I wrote this article a while ago but now that we know more about Apple’s lightning connector I have decided to share it with you all
If there’s one thing that electronics hobbyists like me enjoy doing, is building things for the iPod. You know that famous 30 pin connector that has just ended its life:
Well that was an electronics gold mine for simple manipulation of an iPod. Everything about the iPod could be controlled and extracted and all very easily. As time passed since the first iPod to include one, that connector gained more and more functions, however as soon as the click-wheel-free iPods started getting released all that changed – we’re talking any iPod after the 5th generation iPod (the iPod video). Let’s quickly run through some of the pins available to the budding hobbyists.
First was audio: left, right and GND. Simple pins, wire them to a headphone jack or an amplifier, there was nothing hard about using these pins. Most hobbyists will buy an amplifier module (ie left, right & GND in and left, right & GND out) and then wire these pins directly to it and that amplifier to a speaker.
There’s 4 USB pins, 2 for a charging, 2 for data, these are connected to a computer for data transfer. One of the best pins on the 30-pin connector was the accessory pin, by connecting a resistor between this and GND you could make the iPod do certain things when connecting the iPod to your project or when it was taken out (you know how your iPod will turn off when removed from some devices – well that’s because of this pin).
Along with this was the accessory power out pin, this just outputted 3.3V from the iPod just incase your device didn’t have its own power source.
Now those pins have remained intact since the start, let’s look a bit more in depth at the pins that didn’t survive. It started with FireWire, for those of you that know the history of the iPod; you’ll know that the first 2 iPods only worked via a FireWire cable, before the days of USB 3.0 (which to be honest still hasn’t kicked off) this was the fastest form of data transfer, we’re talking your 20 gig library in about 5 minutes – who remembers they’re iPod Photo taking a day to transfer everything for the first time. Well the clever lads at Apple took that beautiful feature away, and so 6 pins of the 30 pin connector became obsolete. ‘Charging is not compatible with this accessory’ – recognise that? It’s Apple’s way of making every manufacturer out there look like idiots. The reason is so pathetic, the 6 FireWire pins had a 12V an GND pin that could charge the iPod. Most manufacturers opted for using these pins rather than the 5V and GND pins that were grouped with the USB connections. So when apple pulled the plug on FireWire, they also pulled the plug on these pins, and so many speaker systems’ charging functions died with it, cheers Apple. (Just a side note for the non-electronics-savy people, implementing a feature to allow these 2 pins to still work would require the smallest amount of circuitry, there’s no reason why Apple shouldn’t have done it).
Next was video: when the iPod video was released, it outputted a simple composite video signal from the headphone jack (the segment of the jack below all the audio stuff – ie you needed an adaptor). As you can imagine it didn’t take China too long to copy this and sell cables that did the job for 1/250th of apple’s price. The 30 pin connector also had one of these outputs, hell it even had 4 pins for s-video output. Of course it didn’t take apple long to implement a system that required an apple brand chip to release any video out the bottom, and we hobbyists cried. 5 more pins we couldn’t use. Since modern times, no one uses composite video anymore so I can’t complain too much, but at the time it was a real bummer.
But now all of these glorious pins are disappearing and being replaced by the Lightning Connector. It’s all digital – the pins reassign themselves based on the accessory. (This is how Apple allows it to be inserted either way round). How easy do you think that’ll be for the hobbyists who have no idea about digital communication – digital communication isn’t easy! The audio and video is digital, so no more connection straight to an amp, now we’ll need a powerful digital-to-analogue converter. The Voltage In pins used for charging will change dynamically so you can’t wire them up.
But the real loss that I’ll miss with the lightning connector is the serial pins. 2 glorious pins that required a simple serial command and the whole iPod could be controlled (we’re talking play, pause, volume up, volume down, alarm on, sleep mode…you get the idea). For those who have ever picked up an Arduino or PICAXE, you’ll know just how simple it is to send serial commands. As a result the hobbyists could create anything they wanted using these pins.
So there you go. The end of custom built iPod projects. Obviously we can’t have a go at Apple because their primary objective with this cable isn’t to please hobbyists. But I still don’t agree with the change, it’s not that much smaller than the 30 pin connector and don’t forget the thousands of accessories that are no longer compatible with the new iPods – including all the new accessories that won’t work with the previous 10 years of iPods.