Essential accessories: Clutter busters and travel-bag basics
Our increasingly wireless lives are still dependent on physical connections. And that means cables—lots of cables. As the editor who does most of Macworld's accessory coverage, my office is overrun with cables, connectors, and chargers. Few warrant a full review or an article of their own, but that doesn't mean they should go unnoticed. Whether you're looking for worthy candidates for your travel bag or you just want to clean up your desk, here are some of the best accessories I’ve come across recently for connecting, charging, and more.
Compact cable kits
Short cables are lightweight, take up less space in a bag, and are less likely to tangle. Thankfully, it's no longer necessary to hunt down short versions of essential cables on your own, as a number of companies sell handy kits.
Micro, mini, 30: I previously covered Griffin Technology’s $25 USB Mini Cable Kit, which offers three short (3.5-inch) USB cables in one package. Incase's $25 USB Mini Cable Kit contains 4-inch versions—the length includes the connectors—of the same three cables: USB-to-30-pin (dock connector) for iPads and pre-2012 iPhones and iPods; USB-to-Micro-USB; and USB-to-Mini-USB. The actual cable sections are thinner than those of Griffin’s, making Incase’s cables more flexible and even lighter. The kit also comes with a convenient nylon carrying pouch. You can choose either the standard kit, which consists of black, white, and gray cables (for 30-pin, Micro-USB, and Mini-USB, respectively), or the brighter fluorescent kit with easy-to-spot green, blue, and orange versions.
Aviiq options: Another alternative is to choose one of Aviiq’s assorted $30 cable kits, which each include a pair of the company’s Ready Clip USB Mini Cables. Each Ready Clip cable is roughly 5.5 inches long, with a wide, flat body and a built-in clip for attaching the cable to a pocket or pouch in your bag. The Ready Clips are a bit bulkier and considerably stiffer than even the Griffin offerings, but they also feel sturdier, and the built-in clip is handy. Aviiq sells six different two-cable kits, each with a different combination of USB-to-30-pin (dock connector), USB-to-Micro-USB, and USB-to-Mini-USB cables.
Yet another interesting option, though one that I haven’t yet had a chance to test, is Aviiq’s new $30 Quick Change Universal Dock Adapter. This model is similar in size and design to the Ready Clip cables, but it combines all three connectors in a single cable with a standard USB plug on one end and 30-pin, Micro-USB, and Mini-USB plugs at the other. You just rotate the end of the cable to expose the desired connector.
Display and video adapters
In the computing world, few things are worse than standing nervously at a podium preparing to give a presentation and then realizing you don't have the right adapter for your laptop. Recent MacBooks use a Mini DisplayPort connection for video output, but few schools, businesses, and conference centers have Mini DisplayPort cables on hand.
That makes a Mini DisplayPort adapter—or two!—an essential accessory for most travel bags. To be sure you'll be able to connect, it's best to have not only a VGA version (since that’s still the most-common projector connection, in my experience) but also a DVI adapter, just in case. You may even want to carry an HDMI adapter to connect your laptop to newer projectors or to a flat-panel TV.
The usefulness of these adapters isn’t limited to laptops, either: Many of us have a Mac mini or some other Mac we want to connect to a TV or projector.
Monoprice=lower price: Apple sells a $29 Mini DisplayPort to DVI Adapter and a $19 Mini DVI to VGA Adapter (the HDMI version is currently MIA), but as with many things cable-related, Monoprice.com offers alternatives that work just as well for a fraction of the cost. For $7, you can get Monoprice’s Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to DVI Adapter, which, in addition to working with every display I’ve tested it on, also uses a DVI-I connector rather than the DVI-D connector of the Apple-branded adapter. Many DVI cables you’ll encounter out in the world are DVI-I, which has four extra pins. The Monoprice adapter can accommodate those pins, while the Apple adapter can’t.
Monoprice also sells a $13 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to VGA Adapter and a $7 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI Adapter with Audio Support for connecting to displays, projectors, and TVs that use VGA and HDMI connections, respectively. Perhaps my favorite, however, is the $14 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI, DVI & DisplayPort Adapter, which, though a bit bulkier than Monoprice’s single-purpose adapters, lets you connect to HDMI, DVI, and full-size DisplayPort displays.
If you have a dual-link-DVI display, you might consider Monoprice's $69 Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt + USB to Dual-Link DVI Adapter, which is $30 less than Apple’s version. However, I haven't tested that one.
Power strips and blocks
Chances are, you have more than one device that charges through a USB cable. Instead of clogging your wall outlets with bulky USB chargers, you can add a compact charging station that offers both standard outlets and USB-power ports.
