Hands on with Apple's Lightning to 30-pin Adapters

We test Apple's new Lightning adapters

The changes to Maps in iOS 6 may have gotten the lions share of negative coverage since the iPhone 5 debuted. But back on September 12, when the company announced the latest iPhone and iPod models, the harshest criticism was reserved for the Lightning connector, Apples replacement for the venerable 30-pin dock connector.

The new plug has some clear benefits. Its size allows Apple to create thinner and smaller devices; its design means you can't insert the Lightning connector the wrong way; and Apple says it's much more durable than the older 30-pin connector. The problem, of course, is that none of the thousands of 30-pin accessories on the market and in people's homes, cars, or offices work with the Lightning connector.

The latest iPhone and iPods include a USB-to-Lightning-connector cable, but you don't get any sort of adapter for using the new devices with older accessories. For that, you'll need to turn to Apples $29 Lightning to 30-pin Adapter or $39 Lightning to 30-pin Adapter (0.2 m), which is the cable version.

Each of these adapters lets you connect 30-pin-dock-connector accessories to the latest iPhone and iPod models by offering a Lightning-connector plug on one end and a female 30-pin port on the other. You insert the Lightning-connector plug into your iPhone 5, seventh-generation iPod nano, or fifth-generation iPod touch, and then attach the 30-pin end to the dock connector of your favourite speaker system or other compatible accessory. The main difference between the two adapters is that the standard version is a single piece, just 0.8 inches long (not including the Lightning plug), while the cable version separates the 30-pin port from the Lightning plug with a flexible, 7.5-inch (20 cm) cable that's a little thicker and stiffer than Apples standard Lightning to USB Cable. The two adapters function identically.

Nearly a month after they were announced, and three weeks after the iPhone 5 itself hit the streets, both adapters are now available. I've been testing them for compatibility, and here's what I've found.

Compatibility

According to Apple, the adapters support analog and USB audio, as well as syncing and charging, although there are some technical caveats.

Speakers and audio docks: I tested both adapters with a range of dock-cradle speakers and audio-focused standalone docks using the iPhone 5 and the latest iPod touch and nano models. For playing audio, the adapters worked perfectly with every speaker dock and audio dock I tested, both old and new. This includes newer speakers and audio docks that grab your players' digital-audio (specifically, USB-audio) output and then use a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) in the speaker or dock itself to produce an analog signal.

But the adapters also work with speakers and docks generally older models that require an analog-audio signal. These speakers connect to dedicated analog-audio pins in the 30-pin connector, relying on the iPhone or iPod to handle the digital-to-analog conversion. The challenge here is that the Lightning connector doesn't offer analog-audio pins the new connector is all digital.

The solution (and likely part of the reason that Apples adapters aren't cheap) is an actual DAC built into each adapter. In other words, the adapter is converting the iPhone or iPods digital-audio output to an analog signal and then sending that analog signal to the appropriate pins in the 30-pin connector. As an example, thanks to Apples adapters, I was able to use the latest iPhone and iPods with Logitechs mm50 speaker system, an old favourite from 2005.

That covers audio playback, but what about charging through a speaker dock? That depends on the circuitry the accessory uses to charge an iPhone or iPod. The first dock-connector iPods charged via FireWire, so early docking speaker systems were designed to charge your iPod via the 30-pin connectors FireWire-power pins. But starting with the first Windows-compatible iPods, you could charge via FireWire or USB; and eventually USB became the only way to charge. (Specifically, all iPhones, the second-generation and later iPod touch, the fourth-generation and later iPod nano, and the 2008 and later iPod classic charge only via the 30-pin connectors USB-power pins.) So accessory vendors eventually migrated to providing charging power only via USB-power pins.

Lightning-connector iPhones and iPods similarly charge only via USB circuitry, which means that if you use one of Apples adapters to connect your 2012 device to an older accessory that provides FireWire power, that accessory will not charge your iPhone or iPod, even if the adapter lets the accessory work for audio. The aforementioned Logitech mm50, for example, works great for playing music from the new iPod nano, but the nano runs off its own battery the entire time. (For a workaround, see the next section.)

