Apple Tests iPhones With USB-C Instead of Lightning
Apple may switch from its proprietary Lightning charger to USB-C. What are the measurable differences between these connectors?
Last week, Bloomberg reported that Apple is in the process of testing out new iPhones using USB-C in place of traditional Lightning ports.
One reason Apple may be considering this change is the raw performance benefits that USB-C offers over Lightning. Lightning was introduced in 2012 and hasn’t seen much improvement since then. By adopting USB-C, Apple may provide iPhones with faster charging rates and faster transfer speeds.
However, beyond the performance benefits, a key reason for making the change is likely due to the European Union’s decision to make USB-C a universal standard in all electronic devices. Multiple charging types on the market have heightened the e-waste crisis—an issue the EU is committed to combatting.
In this way, Apple’s hand has been forced: if the company intends to continue selling iPhones in the EU, it must acquiesce. The company would be faced with the issue of multiple versions of the same iPhones with different connectors worldwide unless it makes a universal switch to USB-C.
The Lightning Charger
Since 2012, Apple has used its Lightning cable and protocol in iPhones, and as such, Lightning has become one of the most popular charging technologies on the market.
Lightning is an 8-pin protocol (two reversible rows of 8 pins) that consists of power delivery, data transfer, and identification/control functionality. Looking at data transfer, Lightning can support transfer speeds up to 480 Mbps—a number that is comparable to transfer speeds on the USB 2.0 specification.
Pinout of the Apple Lightning connector. Image used courtesy of RIT
From a power delivery standpoint, Lightning was originally designed for 2 A current delivery with a minimum power delivery of 12 W. At the time Lightning was released, this metric was a big improvement over competing MicroUSB cables that deliver 9 W (1.8 A at 5 V) of power. Today, when used in conjunction with USB-C power adapters, Lightning can reach a maximum of 9 V at 2.2 A with a special 20 W USB-C power adapter.
USB-C Trumps Lightning in Versatility and Speed
USB-C is a relatively new standard in the USB family that has been widely adopted in almost all new consumer electronics on the market today. USB-C offers many advantages both in terms of data communication and power delivery.
With respect to data transfer, USB-C offers the unique advantage of both flexibility and high speed. Depending on the version of USB-C, the protocol can deliver anywhere from 5 Gbps to 40 Gbps, a number that far exceeds Lightning’s 480 Mbps. Beyond that, the USB-C protocol is capable of supporting multiple other protocols including DisplayPort, PCIe, Thunderbolt, and HDMI. This makes USB-C an extremely versatile and high-performance choice for any smartphone or computer.
A look at the pinout of USB-C. Image used courtesy of Delock
USB-C is also a major step up from its predecessors from a power perspective. Importantly, USB-C connectors were designed to support USB-C Power Delivery (PD), a power delivery protocol that is capable of supporting a maximum voltage of 20 V and 5 A for a total maximum power of 100 W. This far exceeds previous generations such as USB 2.0, which provides a maximum power of 2.5 W, or Lightning, which supports a maximum of 9 V and 2.2 A with a special 20 W USB-C power adapter.
What the Switch to USB-C Would Mean for iPhone Users
Bloomberg reports that in addition to testing new iPhones with USB-C, Apple is also developing an adapter that would make future iPhones function with accessories built for the current Lightning connector.
Apple's switch to USB-C would benefit consumers by limiting the number of chargers needed for different devices—effectively reducing e-waste at the end of product lifecycles. USB-C also yields higher performance and reduces cost compared to Lightning.
If the company does adopt USB-C in place of Lightning, this change will not occur until 2023 at the earliest.