Apple has for years used USB-C on its MacBooks and iPads, but it’s only now bringing them to iPhones to comply with European regulations. Android users might already have a bunch of USB-C cables in their cars, bags, kitchen counters, and bedroom side tables, but year-to-year iPhone upgraders probably won’t. Instead, they’ll need to look at their collection of Lightning cables and think about how many of them to replace with new USB-C ones.
There’s a bit of déjà vu at play here. Apple introduced Lightning cables in 2012 for the iPhone 5, and iPhone users had to purchase extras to replace each of their 30-pin cables, which were used for close to a decade on iPods and early iPhones. Then, in 2016, the loss of the headphone jack in the iPhone 7 meant people had to think about buying extra Lightning to 3.5mm adapters or brand-new headphones to avoid dongle life.
Cables for iPhones aren’t the only accessories Apple’s made users replace. Over the years, Apple has had many other connector changes on devices like Macs and iPods, prompting users to make CompUSA, RadioShack, or Apple Store runs for an up-to-date cable or adapter. Sometimes, that meant ditching a favorite accessory entirely in favor of buying a totally new and compatible one.
The following are some of the most significant connector changes that have kept Apple customers on edge since the 1998 iMac.
In hindsight, adopting USB (we’re talking about the early rectangular USB-A non-high-speed one) was among Apple’s best decisions ever. Apple said bye to its Apple Desktop Bus (ADB) connector in favor of USB, starting with the 1998 iMac. ADB, which looks like the circular PS/2 port used for mice and keyboards on older PCs (and even newer business desktop computers), has been used by Apple since 1986.
The change to USB brought interoperability with many future accessories and devices that could work on both PC and Mac and made many peripherals hot-swappable. But that did mean you’d need to buy new cables, like a USB cable for your printer. And if longtime Apple users wanted to use their old ADB keyboard and mouse, they had to buy an adapter to make them work with USB. And no one wanted to use the terrible hockey puck-shaped Apple USB Mouse.
Apple started including FireWire on the Power Macintosh in early 1999, replacing the SCSI connections users relied on for years to transfer data at high speeds for external hard disk drives and multimedia hardware like scanners. FireWire could have up to 400Mb per second data transfer speeds and was in competition with USB.
FireWire was also known as IEEE 1394 and i.Link, the latter of which was named by Sony and used on digital camcorders — but used a smaller four-pin connector when compared to the larger six-pin one from Apple. Naturally, this meant people needed to buy different FireWire cables for different devices. And if users wanted to use old SCSI devices, they’d need an adapter.
Apple was heavily invested in FireWire, even after USB upgraded to USB 2.0 with 480Mb per second transfer speeds. The first iPod, one of Apple’s most iconic products, debuted with FireWire, which made it difficult to use unless you had a newer Mac. FireWire still had some benefits, as USB was not a good interface for digital camcorders (some streamed footage at lower resolutions over USB 2.0).
Apple later added the faster FireWire 800 in 2003 for the Power Mac G5, which later became the de facto pro interface for external hard drives for the decade. It’s backward-compatible... but users needed to buy new cables to connect six-pin FireWire 400 devices to the new nine-pin 800 and additional ones for digital camcorders.
30-pin Dock Connector
Apple introduced a new 30-pin connector on the third-generation iPod in 2003. This proprietary interface could carry both FireWire and USB signals and includes pins for multimedia controls. The connector kick-started perhaps a decade’s worth of new accessories like docks, speakers, specialty audio interface cables, and more.
Apple’s iPhone also started off with the Dock Connector in 2007 and would continue to use it through the iPhone 4S in 2011. Apple users have probably purchased extra 30-pin cables countless times over the years; meanwhile, competing portable device manufacturers adopted the Mini and Micro USB standards since the 30-pin connector was proprietary to Apple. But if you’ve purchased any home speaker system in and around 2010, you could bet it came with Apple’s ubiquitious-at-the-time 30-pin Dock Connector.
Mini video interfaces
Apple loved using miniaturized versions of video interface connectors for its computers, especially on iMacs and its notebook computers. If you wanted to connect a VGA monitor to an iMac Flat Panel or a white iBook, you’d need a Mini-VGA to VGA cable (or adapter). Apple later upgraded to Mini-DVI connections, starting on the Intel iMac, which required yet another cable or adapter to connect with full DVI connections on monitors. Mini-DVI also supported analog video (VGA), but you’d need another adapter to go that route.
Many MacBook Pro and PowerBook G4 models came with a full-sized DVI port, but when Apple started building unibody notebooks, it switched to another connector, Mini DisplayPort. Many monitor manufacturers use the full-sized DisplayPort connector, requiring a separate cable to connect to Macs.
Some PC manufacturers like Dell used the Mini DisplayPort connector, which was great for Apple users. However, most monitors started shipping with HDMI, which made many users require Mini DisplayPort-to-HDMI cables instead. And for a short while, you’d have to pray that the cable and Mac you had supported audio.
Thunderbolt 1 and 2
In 2011, Apple replaced Mini DisplayPort with Thunderbolt, starting with the iMac. But at first glance, you couldn’t tell anything changed from the previous models, as Thunderbolt launched using the same connector as Mini DisplayPort. Unfortunately, Thunderbolt devices don’t work with the Mini DisplayPort cables you might have lying around, so you’d need brand-new and relatively expensive ones with the little lightning-bolt logo.