The adapters also support syncing, so if your speaker dock or dock cradle old or new has a pass-through 30-pin or USB port for connecting to your computer for syncing, that feature will work with the latest iPhone and iPods.

Chargers and batteries: I also tested the adapters with a dozen or so 30-pin-dock-connector chargers and batteries. As expected, most worked properly, successfully providing power to and charging the battery of the newest iPhone and iPod models. The only exceptions, as explained above, were older accessories that provide power only via the 30-pin connectors FireWire-power pins (in other words, they don't also supply power over the USB-power pins). These power accessories won't work with the latest iPhones and iPods through Apples adapters just as they didn't work with recent 30-pin iPhones and iPods.

There is a workaround here, though it epitomizes the term kludge. A number of vendors sell 30-pin adapters that send FireWire-pin power over the USB-power pins, letting older, FireWire-only docks charge recent iPhones and iPods. A couple of examples are Scosches $25 Charging Adapter for iPod & iPhone and CableJives $23 DockStubz+. I tested these adapters with Apples Lightning adapters, and they worked fine. Of course, this setup involves an iPod or iPhone connected to an adapter connected to another adapter (see the image to the right). Even if the arrangement is stable, as it is with the 30-gram iPod nano, it's certainly not elegant. At this point, it may be time to retire that mid 2000s speaker dock or make it a dedicated dock for an older player.

Video: As Apple makes clear on the product pages for the two adapters, neither adapter supports video output. If your 30-pin speaker dock or other accessory offers a video-out jack to display iPhone or iPod video on a TV or projector, that feature wont work with the 2012 iPhone and iPod touch when connected using Apples adapters.

The Lightning connector itself actually supports video output, but these adapters don't pass video signals to the 30-pin connector. Apple told Macworld, back when the Lightning connector was announced, that Lightning-to-HDMI and Lightning-to-VGA cables will be available in the coming months.

iPod-out mode: For some people, the most disappointing limitation of Apples adapters or, more accurately in this case, of the Lightning connector itself is a lack of support for iPod-out mode, a special mode that lets particular accessories, such as car stereos and some whole-home-audio systems, display a version of your iPhone or iPods menus on the accessory's own screen. This limitation appears to be related to the previous item: The Lightning connector doesn't provide the analog-video signal that was used by older devices for iPod-out mode.

I wasn't able to confirm this limitation, as I didn't have access to any accessories or cars that support iPod-out mode, but many reports on Apples Discussions forums confirm that you can't use this feature with the latest iPhones and iPods, even with the adapter.

Microphones and other audio-input products: As noted above, Apples adapters support USB audio, and that feature seems to work in both directions: Microphones and other audio-input accessories that communicate via USB-audio protocols and worked with the previous iPhone and iPod models should work fine with the newest models using the adapters. We didn't have many of these accessories on hand to test, but we did reach out to a few vendors to ask about compatibility. Blue Microphones, for example, told Macworld that the company's 30-pin Mikey Digital works through Apples adapters.

Pro-audio company Line 6 told Create Digital Music editor (and Macworld contributor) Peter Kirn that audio products that operate using USB Host mode and follow Apple approved methods such as CoreAudio and CoreMIDI should work fine with the new iPhone and iPod models using Apples adapters.

Other products? Cloudy. Ask again later: The Apple Stores product page for each adapter notes that some 30-pin accessories are not supported. This cryptic caveat surely includes the iPod-out-mode accessories discussed above, but it also likely includes any accessories that use analog video, require power from the iPhone or iPod itself to function, or communicate using serial-port signals. It may also include older accessories that used particular electrical resistances to trigger special communication modes. And it's likely that accessories that send analog audio to the dock connector won't work. (Many vendors have, in recent years, switched to using the microphone connection of the iPhones headphone jack for analog-audio input.)

Similarly, it's not yet clear whether Apples popular iPad Camera Connection Kit will work through these adapters the kit works only with iPads, so we won't be able to test it until the first Lightning-connector iPad is released.

Practical considerations

Assuming your accessories are compatible, should you use one of Apples adapters instead of waiting for actual Lightning-connector accessories? For any kind of accessory that uses a 30-pin-connector cable, the adapters are easy to use and simply extend the length of your existing cable I have no qualms about recommending them.

