iPhone XS Smart Battery Case Preview

Smart iPhone battery case
Smart iPhone battery case (Image credit: iMore)

First, Guilherme Rambo found an icon in the watchOS beta. Then, he found an image. Now, Apple Premium Reseller Accessory Merchandising Guidelines and another image. We could be about to see the second coming of the Smart Battery Case. A modern Smart Battery Case for iPhone X-series phones. And it could be coming soon.

The Smart Battery Case is one of my favorite Apple products of the last few years is. Apple released it late — December late — in 2016 and utterly failed to provide any messaging or context or marketing around it. As a result, most reviewers took one lazy look at the hump and ran a few feeble price per milliamp our calculations and then not only dissed and dismissed it across the internet, but used it as a springboard for all sorts of "Apple's lost it's design smile" hottest of hot takes.

Yeah, the same people who constantly complained about Apple putting form over function so always, took one look at a product that decidedly didn't, and completely lost it.

And you know, I get it, that was one hella ugly hump and understanding the difference between raw power and power efficiency is, you know, like, work. It took me a bunch of conversations with Apple and with some very kind, very patient radio and battery nerds way smarter than me before I understood just what was going on inside that brilliantly fugly little hump case.

Here's the gist: Everyone wants more power. Instagram, Pokémon Go, computational photography, augmented reality, everything thats light up the screen, the radios, the location services they all demand more. And when you're out all day or you're traveling, you really need more. Lots more.

Now, you can double the size of the battery inside. That's the easy answer. But batteries aren't RF transparent, which complicates radio engineering, they're insulators, which complicates thermal architecture, and they're heavy, which can make the phone harder to hold up for extended periods of time. And when you can't watch all the videos, read all the articles, play all the games you want for as long as you want, you start to wonder exactly which jerk came up with the whole doubling the battery size bit anyway.

The better answer is to keep the phone itself light and stripped down and essential — the Siracusian naked robotic core. Then, slap on extra battery or extra anything else when and as you need it.

But previous battery cases were a mixed blessing.

They often covered up antennas, reducing reception, forcing radios into overdrive just to keep a signal, and, burning a ton of power just as they were supposed to be adding extra charge.

They were also treated by the operating system as the equivalent of outlets, so the phone would go from power-saving mobile mode to power spending plugged-in mode, opening up all the updating, syncing, and downloading, willy-nilly, without a race-to-sleep care in the world, and again, burning a ton more power when it should be building up charge.

Oh, yeah, the dirtiest of drain secrets, the bitterest of battery ironies.

And exactly what the Smart Battery Case was designed to fix.

Instead of covering up the radios with non-RF transparent battery, Apple cut it away on the sides. Yeah, leaving the stuff of Dieter Ramm's worst design-is-how-it-works nightmares — a hump the likes of which you could never not see — but also something that not only didn't interfere with reception but actually included a passive antenna to boost reception. That way, rather than start screaming for signal, the radios could keep their chill and your phone could really get its charge on.

Also, iOS could understand the difference between the case and a plug, so the iPhone could stay in mobile mode. That way, none of the more power intensive and expensive processes spin up, all the chips could still race-to-sleep, and the charging could be as fast and efficient as possible.

The case would also manage charging for both itself and your iPhone, minimizing the amount of charging cycles for the latter, so it could maintain the best health possible. Because, it's easier and more convenient to get a new Smart Battery Case every couple of years than to take your phone in for a battery replacement.

It all added up to Smart Battery case the best way to add extra power to your iPhone. The hump was form-over-function and "milliamp efficiency" the critical stat.

Whenever I went out with iPhone 6s or iPhone 7, I had the Smart Battery case with me. It got me through travel, and conferences, and shows where there was often no time or place to plug in and where lousy reception and roaming would otherwise shred my battery life,

But, as fantastic as this all sounds technologically, and as much as I loved it, it's also important to point out it wasn't perfect, at least not for everyone.

Some people do want their phones to act like they're plugged in when using a battery case or battery pack. Others don't want the system managing when the phone charges and prefer an on/off switch manage themselves. And still others were like, you're giving me all this extra case, why don't you give me back a 3.5mm headphone breakout on it at the same time?

And when the smart battery case for the iPhone X series launches, if it doesn't launch with inductive charging on the back because coils and batteries and heat and science and simplicity and — whatever — I'm sure we'll have some people super salty about that as well.

But, you know, I've been using iPhone X and iPhone XS for over a year now and it's been a champ, even under the grueling load of reviewing and writing about its every new flaw and feature. It manages to last almost as long as my iPhone Plus of yore but fits in my hand and pocket like the regular sized iPhone. It's blissful.

Adding a Smart Battery Case to it, one I can slap on and strip off whenever and wherever I need to, will literally be the icing on the power cake. It'll go from tanky to full on tanker.

So much so, it continues to make me wish Apple would explore a range of smart iPhone accessories. Top of the list, a Smart Camera Case with some serious optics to front all the serious computational power we have inside these days.

When are we getting the smart battery case for the iPhone X series? Well, I hope not while I'm editing and posting this video. But, like with anything involving power these days, I'm learned only to expect it only when I see it.

Still, this is probably the Apple product I'd most love to show up in stockings this holiday season. If not, it'll be one of the first things I buy in the new year.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.