19 July 2020

The Right to Peaceably Accessorize

Petition for an Undressing of Grievances.

The upcoming iPhone 12 will supposedly not come with a charger, referring specifically to the little white wall wart that converts AC power down to 5V at around 1A. Some people are a little troubled by this. I wouldn't expect anything else, but I have to wonder if it's just change in general that bugs these people so much and not the specific changes themselves. As a wise one once said, some people simply love to complain, even if they get exactly what they want. 

I had an iMac. My family bought it in 1999 and it went with me through college. There was a hullabaloo around its release over the lack of a floppy disk drive. I may have even been laughed at a little for having an external floppy disk drive, like I'd been suckered into buying extra what should have been included. The irony is that I don't think I ever once used that floppy drive. I didn't have a flash drive yet and wouldn't until about 2005. Given I was in film, floppy disks were useless to me; nearly all the games I played (all 2 of them) were either downloaded from a website (imagine that) or came on CD-ROM. The only "disk" media I ever used during those 5 years was the Zip disk from Iomega. Each chunky cartridge took 100MB and were fairly inexpensive compared to what I was spending on video tapes. The most awkward using the damn thing got was when I had to leave my Zip drive with one of my professors because she didn't have one of her own to see my project. I call it awkward because I gave her one that needed an external power source so I could briefly declutter my desk and use the other Zip drive that was USB powered. Yes, I had 2 Zip drives while the floppy drive gathered dust. Speaking of awkward cable management and third party accessories... 

1. Wireless Charging

I have an iPhone 7. It does not have wireless charging capabilities. That came along with the 8. I'm not bothered by this. I do sometimes worry about the cable port wearing out from repeated un/pluggings, but in my experience, that happens around the exact same time the phone is ready to be retired and I'm eligible for an upgrade regardless. If I absolutely get desperate for a wireless charging solution, I have a battery case that charges through a Qi pad. Speaking of Qi chargers, Apple still does not produce their own version of it, with their website listing third party companies like Mophie or Belkin. It's rather odd when you think about it that Apple wouldn't offer you their won't take on something from the word go. People accused them of trying to corner you into buying their wireless earbuds when they took the headphone jack off of the iPhone 7 and beyond, yet wireless headphones and earbuds had been out for long before then and were perfectly capable of working with your iPhone. As nefarious deeds and Machiavellian machinations go, there's more malice behind leaving grocery carts out in the middle of the parking lot. 

2. Pack-in Accessories 

All the complaints over the years about the included earbuds with iPhones, but now that an equally overpriced accessory is being axed, it's a problem? The wall adapter on its own typically runs around 20USD, with the bulkier iPad version going for more (and all to deliver an extra amp or two). Here's the dirty little secret nobody at Apple likes to talk about: you do not have to use their charge adapters. The reason they recommend them, or the reason why any company will recommend a certain brand (their own or not) of batteries or cables or chargers or whatever other accessory you can think of, is because of their Quality Assurance as much as their desire to keep you in their little circle of corporate synergy. When their products are tested, it's not worth the effort to seek out and try every single third party version of something. It's more efficient to try what they know will work and slap a "for best results" addendum on their literature or support articles. If this sounds scuzzy or scummy, I won't disagree, though I would offer that they could just as easily keep their connections and hardware specs to themselves and actively go around shutting down every third party enterprise under the sun. This is why we get a "for best results" rather than "One of us! One of us!" It's not about taking the lesser of two evils, but rather a deep understanding on the part of Apple, Samsung, and whoever else is still in business regarding the customer/manufacturer relationship. 
Here's another dirty little secret about electronics manufacturing: Many of the devices you own contain components made by only a handful of companies. Like the accessory paradigm we just talked about, there's nothing overtly shadowy or sketchy about this arrangement; it's very efficient and keeps the price of these devices down. Can you imagine if Microsoft's Surface team had to mine and smelt their own iron, gold, copper, tin, neodymium, and a whole host of other raw materials to get that magnesium-shelled slab into your lap? We passed the point when aluminum was more valuable than gold decades ago, and I doubt anyone has a desire to go back to that way of life. 

