Since Apple release the iPhone 5 on September 21, 2012, the company has been bundling a Lightning cable with every new phone. The addition of this new cable format was applauded for its compact format, because it left more room for the speakers and the audio jack that was relocated to the bottom of the device. The cable brought new issues with it, so it is not something I am ready to applaud. Let’s see what’s wrong with Lightning…
I have had my shiny new iPhone 5S for about two weeks and am currently on my third cable. I lost another cable last night and sought to document its issues below. In contrast, I had earlier been using an old 30-pin cable that was included with my iPod nano I bought back in 2005, which also powered iPhone models 3G, 3GS, and 4. This cable was so old, the rubber was rotting off the cable and the foil shielding was plainly visible, yet it still functions very well to this day. I take care of my cables and devices, but after loaning my Lightning cable to two people, the cable no longer worked. To see why, let’s take a look at what makes this cable different.
To start, the Lightning cable has a chip inside of it, which you see in the photo above as two tiny black boxes with silver legs inside the cable. All cables that work with the iPhone 5, 5S and 5C that run the latest iOS7 require this chip to be in the cable. Without it, the phone doesn’t recognize the cable, and will refuse to charge or sync with your new electronic wonder. If you’ve paid attention to iPhones news lately, you know that there have been a spate of electrocutions and exploding iPhone 3s and 4s, due to poorly manufactured 3rd party cables. As an electrical engineer by schooling, I have seen the corners that are cut by cheap manufacturers of dollar store accessories, meaning there is actual danger of electrocution associated with saving a few bucks. To protect you against this, Apple designed the cable with this chipped defense. However, should this chip be disabled by a static electricity zap or humidity, the entire cable stops working. At $20 per cable for the official Apple product, this just seems like a cash filled dream.
This also has the drawback that Apple needs to protect this patented design and this charges licensing fees if you want to manufacture your own Lightning cables. This has kept many companies from providing quality alternatives, but now that Apple has lowered that barrier, we should see new options in the near future.
Another problem with the Lightning cable is the thin but deep connector form. Original 30-pin iPhone cables were a fat, wide, but shallow connector that released from the phone when pressure was put on the connector. This meant the connector was less likely to break. Instead, the cable would just harmlessly pop out. Damage to any 30-pin iPhone cables I bought happened over a long period, some years, so I got my money’s worth out of them.
With the new Lightning cable, because the connector recesses further into the phone, any motion while the phone is connected with the cable will put pressure on the connector. As you can see in the picture above, the wires coming out of the round cable are not connected to the metal pads they were originally soldered to when it was purchased. The connector was used while loose, which slowly caused the pins to come loose. Without a solid connection, the cable is missing pins that are needed to sync or provide power for charging. The issue here is that there is no slack between the cable in the wire and the connector is links to. This means pulling the cable out if the phone or stretching the cable will strain the solder points and break the wire or pull the pad and traces off the little green board. None if this is good.
Mysteriously after I had loaned someone my original cable, which I required to charge my phone while at work, the cable stopped working. To be fair, the cable was already working poorly, requiring me to bend the cable at an angle while charging, and hoping it stayed in that position while I worked or slept. The cable looked like it had been stretched just below the connector.
This is the only way the cable should be handled, at the connector itself, firmly gripping it to pull it from the phone. Any other pressure risks damaging the cable.
One more problem with the cable is how fragile the long connector is. The first problem I had with my Lightning cable is that someone who borrowed the cable put slight pressure on the cable while it was inside the phone. The result was a bent connector and the white casing of the cable being cracked down the sides. The Lightning cable has 16 pins, which are really 8 pins duplicated on both sides of the connector to provide a plug that is always in the right position when you jack it in. This connector is fragile and the pins are very thin. As you can see above, the pins came off the board, making the cable utterly useless. Why Apple would use this new connector over the currently popular micro-USB is a mystery to me. I’m thinking Apple engineers hoped for the same industry success they got from the Thunderbolt cable standard for desktop and laptop peripherals.
Lastly, I have seen the metal traces on the connector peel off the board when someone uses the phone while the cable is plugged in. Because of the length of the connector, any small movement of the cable is translated into a large shift at the inside of the connector end where the pins are located, causing friction that can wear off the pins. This does’t even need to be caused by neglect from the phone’s user. This could be caused by having the phone plugged in while in a moving vehicle, which spells bad news for the iOS In The Car movement.
What would make Lightning a better cable to me is:
- More slack inside the wires going between the connectors. This means a wider connector, but the phone really does have room for it. This would give the cable more tolerance to rough handing.
- Make the board that the 16 pins sit on, a stronger board material that will keep it from bending. This will also help people who keep the cables in a backpack or other spot where something might bend the connector.
- Stronger pins and a more reliable connection that tolerates any movement. This would keep the electrical connection between the phone and the charge or sync
- Better protection for the chips inside the cable.
- Completely abandon the expensive licensing for the cables. This would open up a better market for accessories, and promote the phone better than constantly breaking cables.
We have 3 Apple devices in our home that are either Apple 5 or 5S and two others that are 4S. All of the 5 series phones have had these problems with the cable. I’ve accepted the fragility of the cables but will not give Apple more money for their shoddy cables. Since I believed the design to be faulty, I did not get my original Lightning cable replaced; I just threw it away. I’ve taken to buying the cables at a local store, 5 and below, where I buy $5 cables that perform the same as Apple’s cables, and save me a lot of money. The cables are one-quarter the cost, and seem to be lasting longer as I take good care of them, and do not loan them out to anyone.