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Getting started with MagSafe, the iPhone 12's best new feature

Apple reveals newest iPhone
Apple reveals newest iPhone 01:35

Apple's latest iPhone upgrade includes an overhaul of its accessories thanks to MagSafe — magnetic technology that lets you attach things like wireless chargers to protective cases to the back of your iPhone. Despite being expensive and not fully baked, it's the coolest new iPhone feature in years.

MagSafe was introduced with the 2006 MacBook Pro as a power cable that magnetically attached to the computer with a satisfying snap. Apple modified the tech to work with this year's iPhone 12 and, in October, released a suite of magnetic accessories including new cases, wireless chargers and a wallet. Apple also licensed MagSafe technology to developers like Belkin in hopes of building a third-party ecosystem of magnetic accessories.

Like a lot of first-generation Apple devices, the result is a mixed bag. Some of the early products that use MagSafe are kludgy and expensive. But it's so useful that it's not hard to imagine how Apple and developers might take advantage of the platform.

How MagSafe Works

MagSafe for iPhone is a bundle of component technologies that includes a magnetometer, an updated wireless charging system and a single-coil NFC loop.

The magnetometer is an elegant solution to an irritating iPhone problem. Apple introduced wireless charging in 2016 with the iPhone 8. The feature works great if your phone is directly aligned with the coils inside most wireless chargers. But if it's misaligned or gets bumped, the phone will charge very slowly and sometimes not at all. 

The magnetometer embedded in Apple's cases for the iPhone 12 solves this problem by sensing and aligning the phone to the charging coil. This assures a consistent and rapid recharge.

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Apple

There's a catch. Fast-charging will work only if you use a 20 watt-or stronger USB-C power adapter. At $20 dollars each, replacing old Apple chargers with USB-C could be costly. Apple stopped including a power plug with the iPhone 12, and previous iPhone adapters only supported slower 5-watt charging speeds. That means you'll need to update your adapter to take full advantage of the new system. 

MagSafe's single-coil NFC reader is fairly limited, but could eventually turn out to be the product's best feature. NFC stands for Near-Field-Communication and allows devices to swap a limited amount of data. In phones, it enables everything from cashless payments to mobile boarding passes. 

The iPhone 12 MagSafe NFC loop can tell the difference between various connected devices, like a smart wallet and a wireless charger, but that's about it. In future, MagSafe NFC might exchange data with other products, like Apple's AirPods headphones and the Apple Watch.

What it can do right now

For now, there isn't a killer must-have MagSafe feature. But that could change quickly.

MagSafe is embedded in Apple's iPhone silicone and leather cases, as well as a new wallet, and a slipcase protector. The wallet snaps to the phone, and the cases snap to MagSafe chargers. Each works well, but it's all kind of boring.

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Apple

But because Apple licensed the technology to third-party developers, MagSafe has the potential to become a fun ecosystem of useful, magnetic smart gadgets. For example, Belkin makes a magnetic car dashboard mount. Future iterations of the technology might let the iPhone snap to, and recharge, wireless headphones or trade music playlists with other smartphones.

Of course, the feature could also strike out with consumers. The price and hassle of upgrading chargers and connectors could initially discourage a lot of people. Apple has discontinued some products, like the AirPower charger, while others flopped, such as the first HomePod smart-speaker.

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