Are you using the right Lightning cables?

Lightning

No – not that sort of lightning

As a dyed-in-the-wool PC user, one of the things that has always set me against Apple computers and devices is the eye-watering price. Paying £79 for a Mac Magic Mouse 2, for instance, strikes me as needless conspicuous consumption. Actually, I did buy a Magic Mouse once, but it lasted far less time than a bog standard one for about £15.

Armed with that sort of prejudice (or tightness?), I confess that one of the things I used to buy happily from Poundland (along with sugar-free biscuits and toothpaste) was lightning cables for my iPhones and iPad. Who cares if they pack up after a year if they only cost a pound when the “real thing” costs £15-20? Who cares if connecting them sometimes causes the phone to remonstrate with the message “This cable or accessory is not certified and may not work reliably with this iPhone”?

Made for ipad logoI was in ignorance of something called “MFI”. “Wasn’t that a cheap furniture retailer that died a death decades ago?”, I hear you ask. No, this is a different MFI. Originally, it stood for “made for iPod”, but now means “made for iPhone or iPad”. It is Apple’s system of certification that lightning cables manufactured by third parties are approved by Apple as to their quality. This would seem to be a halfway house between buying the cheapest of the cheap and paying Apple prices for “the real thing”.

All this cropped up because, until very recently, I had been having growing problems charging my old iPhone 5. It wouldn’t start charging, or it would start but stop partway through. The problem seemed to be getting worse as time went on. This is only an old phone with only a couple of specific uses. so I didn’t think it was worth getting fixed. I accepted that it was probably tottering towards device heaven. Then the same thing started happening to my current iPhone 6S. Eventually it dawned on me to start wondering about the cables and I tried to work out which ones were reliable and which weren’t. That didn’t prove very conclusive. This one worked yesterday, so why isn’t it working today?

lightning cables

These MFI certified cables are definitely working so far

So, as a troubleshooting measure, I steeled myself for the pain of buying one single genuine Apple cable and I set off for Amazon. That was when I first noticed MFI certification. No doubt I had seen it before but it just hadn’t penetrated. Anyway, I made an executive decision to spend all of £10 on five cables with MFI certification.

Every one of those five cables has worked every time I have connected it to any of my three “i-devices”. That was a month or so ago, so I am now completely convinced that the problem all along was the rubbish cheap cables I had been buying.

No doubt you would now expect me just to summarise by saying “always buy MFI certified lightning cables”. Indeed, but what happens if the cables are fake and the certification is also fake? This is certainly a possibility.

Apple do have a website page explaining how to identify counterfeit or uncertified Lightning connector accessories, but you probably wouldn’t want to be squinting at this on your phone while fiddling with your micrometer and a suspect cable in Cables-u-like or wherever. But whatever fakes there may be out there, I can definitely say that the pack of cables I bought from Amazon are working just fine which means I can still play Scrabble in the bathroom without the risk of dropping my “proper” phone on the hard tiles (or is that just too much information?)

USB stands for “Universal Serial Bus”

This is not to be confused with “USP”, which is a marketing term meaning “Unique Selling Proposition” and describes what might be a small, insignificant, difference between one product and a competing one.

USB is a type of connection that was designed to be suitable for connecting all types of external items (“peripherals”) to a computer.

USB ports (the “socket” part) are much smaller than the parallel and serial ports of earlier generations of computers. Also, you can connect a device with a USB cable without having to re-start the computer to get it to recognise the device you’ve just plugged in. This is called “hot plugging”.

The most common type of USB connection that connects peripherals to a computer is USB Type A. This is the familiar rectangular connection that will only fit one way up. We are now on the third generation of USB connections – each one being faster than the previous one. USB connections are “backwardly compatible”, meaning that if you connect a later generation device to an earlier generation port then everything will work – but at the lower speed of the earlier generation port or connector.

If you are connecting a mouse, keyboard, or printer, the speed of the USB connection doesn’t matter much. If you are connecting an external hard drive then the speed does matter. A new portable external drive will almost certainly have a USB3 connection, so connect it to a USB3 port on the computer if at all possible. You can tell if a port is USB3 as it will either be partly blue when you look directly at it or it will have “SS” (for “Super Speed”) written very close to the port.

USB plugs

USB C, USB2 A, USB3 A, micro, mini, USB B

Printers have traditionally been connected using a different plug at the printer end. This is a square plug with two edges chamfered off. Once again, the plug can only be inserted into its port one way. This type of connection is called USB Type B. Having said that, most people prefer to connect their printer wirelessly these days, so the USB connection is redundant.

Lots of new laptops now feature a new generation of USB connection called Type C. This is much smaller than Type A and can be connected either way up. You can buy an adaptor to connect a Type B plug into a Type C port. For that matter you can get all kinds of adaptors for changing one type of USB port or plug into another. Go to Amazon, for instance, and type “USB adaptors” into the search box.

The end of a USB cable that connects to the device might be much smaller than the end connecting to the computer. An older design of this was called “mini USB”. The current design is even smaller and is called “micro USB”. Once again, the cable can only be connected to the port one way up.

There is another type of USB connection – just for Apple devices such as iPhones. This is called the “lightning” connector and it is used instead of the mini USB and micro USB connection of non-Apple devices. The other end of a “lightning cable” features a standard Type A plug.

USB coffee warmer

USB coffee warmer

USB connections allow data to be transferred between devices, but they can also transfer power as well as data. 2.5 inch external hard drives, for instance, are powered by the USB connection as well as the data transfer taking place along the USB connection. There are also some devices (mini fans, for instance) that are connected via USB simply to power them – ie with no data transfer taking place. You can even get a USB-powered gizmo that keeps your coffee warm (if you don’t mind risking knocking your coffee over into your keyboard).

I hope this helps to clarify a rather confusing area. The confusion is mainly caused, of course, by the fact that things change and improve over time and the changeover is never neat with a cut-off date. We always have lots of “generations” in use at the same time. Plus ca change…

If you’d like to know more about this utterly fascinating (!) subject, then you could try https://www.techdim.com/usb-2-vs-usb-3-use-usb-3-0-rather-usb-2-0/

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
Privacy Policy Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha