The Best Chargers for Your Phone, Tablet, Laptop and Other USB-C Devices


Joanna Stern

Friends, Journal readers and iPhone owners, lend me your ears. I come to bury Apple’s tiny white iPhone-charging cube, not to praise it. The evil that it did as a slow, easily lost piece of e-waste definitely won’t live on after it.

On Tuesday, Apple announced its new iPhone 12 models will no longer come with a charging brick—or earbuds—in the box. Now, Apple will only include a USB-C-to-Lightning charging cable. It will sell its 20-watt charger separately for $19 and a brand new $39 MagSafe wireless charger, designed for the new phones but compatible with older ones. Bye-bye, little brick. (Maddeningly, you can still buy one! If you do, I’ll never speak to you again.)

Way #1: This is outrageous! A company worth over $2 trillion is selling phones that can cost nearly $1,400 a piece, and it wants us to pay more money just to charge them?

Way #2: This is great! Bring your own charger (BYOC!) is what you should have been doing all along. The old 5-watt brick is painfully slow, huffs and puffs at even the thought of powering an iPad and is years behind what you can get from an accessory maker for the cost of a breakfast at IHOP. Plus, Apple says there are over two billion of those power adapters and old USB cords in the world—and they’re just going to end up in a landfill.

No surprise, I fall into #2. With the arrival of new technologies that sound like they belong in a Defense Department briefing (i.e. GaN, PD, USB-C), the market is stacked with smaller, speedier charging bricks capable of simultaneously powering all your gadgets. No more packing a different charger for each device (assuming we ever pack again). Besides, there are some handy new wireless charging options, too.

USBC Digital AV Multiport Adapter.

Small chargers, the same size as the one that used to ship with iPhones, can now charge your phone three times as quickly.

I’ve spent the last few weeks testing nearly 30 bricks and wireless pads to make sense of it all. Whether you’re planning to buy a new iPhone or just streamlining your power plan for older gear, getting the best charger doesn’t mean running up your charge card.

Best Charger for Your Phone

If you loved Apple’s 5-watt charger for its cute design that didn’t block multiple power outlets, get ready to be happy: You can now get four times the power in the same size brick.

The Apple 5-watt took nearly two hours to charge my iPhone 11’s battery to 50%. The 20-watt $20 Aukey Omnia Mini and Anker Nano took just 30 minutes. (Apple’s just released $19 20-watt charger should be just as fast, but I haven’t tested it yet.)

USBC Digital AV Multiport Adapter.

The Aukey Omnia Mini, pictured right, is the same size as the old Apple 5-watt charger but charges an iPhone three times as fast.

Watt’s up with that? Literally, watts. According to my tests, the iPhone 11 is capable of receiving up to 22 watts during its fast charging period—that is, to about the 50% mark. It gets more power faster with a 20-watt charger. Just remember, while higher-wattage chargers can have that benefit, charging speed is governed by the phone’s software, to protect the battery. And as you’ve deduced, a 30-watt charger—or even a 100-watt charger—doesn’t have a huge speed advantage over a 20-watt one.

This new crop of small chargers uses USB-C versus the traditional USB port (aka USB-A). USB-C is capable of much faster power transfer. Plus, the ports and cables are reversible, so you never again have to worry about the plugging-it-in-upside-down dance. And although—unlike virtually every other gadget—iPhones haven’t moved to USB-C, their new included cords have Lightning on one end and USB-C on the other, so they’ll work with the latest bricks. Need one of those cords? I recommend this braided one from Anker.

Another big reason for the speed? Power Delivery (or just PD). This standard is like a conversation between the charger and the phone. Once they’re connected, the charger inquires about the phone’s max power, then tries to send that. When the phone’s battery hits a certain percentage, usually around 70%, the phone’s software regulates the speed. From that point, the time to 100% can take longer.

Best Charger for All Your Gadgets

Charging your phone is easy. The real charger Holy Grail is that single brick that powers it all. Just picture it: one wall socket powering up your phone, laptop, tablet, AirPods, smartwatch and sundry other tech-whatchamacallits, all at the same time.

These multi-port chargers have gotten faster thanks to USB-C, smarter thanks to PD, and smaller thanks to GaN, a new technology nicknamed after a semiconductor made from gallium nitride.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

How do you charge your gadgets? What tricks do you have for reducing the wire spaghetti? Join the conversation below.

Instead of the typical silicon, gallium nitride is 40% more energy efficient and doesn’t generate as much heat when in use, said Gene Sheridan, chief executive of Navitas Semiconductor, which makes the key component for most GaN chargers.

When shopping for GaN chargers—often denoted in the product listing—look at two things: the ports and the wattage.

I tested a number of 60-watt GaN chargers with two USB-C ports. That was enough to fast charge my iPhone 11 and iPad Pro at the same time. It was also fine for charging a 13-inch MacBook Pro on its own. My favorite of all those was the $53 Anker PowerPort III 2-Port.

But the newer 100-watt options will give you more power to dole out—and they’ve come down in price. Heck, the $57 100-watt Aukey Omnia Mix4 4-Port charger, with two USB-C ports and two USB-A ports, is smaller, cheaper and more powerful than Apple’s $69 61-watt MacBook Pro charger. After this column published, Aukey’s Mix4 sold out. While the company expects it to be back in stock soon, the $60 90-watt Omnia Mix3 3-port is another good option.

USBC Digital AV Multiport Adapter.

The 100-watt Aukey Omnia Mix 4 4-Port charger (left) and the Anker PowerPort III 2-Port (right) plug into one wall outlet but can simultaneously charge a bunch of gadgets.

Spotting differences between these chargers on Amazon (or even all splayed out on my basement floor) is like trying to taste the difference between Poland Spring and Aquafina. Even the testing results were similar—unsurprising since many have similar internals.

Ultimately, I just recommend buying from established brands like Anker, Belkin and Aukey, all which offer customer service and proper safety certifications for their chargers.

The Best Wireless Chargers

Uh, excuse me, but isn’t the future wireless? What’s with all these cords everywhere?

It’s going to be years before you can do away with all the cords. Wireless charging still has plenty of limitations. Older iPhones can only receive 7.5 watts of power wirelessly, and even with Apple’s improvements to the iPhone 12, it can only receive 15 watts when paired with Apple’s new $39 MagSafe charger.

A big issue with wireless charging is that if your device isn’t aligned in the sweet spot of the charging pad, it can’t receive power efficiently, or at all. Many wireless chargers pull plenty of power from the outlet that doesn’t actually make it to the device.

USBC Digital AV Multiport Adapter.

The new iPhone 12 models have a magnetic back that enables fast charging via this $39 Apple MagSafe wireless charger.

The iPhone 12 models, however, have a magnetic disc that aligns them with the MagSafe charger. While the MagSafe charger does support the Qi wireless standard—so you can put an older iPhone or Android phone on it—you won’t get the fast 15-watt speeds; it’s limited to just 7.5 watts output.

The craziest part? Even if you buy a $39 MagSafe charger you still need to buy a separate USB-C charging brick to plug it into the wall. Nope, that doesn’t come in the box. So, really we’re talking around $60 here, at least. And when it’s in place, there’s still a cord sticking out from the back of the phone. (I will be testing some of the iPhone 12 models with Apple’s wireless charger soon, and will share my recommendations.)

These wireless asides notwithstanding, the path forward should be clear. Dance on the grave of that old 5-watt charger and purchase a good USB-C brick. Then enjoy life in the fast-charging lane.

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Appeared in the October 15, 2020, print edition as ‘Brick or No Brick, Pick a Charger for All.’