Apple’s reversible charging and syncing connector, Lightning, launched with the iPhone 5 in 2012. It’s more versatile than the 30-pin Dock Connecter it replaced and has a better design and more durability than the Micro USB ports affixed to other phones at the time. Apple also sold a 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter that helped ease users into Lightning and not immediately break compatibility with all the iPod speaker accessories they've purchased over the years.
Lightning launched about two years before USB-C, so Apple’s port had a bit of a head start and was licensed by every major accessory maker looking to serve iPhone users. Eventually, USB-C accelerated in 2015, prompting Apple to at least take notice.
Apple’s USB-C head-start
At a time when many Android phones still used the annoying and not-flippable Micro USB port, Apple embraced USB-C as the future port for Macs, starting with the 12-inch MacBook in 2015. It was certainly a helpful jump start for USB-C to get traction in the tech world, but it was a tough transition for many. You needed new chargers, new dongles for monitors and devices, USB hubs, and definitely deep pockets to catch up. And if you didn’t want to carry a USB-A dongle for each device, you’d replace all your cables with USB-C versions.
Did I mention Thunderbolt 3 on the 2016 MacBook Pro switched to USB-C instead of the Mini DisplayPort-shaped one of Thunderbolt 2? Either you’re replacing your Promise Pegasus with a Thunderbolt 3 version or, well, buying another dongle. It was another inconvenience that irked many Apple users, but Apple did provide discounts on dongles for Mac owners for a short while.
Apple Watch charger
Apple is not the only company making smartwatches with proprietary charging solutions. However, the Apple Watch is another device from the company that could have used some standardization to avoid making customers buy more cables.
Qi wireless charging existed on Android phones in 2015 when Apple launched the Apple Watch. The magnetic charger even uses the same underlying tech as Qi — but alas, you need to buy special Apple Watch cables to charge your new wearable. Later, Apple made faster charging ones with USB-C on the other end for those who like buying new cables.
Apple’s watch charger silliness could have factored into the failure to launch its all-in-one AirPower charging pad solution, too.
3.5mm audio jack removal
Apple, in an act of “courage,” removed the 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7 in 2016. Apple did include a dongle in the box, so you wouldn’t immediately need to go out and buy a Lightning to 3.5mm adapter — but you still had to carry that adapter with you everywhere and unplug it from your headphones so they could be used with other devices. And in subsequent years, Apple stopped including the dongle, so you might have to buy a new one if you lost the original or just wanted a spare to keep in the car.
Oh, you wanted to charge and use wired headphones, too? Get you some fancy breakout dongles, or maybe buy Apple’s timely released fully wireless AirPods.
Macs with MagSafe 1 / 2 / 3
MagSafe on the Mac made charging a breeze since the power cable just snapped into place with magnets — connecting pogo pins into the right place to juice up your Mac. And if someone tripped over the cable, your MacBook was spared from flying off the table since the cord would just pop off.
It’s a great design, but Apple released a few iterations of the plug. The original Magsafe from 2006 was a bit thick, so Apple created MagSafe 2 in 2012 to make future thinner laptops possible. You could buy a $10 adapter to make your older MagSafe 1 charger work with MagSafe 2, which was a small price to pay for convenience.
But on the transition to USB-C on Macs from 2015 through 2018, Apple removed MagSafe — making all those chargers useless. Apple later brought MagSafe back to the modern era via the M1 MacBook Pro in 2021. This new MagSafe 3, however, has no adapter support for the older chargers, so those remain useless unless you buy some weird third-party MagSafe-to-legacy USB-C adapter.
Luckily for Mac notebook users, USB-C chargers from previous models largely work fine, so you probably don’t need to buy new cables unless you want to push your 16-inch MacBook Pro to the maximum 140W charging rate (which requires you to use MagSafe 3).
MagSafe for iPhone
Yeah, Apple couldn’t think up another marketing term for its iPhone wireless charging solution. Apple kicked off a new accessory category with MagSafe starting on the iPhone 12 in 2020, after the demise of MagSafe 2 on the Mac and before its resurrection with MagSafe 3. Instead of trying to place the device on a wireless charging pad carefully, MagSafe uses magnets for optimal placement of Qi-standard power coils.
There are a whole lot of MagSafe chargers out now, but only Apple-sanctioned ones get the full charge speed benefit. Otherwise, you get slow charging on cheaper “MagSafe compatible” chargers from third parties. And for some reason, Apple’s option comes with a ridiculously short cable.
Of course, you don’t have to buy anything MagSafe; you can continue to happily use Lightning — as long as you don’t upgrade to the next iPhone.
Meet your next cable
Looking back, Apple’s ever-changing cable choices have had two big effects: the company has often made decisions that led to industry shakeups that pushed both manufacturers and consumers to move away from actually obsolete tech, like floppy disk drives and SCSI. But at the same time, the company has occasionally made staying up to date a challenge — and a chore that gets expensive, fast.
As consumers, we rarely have the power to choose when and how we want standards to change. Instead, big companies with the power to sway the market will make those decisions for us, which is how you end up with Blu-ray over HD DVD for movies and Tesla’s charging connector as the plug other automakers are rapidly adopting for EVs in North America. Apple may only be changing the iPhone’s connector because of the European Union, but it was Apple that went ahead with a major push for USB-C standardization first.
But there are increasingly few cables for Apple to change and update from here. Whatever comes next, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself paying for new adapters and accessories to keep up — and a good chance that whatever Apple chooses has some meaningful benefit, if only you had the gear to make use of it.