of late the majority have had 2-pin figure-of-8 connectors.

There's enough variability at the mains end, but it's nothing to the variability at the gadget end. While many devices use a 5v supply, it seems no two devices use the same connector and polarity to deliver that 5v supply. As a consequence, when I travel I used to have to carry a whole bag of black spaghetti to be sure everything was powered. There's plenty of choice, and there are standards involved, but it all serves the manufacturers rather than the customers.

I say “used to” because increasingly I am choosing things that charge from a USB lead . I don't think the group that defined USB intended to define a standard for power plugs, but increasingly I am finding that gadgets come with a mini-USB connector so that they can be charged from any USB socket. So my bluetooth headset and mobile phone both use this method, and I no longer need to carry two of the power adapters that used to be in the spaghetti bag.

I now have a growing collection of useful things that work with this USB power standard, all from different places and all interchangeable. So I have a car-socket-to-USB plug, wall-warts for US & UK that deliver USB, and each new gadget that comes with a USB/mini-USB lead makes it easier to leave a cable ready everywhere. And since most power comes through my computer, there are fewer wall-warts left plugged into power sockets acting as electricity vampires.

I hear some Asian countries agree with me and are starting to make laws standardising on this approach, making a USB connector the only approved way to supply power. That restriction on unwanted diversity has to be good for customer choice as well as for energy conservation.

Part 1: Choice and Light Bulbs
Part 2: Choice and Flash Memory


Oh yes. USB has definatey revolutionised this world. I've heard that there is a new technilogy coming up that would replace USB in terms of transfer speeds. I think lenovo is developing it. Not too sure though. Will post it here once i find out.

Posted by Call center outsourcing on July 05, 2007 at 09:19 PM PDT #

I get the point. Now I wonder why the folks at Jabber are so persistent when we have SIP.

Posted by Kishor Gurtu on July 05, 2007 at 09:47 PM PDT #

Kishor: As I recall from my days at OMA, that is yet another case where it's all about the corporate interests fighting for control rather than about delivering customer value. I have yet to see a case where duplicate "standards" delivers customer value. Maybe there is one, I am assuming someone will point it out as this series proceeds!

Posted by Simon Phipps on July 05, 2007 at 09:54 PM PDT #

Often you can't put two wall warts together on a power strip or wall outlet. Most wall warts are single voltage because they're simple step-down transformers with a rectifier, capacitor and (if you're lucky) a voltage regulator. The switching supply circuitry used in bricks are more expensive but they're much more efficient and are usually able to operate across a wide range of input voltages. It's technically possible for an electrical outlet standard which would accept any device and automatically deliver the required voltage, (e.g. teakettle 240V, TV 110V, Laptop 12V, Child's fingers 0V) but getting the industry to agree to a standard will be difficult. USB and IEEE 1394 have the ability to deliver requested current, but USB plug standards have already diversified. The trend in batteries seems to be going from open standards (C,D,AA) to proprietary vendor batteries (Sony, Canon...)

Posted by bnitz on July 06, 2007 at 02:59 AM PDT #

The electricity theft is done by the passive Power bricks that are just a transformer in a plastic shell, there are newer technology here that uses active components such as thyristors to achive another voltage . These units are extreamly low on passive current comsumption. A transformer based power brick can steal 5 - 10 Watts while an active unit typically uses less than 1 watt in passive mode. //Lars

Posted by tunla on July 09, 2007 at 05:14 AM PDT #

+1 Phone chargers. If you upgrade and keep to the same manufacturer, chances are you will still need a new in-car charger and your old wall-charger won't work. Is there really that much innovation / added value to me in how my phone gets charged up?

Posted by James Abley on July 09, 2007 at 06:39 PM PDT #

I've been making this transition myself for quite a while, and now have my bluetooth headset, RAZR phone, and Palm T3 PDA all running off of USB. If you are lucky, some vendors at trade shows give out tiny little USB hubs, which, when added to the car-to-usb or wallwart-to-usb adaptors, allows me to charge all my gadgtes with one wallwart. I also happen to have a wallwart with interchangeable plugs, making it slimmer for traveling even if I use the same plug type all the time. And I still regret not getting more of them, since I can't find them anymore (isn't that the way with useful things), but I have a 1 foot heavy duty 3 outlet extension cord, so even if I have special gadgets with me, I only need one wall outlet to cover most of them, with out taking much packing space.

Posted by Perley on July 10, 2007 at 04:38 AM PDT #

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Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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