Dell's Latitude Z and Its Wireless Charging Misses the Green Boat

Images via Dell

Dell has released the Latitude Z, a high end business laptop. One of the key ooh-ahh features is that it has a wireless charging capability. For an extra $200, you can purchase a stand that will charge up your laptop without any cords. And yet, this is possibly one of the laptop's most un-green features. The stand works via inductive charging. You plug in the stand, but the laptop can just be set on top, without having to be plugged in to the stand. According to Dell, it charges your laptop as rapidly as a standard charger. This is wasteful on two levels.

First, inductive charging is very inefficient. There is always some energy lost between the wall and the laptop with standard chargers - even as much as 50% with more inefficient chargers. That's why there is such a push for Energy Star-rated chargers that boost this inefficiency up. But when we move to inductive charging, those efficiencies drop dramatically as inductive charging is less efficient than simply plugging into the wall with an Energy Star-rated charger. We've seen gadget chargers that use inductive charging, and it just doesn't seem to be a very green option, even for small gadgets.

Secondly, the stand doesn't replace a standard charger. You get the plug-in charger with the Latitude Z as usual, and pay extra for the inductive charger. That means for anyone interested in it, they're consuming two separate pieces of electronic equipment to use specifically with one laptop that will only be around for two to three years, on average. Unless they use the stand as simply a stand for their next laptop, it just becomes another piece of e-waste.

Once the battery is charged, it does have an energy-saving feature that can make the charge last up to 12 hours. "Latitude On" mode allows users to boot up in under a second, and allows access to Internet, email, contacts and calendar. You can't use other programs, since it uses a separate processor for a full boot up. But for business people in meetings where additional programs are unneeded and only connection to these primary programs is called for, that's a great way to conserve battery life. Without this mode, the 4-cell battery lasts (supposedly) the average 4 hours expected of a laptop battery, and the 8-cell battery option lasts (supposedly) 8 hours.

Now, charger issue set aside, the Latitude Z did make EPEAT Gold, primarily because of material selection and end-of-life design. It also has a mercury-free LED, Arsenic-free display glass, and BRF/PVC(Halogen)-free components.

But unfortunately, it completely misses the green boat when it comes to trying to utilize inductive charging on a laptop that comes with either a 40 W/hr or 80 W/hr battery. When energy efficiency is such a key issue for electronics - especially since much of the electricity that simply gets wasted is likely coming from coal fired power plants - having an inductive charger for a laptop is just simply wasteful.

UPDATE: I just ran across this piece of information from jkOnTheRun: "While inductive charging is prone to lose up to half of the energy due to the technology, Dell maintains their method charges at over 70 percent efficiency." I'm still highly skeptical.

However, I'll be talking Dell's lead inventor of the technology very shortly to get more details. I'm sincerely hoping I'll have to eat my words. It'd be wonderful if this charging could be as efficient or more so than a standard plug-in charger. That way the only thing wasteful about it is excessive materials consumption, which is arguably (very arguably) less damaging to the environment than excessive electricity consumption.

And one other point - even if the wireless charging stand turns out to be more than 70% efficient, there is still the issue of vampire power. If someone wants to green up their charger a little more, they either need to plug it into a smart power strip (yet another piece of equipment), or they need to mess with plugging and unplugging the wireless charger (making it not any more convenient than a standard charger).

Well, enough with the negativity. I'll keep you updated on what more we learn about the stand's efficiency levels!

UPDATE: Good news! We spoke with Dave Baarman, Director of Advanced Technologies for Fulton Innovation and lead inventor of eCoupled wireless power technology and the wireless charger for this laptop, utilizing eCoupled technology, is indeed (from what they say) as efficient as a standard charger. From what Baarman says, the efficiency of the wireless charging stand is actually limited by the charger the laptop comes with. The owner uses the laptop's charger to plug the stand into the wall, and since the charger is about 70% efficient, so is the charging stand. Baarman stated that if they weren't limited to the efficiency of the laptop charger, their wireless charging stand would see efficiencies in the 80-90% range.

Additionally, it uses intelligent charging, as in it detects when a battery is full and shuts off so there is zero draw when not charging, eliminating vampire power. This is accomplished by the charging stand containing a storage capacitor, so that it can still detect whether or not a device is on the stand and charging without drawing power itself. The company designed a storage capacitor that can be charged up along with the device, and when a device has completed its charge, a signal is sent to turn off the main power. The charger goes into ultra low power mode so it can detect while drawing very little power from the storage capacitor.

Baarman says they see this technology embedded in coffee shop tables and conference and hotel tables, in cars, and other places where people are apt to forget or lose their chargers, so that not only is the technology convenient but would also save waste.

This is all interesting stuff, and if the efficiency rates and intelligent charging capabilities are legit, then seeing this embedded in tables in offices, hotels, coffee shops and so on would be amazing.

However, for this device, the fact is you still use your laptop adapter to plug the stand into the wall, so it isn't exactly convenient for going wireless, unless you plan on only using the laptop for a couple hours max before returning it to the stand. But the innovative idea is certainly there.

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Tags: Electronics | Energy Efficiency | Gadgets


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