3. First Rodeos

Carrying on from the second point, when you do a trade-in for a new device (which you should do, or consider donating to a charity such as Music & Memory), you're rarely if ever asked to hand in your cables, charge adapters, and other accessories. This is because there's virtually nothing of value to salvage out of what essentially amount to strands of rubber-encased copper and possibly a few magnets. Even in terms of value as scrap, that device you're turning back in is worth far more than that cable you plugged into it every night. For starters, if you took even semi-decent care of that device and it maybe only has a few scratches or at worst a cracked screen, that device can be refurbished and sold again to users who maybe don't need all those hot new features. Music & Memory, for example, use these devices as music players for Alzheimer's patients. Many of those older "dumb phones" are repurposed as emergency call devices for the elderly since you don't need a SIM card to call 911. Couple that with them being lighter and smaller than those glass slabs, they're practically set and forget until needed. 

As for those cables and adapters and such, let's have some fun. If you still have a drawer full of your old devices (Kindles, iPads, etc.) that you haven't yet donated or traded in, I'd like you to go to that drawer now and take out all the cables. In fact, go and gather all the USB and power cables you've got and put them in one place. Let's face it, you probably need to organize these things anyway. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that you have more than one. I doubt the most mental minimalist has only the single USB cable and power adapter that came with their phone. At best, you may only have one of those little wall warts that take on the Herculean task of throttling 120 volts of alternating current into a direct 5. It's fascinating how well USB has lived up to the Universal part of its name in the last 10 years alone. Your local convenience store probably has a bin of adapters to let you plug your phone into the cigarette lighter socket of your car (another astonishingly universal standard). 

While the general consensus is that a wire is a wire is a wire, it's true that not all cables are created equal (those pesky third parties). Some are only capable of delivering a certain amount of power compared to others, others are absolutely rubbish at power but great for data transfer (and vice versa), and the overall length of the cable can affect how efficiently it charges your device. You likely have that one wire in that pile we've assembled that you keep around for reasons you don't remember if only because, despite being a USB cable like all the others, it only seems to work with certain devices. I'm sorry to say I don't have any better idea of what's going on there than you do. 
Fortunately, it's easy enough to do some simple bench tests to see which ones can cut the mustard and which ones belong in the bin (I mean, what else are you going to be doing today?). If you want to be extra super-especially doubly sure you're getting all the data you need to make these decisions, you can purchase a cable tester for a few dollars and put it next to that battery tester you never use (the one that's in the drawer with all the cables and Kindles and such). 
Here's one in action:

The tricky part of this test will be those wall adapters. We mentioned amperage before, and if you're not familiar with what that is, the important takeaway is it determines how quickly power is transferred over the cable. Bear in mind, though, that higher amps is not always best. For something like a tablet, it's essential, lest your charging times take longer than overnight. For phones, while it will charge them quickly, there's the added downside of degrading your phone's battery over time, shortening its operational lifespan. As for how to find out what amps your wall adapter is capable of outputting, they're typically printed on the casing. Most are legible enough, but others may give you some grief. 

Can you read that? Neither can I.
Can you read that? Neither can I. 

The best course of action would be not to bother with them, or at best relegate them to charging those devices you don't need in any big hurry. It's also worth mentioning that while your computer's built-in USB ports are perfectly capable of charging your devices, they rarely output more than one amp. Again, that's good enough for a phone, but a tablet will take longer and may not actually reach the full 100% no matter how long you let it sit. 

For the record, I don't buy Apple's PR spin about environmental considerations when it comes to not including wall adapters with their devices. Put simply, it's one less thing for them to make en masse, you likely didn't need another one anyway, and if you don't already have a small accumulation of alternatives then now is the perfect time to change that. 

My work here is done. APPLE APOLOGIST... AWAY!