Flashback: The Lightning connector was ahead of its time, but is now obsolete
The iPod was revolutionary not because it could play MP3 files, but because it allowed you to easily organize and load your entire music library onto a pocketable device. There have been MP3 players before, including more storage—as noted in a popular Slashdot review, the Creative Nomad can store more songs. However, in typical Apple fashion, it was ease of use that made the iPod a success.
Part of the credit goes to iTunes, of course, but we think the connector is also important. After all, gigabytes of songs need to be transferred from the computer to the player. While the first Nomad launched with a parallel port (you may have heard it called a “printer port”), later models moved to USB (and some unusual FireWire).
The Creative Nomad Jukebox was released in September 2000 with a 6GB hard drive (1GB larger than the original iPad). However, it only had a USB 1.1 port that could reach 12 Mbps. It takes over an hour to fill up the internal storage with this slow connection.
Instead of USB, Apple chose FireWire for its first iPod in 2001, a connector only recently adopted by Mac computers. FireWire is usually named by the speed it supports, for example FireWire 400 operates at 400 Mbps. It’s the same 400 Mbps version used in the first iPod, and it’s as fast as the fastest USB 2.0 speed of 480 Mbps.
The third generation iPod replaced FireWire with a proprietary 30-pin Dock connector. This connector was given to early iPhones because it supports all the main use cases – charging and data transfer, as well as some accessories.
After nearly a decade of using the 30-pin connector, Apple wanted something more modern, sleeker. It happened on the iPhone 5 in 2012 and it was called Lightning. And this made people angry.
An entire ecosystem has sprung up around the 30-pin connector, found in iPod-compatible speakers, cars, and even hotel rooms. Imagine hearing that your new iPhones and iPods aren’t compatible with the head unit in your car or the speakers you bought for every room in your hotel.
Speaker docks have become a popular accessory that works with iPods and iPhones
Sure, there were adapters, but they were never ideal. To quell the anger of its customers, Apple has promised not to change adapters for at least ten years. And when it comes to the iPhone (and the now-discontinued iPod), Apple has kept that promise.
After the introduction of Lightning, some older device accessories required adapters
Despite some vocal anti-USB-C, Apple is an early adopter of the connector. However, the USB-C standard wasn’t finalized until 2014, which was too late—Apple wanted to phase out the 30-pin connector as soon as possible.
So what is lightning? This connector – male plug on the cable side, female on the device side – is very small, because it reduced the number of pins from 30 to 8 (in comparison, USB-C has 24 spindles).
Actually, the Lightning plug has 16 pins, but they are in a mirrored configuration, so only 8 are usually used. This allows you to insert the plug in both directions, which avoids the USB curse – you’ve probably heard the old joke that you have to plug in a USB connector three times to get it to turn properly.
With only 8 pins available, the maximum data transfer rate is the same as USB 2.0, the aforementioned 480 Mbps, and no better than the FireWire ports of early iPods.
But keep in mind that Lightning has 16 pins, while most devices’ jacks only have 8 pins. There are exceptions, such as iPad Pros with 16-pin Lightning plugs (before the switch to USB-C). It’s USB 3.2 Gen 1, which supports speeds up to 5 Gbps. As far as we know, that particular card reader is the only device that uses it, and it only worked on iPad Pros. For example, Apple never released a Lightning to USB 3 cable.
The only Lightning device that supports USB 3.2 Gen 1 speeds
When the iPhone 5 was released in 2012, Phil Schiller called Lightning “the modern connector of the next decade.” That decade ended last year – it’s time for a new switch.
iPhone 5 introduced the Lightning connector to the world – “the modern connector of the next decade”
Apple basically has it, all Macs have USB-C, now all iPads have it, and even the new Apple TV remote uses it. That leaves things like AirPods, some Apple keyboards and mice, and of course the iPhone.
Lightning’s days are numbered, Apple has confirmed that the iPhone will switch to USB-C, although the exact date has yet to be officially announced. Unofficially, experts believe that this will happen this year before the end of 2024, set by the EU.
Apple remembers the switch to a 30-pin connector and how it made many accessories obsolete. This was actually one of his arguments against the adoption of USB-C, that many accessories and cables that use lighting will soon be wasted. Of course, there are adapters, but they are never ideal.
USB-C to Lightning Cable • USB-C to Lightning Adapter for charging 1st generation Apple Pencils
On the other hand, USB-C has many advantages, which we detailed in last week’s article. Best of all for Apple users, they can use one cable for everything rather than carrying one cable for their MacBook and another for their iPhone.
In the past, new MacBooks were embarrassingly equipped with only USB-C ports, but the new iPhone only comes with USB-A to lightning cables. And the 10th generation iPad, which supports the original Apple Pencil, but doesn’t have a proper charging port, so it needs an adapter.
Maybe future iPhones will break the 30W barrier and support proper fast charging. With enhanced video output capabilities, they add to the Stage Manager desktop experience. Or maybe not, there are so many USB-C options, it’s up to Apple to decide which one they want to use.
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