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Analog Angle Blog

2017: Year of the Adapter?

New interface standards and their physical realization are an ongoing part of technology life, and 2016 has been busy in that area. We have two major developments: first, the 2014 establishment of the USB Type-C interface (Figure 1 ), now starting to appear on smart phones, laptops, and more; and Apple's elimination of the traditional headphone jack on the iPhone 7, replaced with a single Lightning port (Figure 2 ) for both listening and charging (the purported reason is to make the iPhone 7 more water resistant.)

Figure 1

The USB Type-C standard greatly enhances the functionality and performance of USB 2.0, but the transition may be a challenge for the huge installed base. (Image: USB Implementers Forum/USB.org)

The USB Type-C standard greatly enhances the functionality and performance of USB 2.0, but the transition may be a challenge for the huge installed base. (Image: USB Implementers Forum/USB.org)

Figure 2

The Apple Lightning port on the iPhone 7 eliminates the conventional headset port, but at a price in user connection options; the questions is whether the pain is worth the supposed gain. (Image: Apple Inc.)

The Apple Lightning port on the iPhone 7 eliminates the conventional headset port, but at a price in user connection options; the questions is whether the pain is worth the supposed gain. (Image: Apple Inc.)

Of course, there are countless devices and cables using the older USB 2.0 and other connectors in widespread use, and many people do need to charge their phone and use their headset at the same time. The issue is that users must get ready for the future, while living in the present.

This dilemma has been the subject of many columns by the pundit community, such as the piece “Adapter or Die: Must-Have Dongles for Your iPhone 7, Android and Laptop ” in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, it may be behind paid firewall). Not only is it a relatively easy topic to write about (columnists really like that), but it's a universal topic as there are very, very few readers who are not affected to some extent. The issue then becomes what to do about it, if you have “legacy” devices to keep in play.

The answer is easy: buy adapters (the columnist in the Journal calls them dongles, but I consider a dongle to be a hardware key to give you access to a program, not a physical adapter). No doubt the vendors of these adapter units are already finishing up their tooling and producing adapters to overcome the problem for those millions of sockets which need to serve both new and old standards. That's the good news.

The not-so-good news, in my opinion, is two-fold. First, the obvious: users will have to carry a bunch of adapters and not misplace/lose them during your personal transition period, which may be months to years. Second, many of the better-quality adapters will be pushed out of the market by cheap one – and I mean “cheap in terms of both price and performance. Pretty soon, they'll be an impulse-purchase in little displays at the checkout register of your nearest convenience store or gas station, just as there now are charging and USB 2.0 cords.

Better-quality ones will be available, but they may be hard to find. Cheap knock-offs are virtually indistinguishable from better ones, especially at first, but may develop intermittents after normal flexing, insertion/removal cycles. and overall use. That's not good for users or for the industry. We've had this problem not only with adapters, but with passive components such as capacitors and capacitors, AC/DC power adapters, and even ICs. I saw a recent report (sorry, don’t remember where) that Apple ordered many allegedly Apple-sourced adapters and accessories online and found that over half of them were fakes— and the only surprise was that the number wasn't higher!

Yes, we need to accept new standards with higher speeds, more power, and other enhancements, but we also need to be very aware of the aggravation and disruption they cause. I don't have any magic solution for minimizing the hardware adapter problems it this inevitably brings, other than try to judge the quality of the after-market adapters: good luck with that, as this is often impossible to judge visually, or the adapter is in a blister pack. Further, “approved” stickers are also meaningless, as some unscrupulous suppliers submit higher-quality products with all the attributes needed for approval, and then take them out in full production after that approval has been received.

To some extent, the engineering-design community amplifies these problems by trying to make interface standards not only better, but also by extending then to new functions and features. Think about it: USB was originally a basic data interface with only some modest DC-supply capability, and now it is a high-speed data and high-power link. On the reverse side, the AC power line was just for power and very low data rates; now it is used in some situations as a medium/higher-speed link. Either way, doing this brings a complex set of requirements on connectors, cabling, and active components on both sides of the link, including filters and protection circuitry (the easiest thing for knock-offs to degrade or leave out).

What's your view on the proliferation of new standards and the issues with adapters that they inevitably spur?

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