Watch Those Chargers!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A quick scan of the headlines in my Lifehacker feed this morning reminded me of an article I encountered by accident a week or so ago. This was a couple of days after I'd noticed bizarre, random "dialing" behavior on my smartphone upon attempting to charge it one evening with the AC charger from a phone charging kit I'd received as a gift.

Whitson Gordon sums up the problems that off-brand phone chargers can pose:

The short version of his findings: Official chargers are the best, off-brand chargers from manufacturers like Belkin and KMS are okay, and knockoffs are a $2 safety hazard. If you're looking to buy an official charger from Apple or Samsung, buy it directly from them to make sure you don't get a knockoff. And, if you're trying to save a few bucks by buying a third-party charger, just know that it's a clear case of "you get what you pay for" (though our favorite cheap cable retailer, Monoprice, seemed to be an exception to that rule).
Ken Shiriff reports the following, after testing a variety of chargers. I think this is likely what is wrong with the AC charger in my set. (The set also comes with a 12 V DC charger, which exhibited no such problems when I was using it.)
A poor design can suffer several problems. If the output voltage is not filtered well, there will be noise and spikes due to the high-frequency switching. At extreme levels this could damage your phone, but the most common symptom is the touchscreen doesn't work while the charger is plugged in...
During charging, my problem manifested as random numbers appearing on my login screen without my doing anything, as well as my own inability to provide input. I initially guessed that I had a bad USB cable. This turned out to be a problem with the set, but swapping in another cable did not make the problem disappear. Thinking I had a problem with the phone or the software -- All USB chargers are the same, right? -- a few Internet searches left me scratching my head and adopting a wait-and-see attitude. After I ran into Shiriff's article, I quickly confirmed that the problem was nonexistent with my phone's regular charger, but returned with the other charger. (I also learned that the charger's USB cable was defective, too, and discarded it.) 

My thanks to Ken Shiriff to sharing his enthusiasm for electronic devices and his expertise. He lifted a minor cloud of doubt about my phone from my mind and possibly kept me from damaging it with a bad charger.

-- CAV


Dismuke said...

My previous phone had a problem with low priced off brand chargers. I would buy a charger and it would work for a short period of time. But eventually the phone refused to recognize every such charger - the phone would display an error message indicating it wasn't compatible. Sometimes in a pinch I could unplug and replug a few times and get it to work. I am guessing is that what happened is the voltage from the charger ended up going out of specs.

The problem with official chargers is: good luck finding one on short notice once your phone is more than a few months old. I have always gotten my phones/smartphones from Verizon's retail stores as they are my carrier. But if the belt clip on your case suddenly breaks or you lose your charger some months later, when you go back to the Verizon store, chances are they no longer offer that particular model of phone and stopped carrying all accessories for it once their inventory was sold out. And when you ask, the clerk often looks at you like you are some old fossil and says with a hint of superiority in his voice "that's an OLD phone." Yeah, old. It was purchased less than a year earlier. I guess to be one of the cool kids you have to go out and replace your phone every few months as soon as a new model is introduced.

Sure, you can go on ebay and usually find official chargers and cases for sale and usually at a price much lower than one would pay at a Verizon store. But that is of little help if one needs a replacement NOW.

Personally, I find that annoying. It is not like chargers and cases take up a whole lot of room. Verizon could easily maintain an inventory for every phone they have sold over the past two years (the time frame that the contracts on company subsidized phones usually run) in a back room cabinet. And the markup they charge on accessories is HUGE - my guess is more than enough to make up the cost of storage space.

Anyhow, so much for my little rant. Bottom line is, unfortunately, if you need something on the road or cannot wait for an online order to be delivered, very often your ONLY alternative is some off brand charger. And good luck at even finding an off brand case on short notice. And when you do find an off brand case, my experience is they are usually inferior if not worthless.

Gus Van Horn said...


I agree that the way many phone companies sell phones is asinine, especially the common practice of making accessories like chargers overpriced. This is epitomized by Apple, a company I otherwise admire in many ways.

As noted by David Pogue:

"That’s way, way too expensive. These adapters should not be a profit center for Apple; they should be a gesture of kindness to those of us who’ve bought accessories based on the old connector. There’s going to be a lot of grumpiness in iPhoneland, starting with me."

Apple apparently decided to start selling a new proprietary connector on iPhones, making an entire universe of peripherals in need of 30-40 dollar adapters to be useful with their new phone.

Given that so many businessmen are short-range pragmatists, I would hardly be surprised to learn that some phone makers deliberately have ways for their phones to detect proprietary chargers and complain when they aren't being used.


Anonymous said...

GVH wrote:

Apple apparently decided to start selling a new proprietary connector on iPhones, making an entire universe of peripherals in need of 30-40 dollar adapters to be useful with their new phone

This isn't the first time Apple thought this up. When I first started in the PC market, back when the IBM PC had just been introduced, I went to work for Compushop - the people who first sold the Apple II at retail.

They were dropping the entire Apple line because some twit at Apple dreamed up the idea that you should have a proprietary cable for every CPU/Printer combination. So if you had an Apple II going to an Applewriter, and you bought an Apple III, you'd have to buy a new cable even though they had the same type interface. This was achieved by scrambling the pinouts on the printer side. In effect, they were requiring the retailers to triple their computer printer cable inventory to service their customers. And CompuShop said, "Nuts to that!"

I never did find out if Apple followed through with their plan, but given that their premiere retailer at the time quit them over it, one would "think" that they would "re-think" that one.

I guess if you have a spectacular product, people won't leave you for your asinine and arbitrary behavior - but they probably wish they could.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


I often wonder just how successful "razor-and-blade" companies (that still charge for the razors) would be in a more rational culture. It amazes me that so many people just shell out the bucks for things like that.