Monday, November 24, 2008

Accessory Incompatibility: My Old Accessories Won't Charge My New iPod!

Have you ever bought a consumer electronics gadget, purchased a bunch of accessories for it, and then discovered that once you upgraded to the latest model of your main device, the accessories no longer worked? I recall a few years ago, a colleague of mine complained of this very issue with his Sony Ericsson mobile phone: he had a proprietary 12-volt charger, a second AC charger, and even a desktop dock. But as soon as he upgraded to the latest Sony Ericsson model, he realized the company had changed its proprietary connector. All of his previously-purchased accessories were now useless.

The other day, we received an e-mail from a frustrated consumer with a similar problem. He had just invested in the latest, fourth-generation iPod nano. The connector itself hadn't changed. But he discovered that while his old Belkin FM transmitter and a speaker system from another manufacturer worked with the player, they wouldn't simultaneously charge it as they had with his old iPod. Angry and upset at the fact that he didn't know this prior to buying the new player, he came to us.

"I read an article that it was due a change in hardware but said nothing more," he wrote. "Maybe with the larger screen (smaller unit), more juice is being used and it cannot support the charge. But wouldn't it help it to hold a charge longer? And bottom line is that this issue does not seem to be addressed by Apple anywhere online."

Apple could not be reached in time for comment, but Greg Milkovich, Country Manager for Belkin Canada, confirmed to us that Apple did indeed change to 5-volt USB charging internally in October. Manufacturers were notified that Apple would be making this change so they had ample time to devise new, compatible accessories.

Milkovich says that all of Belkin's current power and FM transmitters use the 5-volt USB charging, but yes, some of the company's legacy products (and obviously legacy products from other manufacturers) will not charge the new models.

"This is the same for all manufacturers as we were all complying with the previous 12-volt firewire standard," Milkovich explains. "This is similar to the video change that Apple made last year where you used to have video out of the 3.5mm but is now out of the 30 pin."

So why the change? Sure, it works out well for third-party accessory makers (not to mention Apple itself) because they can market and sell a whole slew of fancy, new accessories (something they arguably would have been doing anyway). But it also leaves consumers who might have eaten up docks, transmitters, and other gadgetry like hotcakes frantically setting up eBay accounts to salvage some bucks from these now obselete items.

A third-party source (who asked not to be named) predicts two main reasons for the spec change: one being cost improvements, and the other being size. "The smaller size of the USB 5-volt allows for sleeker/smaller design," the source tells me.

So while dealing with incompatibility from one iteration of a product to the next can be frustrating, keep in mind that sometimes the changes made are essential for the manufacturer to make improvements to other aspects of the device. And with technology being so prolific these days, early adopters are bound to find someone who still has the previous generation product, and would welcome your now obselete accessory with open arms.

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