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What Apple's new Lightning connector means for you

Dan Frakes | Sept. 14, 2012

The iPhone 5 offers many improvements over its predecessor, including a larger screen, better performance, LTE, and an improved camera. But for those upgrading from an older iPhone, there's another change that might prove to be more significant, at least when it comes to compatibility: a new dock connector. Apple has done away with its proprietary--and nine-year-old--30-pin connector in favor of a new, smaller alternative. Why did Apple make the change? And what does it mean for you--and for your existing accessories? Here's a look at this new connector, dubbed Lightning.

30 pins, nine years

Apple's 30-pin dock-connector port has been a staple of iPods, iPhones, and iPads since the third-generation iPod hit store shelves back in 2003. While most media players offered simple USB connectivity for data and charging, Apple's single port offered a slew of functionality: power, audio-out, playback control, and speedy data syncing were among the initial features.

Over the years, the 30-pin port has gained some features (HD-video output, photo importing, and USB input, for example) while losing others (FireWire charging and data transfer), but it's served us--and Apple--well: Along with Apple's Universal dock-cradle design, the 30-pin port ensured that if we bought an accessory with a dock connector--speakers, docks, car chargers and mounts, you name it--that product would work with any recent i-device.

But the 30-pin dock-connector port wasn't without flaws. For starters, it was somewhat fragile, making it prone to break either the accessory or, worse, your iPhone or iPod under stress. The connector's thin profile and only-fits-one-way design also made it more difficult to use than, say, a standard USB port: Depending on the device and the accessory, it could be a challenge to line up the connector and port (especially on the iPod touch and recent iPad models, thanks to their curved edges). Finally, the 30-pin connector took up a lot of space, both on the outside and the inside, and as Apple's phones, tablets, and media players are getting smaller and thinner, that real estate has become more and more precious.

First Thunderbolt, now Lightning

All of which is to day that we shouldn't be surprised that Apple has, with the debut of the iPhone 5 and new iPods, slimmed down the dock-connector port. Specifically, the new models sport what Apple is calling the Lightning connector. (Yes, Apple now has Thunderbolt and Lightning connectors. Cue "Bohemian Rhapsody" jokes.)

The new connector uses an 8-signal design that works in both orientations, so you never need to worry if you've inserted the plug the wrong-way-up. Apple says that in addition to being easier to use, the Lightning connector is also more durable than its predecessor. The company also describes the new connector as all-digital.

 

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