Wall power: Targus’s $30 Plug-N-Power Charging Station with USB Charging Ports plugs into a standard two-outlet wall plate, covering it completely, and has three AC outlets and two USB-charging ports. The USB ports each supply 2.1 amperes of power for charging iPads, and the unit offers 540 joules of surge protection. If your wall outlet has a center-screw plate, you can attach the Plug-N-Power with a screw for a more-secure installation.
One drawback to the Plug-N-Power is that a bright-green LED bar lights up across the top whenever the unit is receiving power; the light draws attention to the charging station, which is already somewhat bulky. Also, the Plug-N-Power isn’t designed for use with the ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets you’ll often find in bathrooms and kitchens.
Portable power strips: Macally offers a similar but more-portable product in the $25 3-Outlet Power Strip with USB Charger. A little less than half the overall size of the Targus product, and weighing just 4.8 ounces, Macally’s version plugs into a single wall outlet and sports three AC outlets—one on the front, one on the left, and one on the right—making it easier to connect bulky power adapters without covering other outlets. The USB-charging ports each provide 1.5A of power; they can charge an iPad, but they do so more slowly than the Targus model. The prongs fold into the body of the charger for travel. Macally says the 3-Outlet Power Strip offers surge protection, but doesn’t list the protection rating.
For road warriors who need a USB hub and power, Macally sells the $40 Portable Power Strip with USB 2.0 Hub and Charger. At 5.5 inches long, 2 inches wide, and 1.6 inches thick, this 9.5-ounce power strip is a bit bulkier than the Macally product above, but it boasts two power outlets (alas, two-prong versions), a 2.1A USB-power port for charging an iPad or other tablet, and a four-port powered USB hub. (One of the ports on the hub offers 1A of power for charging an iPhone or other smartphone.) You connect the USB hub to your computer using the built-in, 10-inch USB cable, which slips into a groove in the body of the Power Strip when not in use. The Power Strip comes with a 6-foot power cable, and also offers surge protection via a built-in “power switch with protection circuit breaker”; but as with the 3-Outlet Power Strip, Macally doesn’t indicate the protection rating. (The product was originally available in white; the current model, available soon, is black.)
Looking for a permanent fix for the charging challenges in your home or office? Several vendors sell replacement outlets with built-in USB-power ports. We’ll have reviews of some of these products later this fall.
Accessories for your accessories
Yes, you can even find accessories for your accessories—or at least for your iPhone and iPad chargers. Most aim to control cable clutter and give you a place to stick your devices during charging.
Go fish: When traveling, many people charge their iPhones and iPads through their laptop’s USB ports just so they don’t have to deal with packing yet another charger. For those times when the laptop doesn't come along, consider Nice By Design’s $16 CableKeeps. Each CableKeep looks like a fish that hosts your iPhone or iPad charger in its gaping mouth; the fish’s cleverly designed tail provides a place for you to wrap your USB-charging cable (30-pin or Lightning), with notches to secure the end of the cable. The tail also serves as a convenient stand for an iPhone or iPad during charging.
The CableKeeps Goldie fits Apple’s iPhone/iPod charger, the Nibbles accommodates the iPad charger with the standard two-prong plug, and the Gulp fits the iPad charger with Apple’s international adapter. Each model is available in five colors: red, orange, green, light blue, or dark blue.
Apple pi: If you like the idea of a built-in charging stand, take a look at the $9 Pi Mount, which snaps onto your iPhone’s USB charger—thanks to pi-inspired legs—and provides a convenient cradle to hold your iPhone or iPod, even in a thin case, as it charges. Unfortunately, it offers no cable management, so unless you have a short charging cable, your USB cable will dangle down—I’d love to see the Pi Mount’s maker include a 6-inch charging cable, even if doing so increased the price of the Pi Mount. Still, for $9 including shipping, this is an inexpensive option.
Bluelounge’s $20 MiniDock and Scosche’s $25 ReviveLite II, which we’ve covered in the past, are a bit more elegant in that they don’t have dangling cables. But they’re also considerably more expensive—and they work only with older iPhones and iPods that use Apple’s 30-pin dock-connector port.
Oodles of options for iPhones, iPads, and iPods
When Apple’s new Lightning connector debuted with the most recent iPhones and iPods, it meant that iPhone and iPod accessories originally designed for the older 30-pin dock-connector port would no longer work with the latest devices. And, of course, scads of devices out there still use the 30-pin port. If you don’t want to go out and buy new speakers and chargers for your new iPhone, hold on: We’re starting to see adapters for newer devices to work with older gear. And many vendors are still making new accessories for older devices.
