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

Similarly, it’s not yet clear whether Apple’s 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 Apple’s 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 Apple’s Universal dock-cradle design with the appropriate insert, in which case the insert largely supports the player’s 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 nano’s 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 the 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.

The plug for Apple’s 20 cm Lightning adapter (left) and standard Lightning-to-USB cable (right)

However, there’s a minor hitch: The cable’s connector housing is considerably larger than the plug housing on Apple’s 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 Adapter’s 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, Apple’s $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 Apple’s 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 CableJive’s $30 DockBoss+, which uses your device’s bundled Lightning-to-USB cable.) That said, MacRumors.com reports that at least one vendor has “cracked” Apple’s 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 iPod’s headphone jack to the auxiliary-input jack of your audio system. (You can even use your device’s Lightning-to-USB cable to charge while playing.) Other companies offer Bluetooth adapters that convert older speakers into Bluetooth systems: Outdoor Tech’s $40, battery-powered Adapt connects to your audio system’s auxiliary-input jack, while RadTech’s 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 mini—for years to come.

Updated, 10/18/2012 9:00am, to correct error about the original iPhone charging via FireWire power.

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