The Hippo


Apr 24, 2014








When one plug won’t plug in other plugs

By John Andrews

Yes, yes, new iPhone, yada yada. By the time this column is published, news of the super-amazing iPhone 5 will be a week old, and anyone desperate for information will have already found it. Bigger screen, whoopdidoo. Thinner design, yay.

There is one thing I want to talk about: the new iPhone’s new connector. Rather than use the same venerable Dock Connector that’s been on all previous iPhones and on iPods since 2003, Apple chose to create a brand new proprietary port called Lightning. It’s smaller, which it allegedly needed to be to accommodate the thinner and lighter casing, and has fewer pins.

That means none of your accessories that plug into the old Dock Connector will work without an adapter. An adapter Apple is happy to sell to you for $29, which adds about an inch of bulk and awkwardness to any cable or dock, and doesn’t support analog video out because the pins just aren’t there in Lightning.
That’s not the only adapter the new Lightning port has inspired. Tech blog Engadget reported that, because the European Commission requires all smartphones to have a standard microUSB port for charging, there’s a Lightning-to-microUSB adapter for sale in the French and British Apple store sites. And to make up for the lack of video support, another blog, The Verge, reported that Apple will soon offer adapters to convert Lightning to VGA (the old 15-pin connector that many computer monitors still use) and HDMI (the high-definition standard used by televisions).

A friend recently consulted me over online chat with a similar adapter problem. She wanted to plug a microphone into the headset jack of her phone — also an iPhone, but it could’ve been any smartphone — and have it record audio. Although the physical plug looks basically identical to a headset or headphone plug, the arrangement of electrical contacts is different. That required an adapter to make sure the active contact of the microphone touched the microphone input contact of the headset jack, as opposed to the right headphone or left headphone contact.

As she said to me, “WHYYYYYY DO YOU AUDIO PEOPLE MAKE THIS SO HARD?!!” Quite simply, engineers can’t anticipate or accommodate every single way a connector might be used in the future. The microphone plug had two contacts: one for signal and one for electrical grounding. A traditional headphone jack has three: ground, left channel, and right channel. Cell phone jacks were designed later and have one more, for the microphone input. You can use ordinary headphones because the different contacts at least line up, but that’s not true for microphones.

Adapters also exist for cases when the original connector gets redesigned, usually to be smaller. USB was originally created with A and B ends. A is the flat rectangle that plugs into your computer and B is the squarish one that plugs into devices like printers. It wasn’t long before USB was being used on much tinier devices like cameras, media players, and phones, and that giant B connector just wouldn’t do. A flatter, “mini” B connector was created and became a de facto standard on many devices. Then the phone makers got together and decided a very slightly smaller connector, a “micro” B, should be the actual standard. Thus a whole slew of adapters came into being.

So that’s why you’re forced to have short adapters with different ends all over the house. Sorry.

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