Lightning adapters: Apple sells a $29 Lightning to 30-pin Adapter and a $39 Lightning to 30-pin Adapter (0.2 m), a 20cm cable version of the adapter. Both let you use older audio and charging accessories with the latest iPhones and iPods. But if you need something longer, CableJive’s $30, 20-inch DockBoss+ is designed to let you use your iPhone 5 or new iPod with 30-pin-dock speakers and chargers. You connect the DockBoss+’s 30-pin female connector to your speaker or charger, and then connect your iPhone’s Lightning-to-USB cable to the DockBoss+’s USB port—suddenly you have audio and power. (If your speaker dock is older and employs analog audio, use the included 3.5mm audio cable, which connects from your iPhone’s headphone jack to a separate audio plug on the DockBoss+.) It’s not elegant, but it works.
Dock-connector audio: If you want to pipe high-quality audio to your stereo or speaker system, look to CableJive's updated $11 LineOut Pro, which is a 3-foot cable that connects to the 30-pin dock-connector port on an iPhone, iPod, or iPad to grab that port’s higher-quality line-level audio output (in lieu of connecting to the device’s headphone jack). The other end of the cable sports a 3.5mm stereo miniplug for connecting to a speaker system, receiver, or car stereo.
Another one of my favorites, also recently updated, is CableJive's $26 DockXtender. This 2-foot extension cable allows you to connect an iPhone, iPad, or iPod to any speaker dock or other 30-pin accessory. It’s great for using an iPhone or iPod in a bulky case with a dock that wouldn’t otherwise accomodate it, as well as for using an iPad with a dock made for iPhones and iPods. The updated versions of these two cables have a much thinner dock connector that should work with any case that fits Apple’s stock dock-connector cable. CableJive says that it has also upgraded the internal wiring of each cable.
Long-distance charging: I’m a huge fan of long dock-connector cables, which give you room to move when you want to use your iPhone, iPad, or iPod while charging. I previously covered a couple options, including Griffin Technology’s $30 3 Meter USB to Dock Cable. Another recent alternative, available for the same price, is StarTech’s 3-meter Dock Connector to USB Cable. The StarTech version has a slightly thinner (but still heavy-duty) cable that’s more flexible than Griffin’s product, but the bigger advantage is that while Griffin’s dock-connector plug is too thick to work with many iPhone, iPad, and iPod cases, StarTech’s plug has a stepped design that’s thinner at the end for better case compatibility.
If you're a music maker who wants to connect an XLR microphone or mixer to an iPhone, a Mac, or an Android tablet, you can do so easily. All you need is CableJive’s $35 ProJive XLR. This cable lets you connect your mic or mixer by way of a 3.5mm microphone input. The cable even sports a headphone jack for connecting a set of headphones or studio monitors to keep track of the audio input. The only hitch here is that the ProJive doesn’t support mics that require phantom power (power over the microphone cable).
For many people, a good USB hub is still an essential part of their computer setup—they simply have more USB devices than their computer has ports. A hub is also useful for keeping your desk clear, as you can connect a single USB cable to your computer and run it under or behind your desk, where all your devices are connected to the hub. And, of course, if you’re a laptop user, a hub means that you need to disconnect just a single USB cable when you leave, and to reconnect only that cable when you return.
Travel hub: If you need more ports while on the go, look at iLuv’s $25 iCB709 4-Port USB Hub. It's a bit pricey, but it offers four USB 2.0 Hi-Speed ports in a bag-friendly package: The hub is just 1.7 by 1.8 by 0.6 inches, and it comes with a 4-inch, shielded USB cable for connecting to your laptop’s USB port.
One hub to rule them all: For some of us, four ports aren’t nearly enough, especially on our desktop Macs, which play host to various iPhones, iPads, iPods, cameras, printers, thumb drives, and more. Satechi’s $40 (currently on sale for $28) UH-12P 12-Port USB Hub generously provides 12 powered (5V, 250mA) USB 2.0 ports. The hub is surprisingly compact, at 8 inches long, 1.3 inches wide, and 0.8 inches thick, arranging eleven of its dozen USB ports in a single-file line; the twelfth is on the end. The eleven top-mounted ports are split into two banks—you can temporarily disable each bank with the flip of a switch.
An included power adapter provides power (a total of 2A) to the ports, and you connect the hub to your computer using the built-in 3-inch USB cable or the included 40-inch extension cable. Satechi also tosses in a strip of 3M adhesive to keep the hub from sliding around on your desk. My biggest complaint about the 12-Port USB Hub is that each port is lit with a bright-blue LED that you can’t turn off without disabling the port.