Where I do have some concerns is with dock-cradle accessories, such as docking speakers, audio and charging docks, and car mounts. With many of these products, the 30-pin connector is already supporting the weight of your iPhone or iPod (unless the accessory uses Apples Universal dock-cradle design with the appropriate insert, in which case the insert largely supports the players body). With the standard Lightning adapter not to mention the additional leverage from the taller body of the new iPhone and iPod touch you're markedly increasing the torque on the 30-pin connector.

If you've got a SendStation Dock Extender sitting around, its Universal Dock-compatible back support is great for relieving some of this pressure; similarly, some speaker docks are designed to let the iPod or iPhone lean against the body of the speaker. Otherwise, you'll want to be careful not to damage the 30-pin connector. In these situations, I recommend using the cable ($39) version of the adapter, as it will let you rest your iPhone or iPod touch on the desk or table in front of the dock.

(I'm less worried about the Lightning-connector plug and port, which appear to be quite sturdy. And the new nanos shorter height and lighter weight make using it with the standard adapter less risky than using an iPhone or iPod touch with the adapter.)

There's also the matter of iPhone- and iPod-case compatibility. The standard adapter is slightly wider than the 30-pin dock connector, and the entire top edge of adapter's body sits flush against the bottom of your iPhone or iPod. So unless you've got a case that leaves the bottom of your iPhone or iPod unobstructed, chances are you won't be able to use the standard adapter. The cable version of the adapter uses a much smaller housing around the connector, so it should be usable with many more iPhone and iPod cases.

However, there's a minor hitch: The cables connector housing is considerably larger than the plug housing on Apples stock Lighting-to-USB cable. So cases designed to precisely accommodate the stock cable might not be able to fit the Lightning to 30-pin Adapters plug.

Finally, there's the aesthetic issue: Connecting your new iPhone or iPod to an older dock-cradle accessory using an adapter just doesn't look great. You've either got an extra cable in the middle, which means your player is lying down next to the accessory instead of docked in it, or you've got an adapter that looks awkward and raises your player an inch higher than expected. Whether the jury-rig appearance is enough to get you to shell out for new accessories, instead of using adapters, is up to you.

The only game in town (for now)

The Lightning connector first saw the light of day just a few weeks ago, and many accessory vendors weren't given any details about it ahead of time. So there aren't yet many Lightning-connector accessories available. That will surely change over time, but right now, Lightning to 30-pin Adapters are must-haves if you want to use your existing audio and power gear with your new iPhone or iPod.

Unfortunately, Apples $29 and $39 adapters are currently your only options there are no budget knock-offs as there are with 30-pin-to-USB cables, which can be found for a fraction of Apples asking prices. That's because Lightning cables and adapters include special circuitry that Apple licenses to third-parties, and vendors claim Apple has been slow to approve such licenses. (The only alternative we've seen so far is CableJives $30 DockBoss+, which uses your devices bundled Lightning-to-USB cable.) That said, MacRumors.com reports that at least one vendor has cracked Apples authentication chips, paving the way for inexpensive (but unauthorized) knock-offs.

Of course, there are workarounds that will tide you over until more (or less-expensive) options are available. If all you want to do is get your audio to play through an older speaker system, you can run a simple audio cable from your new iPhone or iPods headphone jack to the auxiliary-input jack of your audio system. (You can even use your devices Lightning-to-USB cable to charge while playing.) Other companies offer Bluetooth adapters that convert older speakers into Bluetooth systems: Outdoor Techs $40, battery-powered Adapt connects to your audio systems auxiliary-input jack, while RadTechs WaveJamr connects directly to (and grabs power from) any 30-pin dock connector. These solutions also have the benefit of working with non-iOS devices, including Macs and Android phones and tablets.

If you instead plan to embrace the Lightning connector and wait for third-party vendors to release Lightning-connector-equipped accessories, it's a pretty safe bet that those products will be compatible for a while. Considering the 30-pin connector had a nine-year run, I suspect the Lightning connector will be standard on new iPhone, iPad, and iPod models including the rumored iPad minifor years to come.

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Dan Frakes

Macworld.com

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