The iPhone 5 Lightning connector and its $29 adapter: What you need to know

iPhone 5
The iPhone 5 (left) has a connector that is 80 percent smaller than that of the iPhone 4S (right).

Thanks to various rumors and part leaks, we have long known that the iPhone 5 would likely have a new connector. Called Lightning, it immediately drew criticism, particularly over the fact that it'll require a $29 adapter to make the iPhone 5 work with older accessories. 

What changed?
The predecessor to the Lightning connector, known simply as the "30-pin connector," first appeared in 2003. Apple doesn't always play by standards, so when the time came to revamp, instead of going with Micro USB — like most other phone makers — it created a proprietary piece of tech, Lightning. While the company ostensibly did this to advance the technology, there's no doubt it will likely end up costing iPhone 5 buyers more money, one way or another.

The Lightning connector is 80 percent smaller than the 30-pin connector, and that means less room is required to accomodate its corresponding jack. Its design also means that the iPhones, iPods and (eventually) iPads that use it will be subject to less accidental damage — as anyone whose ever broken a 30-pin jack or plug will be relieved to hear.

What are the downsides and how do you deal with them?
Unfortunately older charger cables, speaker docks and other iPhone accessories are useless without a Lightning to 30-pin adapter. This little accessory will cost you $29, or $39 if you want a Lightning to 30-pin cable instead.

(There is also a $19 Lightning to USB cable, identical to the one that will ship with the iPhone 5 and the new iPods, so consider that before buying an adapter, especially if your accessory or car charger has a USB port.)

To make things grimmer, there have been reports that the adapter doesn't even work with speaker docks. The concern over speaker dock incompatibility stemmed from the adapter's product listing, which states "Video and iPod Out not supported."

Some bloggers confused "iPod Out" with "Audio Out," but the two are distinct, as Apple made plain in a statement to NBC News:

The Lightning to 30 Pin adapter supports analog audio output, USB audio, as well as syncing and charging. Lightning to VGA and Lightning to HDMI cables will be available in the coming months.

iPhone 5 adapter
Apple is offering 30-pin to USB cables and 30-pin to Lightning adapters to help customers deal with the transition to a new connector.

The Video Out over USB has long gone unused by most people, replaced by the high-definition-capable HDMI adapters that work with iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, so it's good to see that an updated HDMI adapter will be coming soon, along with a VGA one for connections to projectors and other displays.

But analog and USB audio will flow freely, so all you really need to worry about there is how wobbly your phone is, sitting on top of an adapter on your speaker dock. Inelegant, yes, but not incompatible.

That leaves "iPod Out," which refers to an external device (such as a car) taking control of the iPod software — or rather, the Music app — on the device. But most cars use USB ports to connect to iPhones and other devices, so if you have that standard Lightning to USB cable (which ships with the iPhone 5 or sells for $19), you should have no problems. This same solution goes for any chargers or other accessories which interface with iPhones using USB.

What remains, then, are the handful of devices that have a built-in 30-pin connector and take control of your iPhone or iPod in order to play music.

The real point to remember
All of the ruckus about the new connector seems to miss the largest point: That Apple has been integrating wireless technologies to replace all of this cable nonsense for years anyway. Why buy a $29 adapter for your home theater, when you could get a $99 Apple TV and use AirPlay to stream all of the music — and 1080p video — that you like?

And if you don't like giving Apple even more of your money, you could buy a Bluetooth speaker system — like a Jawbone Jambox — that wirelessly serves multiple iPhone audio needs.

So long story short? If you have a 30-pin speaker dock in every room of your house, these new connectors — and their adapters — will annoy you. If you have a bunch of older 30-pin to USB cables lying around, they will soon serve less and less of a purpose. But these pesky details do not signal total doom for every old accessory you've ever purchased. It's not the end of the world, just a (potentially rocky) start of a new one. 

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