One of the most rumored and discussed features of the presumed "iPhone 5," the unofficial fan name of Apple's sixth-generation iPhone, has been its dock connector.
Almost every major news outlet has said Apple plans to slim down its traditional dock connector -- the outlet for connecting the iPhone to power sources, devices, utilities and other accessories -- from 30 pins to either 19 pins, or possibly even just nine pins. News outlets like Reuters and The New York Times all reported Apple would slim down its dock connector to 19 pins across all its iOS devices, but on Tuesday, 9 to 5 Mac discovered a possible reference to a 9-pin dock connector embedded in the code of the iOS 6 Beta 4 build, which Apple released to developers on Monday.
The latest version of iOS 6, which will be almost certainly installed on all next-generation iPhones, mentioned a hardware feature called "9Pin" -- the whole script said "copyDeviceSupports9Pin" -- which likely has to do with the dock connector. The reference was discovered only on Tuesday, but 9 to 5 Mac said the "9Pin" mentioned had been present since the first beta build of iOS 6.
But whether or not the dock connector has 19 pins, or 9 pins, or 8 pins, it's a near-certainty that Apple is making its ports smaller. But one question still left unanswered is, "Will the new dock connector also be MagSafe?"
What Is MagSafe?
Apple needed to figure out a way to build a computer cord for its laptops that people wouldn't trip over. Tripping on cords is often disastrous, not just for the person taking the fall, but for the computer attached to that cord. Until MagSafe was invented, cords would often take their laptops with them when tripped on, resulting in catastrophe for the hardware.
Apple's solution, unveiled in January 2006, was called MagSafe, which debuted at that year's Macworld Expo in San Francisco.
MagSafe is essentially a power cord that magnetically attaches to the computer, so when pulled out, it doesn't damage the connector port, the power socket, or the computer itself. The cord simply snaps off with a satisfying click, which ensures your computer isn't pulled off the surface on which it sits.
MagSafe has been excellent for computers, but with the 30-pin dock connector, Apple never needed to apply this technology to the iPhone, iPad or iPod. The 30-pin connector is extremely stable, and iOS devices are too small to make a real mess if someone tripped on the cord.
Why Would The iPhone 5 Need A MagSafe Dock Connector?
But now, with plans to make smaller devices and even smaller connectors, it could be that a 9-pin port, or even a 19-pin port, isn't strong enough to hold an iPhone or iPad. In this case, it would make sense for Apple to make the next-generation of dock connectors for iOS devices MagSafe, as it would provide reinforcement and a magnetic guide for locking and unlocking the dock connector.
Without MagSafe, the smaller dock connector could be less stable, which could be bad for synching or backing up to your computer. When the iPhone is plugged into the computer, it needs a solid, steady connection to synchronize and update the software; if the dock connector is small enough to be easily pulled out, synchronizations will be a nightmare, and iPhone customers will experience all sorts of problems. The Genius Bars at the Apple Stores would be packed around the clock because the cord is too unstable. MagSafe could prevent all of that.
Making the dock connector smaller wouldn't be the only reason to change the feature across all iOS devices; in all likelihood, the smaller dock connector is probably faster than the 30-pin dock connector. TechCrunch originally noted that the size of the 19-pin port is actually similar to Apple's Thunderbolt port, which could also mean that Apple plans to feature this ultra-fast connection speed more prominently across all its hardware.
But whether or not the new dock connector has Thunderbolt capabilities -- namely, 10 Gbps in simultaneous bidirectional communication, which is 20 times faster than the theoretical limit of USB 2.0 and 12 times faster than FireWire 800 -- the dock connector must be faster. The latest generation of iPhones and iPads are big drains on battery life, which means Apple needs to do a better job at charging devices quickly and efficiently.
Speed may be the key reason to shrinking the dock connector, but it matters little: MagSafe would help the iPhone, and all future iOS devices for that matter, be more secure when powering up, backing up, and synching.
iPhone 5: Other Outside Features
The dock connector is definitely the most reported feature, but while Apple won't confirm this or any features until the device's eventual unveiling, there seems to be more smoke surrounding certain features more so than others. Here's a breakdown of what we've heard about the device, specifically from the outside.
Redesigned Speaker Grills: The speakers on the bottom have been expanded and redesigned in the new iPhone model. Now that the dock connector from the iPhone 4 and 4S has been shrunk down, Apple has more room to create bigger and louder speakers.
Metal Back: The iPhone 4S features a back made of all glass, but the new photos from iFixyouri show black and white iPhones with much of the back encased in metal. It's not clear what function the metal back serves -- if it's simply a style choice, or if it's made out of an extremely-light "liquidmetal" solution -- but all of the photos of the new iPhones included these metal portions. There's a slight chance that the metal back could help improve call reception, given that the metal trim along the sides is molded into the metal backplates, giving it a "unibody" feel.
Migrated FaceTime Camera: To better mirror the faceplate of the iPod Touch, Apple has apparently moved the FaceTime camera from the left of the earpiece to above the earpiece itself. Moving the camera likely frees up more space to include more parts and components like LTE and NFC chips, but it also makes the iPhone more symmetrical and appealing.
Migrated Earphone Jack: Photos of the new iPhone show the earphone jack, which has traditionally been located on the top right corner of the phone, has migrated to the bottom left corner of the device. This design change aligns perfectly with a May 14 report from Hong Kong-based components supplier SW-Box, which claimed to have acquired a new headphone jack, ear speaker, and Wi-Fi cable part for a new iPhone. SW-Box's audio components would fit perfectly within the new design released by iFixyouri and 9 to 5 Mac.
New Camera Opening: Photos of the released iPhone show a subtle but interesting difference to the camera infrastructure: On the rear panels of the black and white iPhone models, there is now a small space between the camera lens and the LED flash. Looking at the inside of that space, there appears to be a tiny object that occupies the opening, which could be a small microphone to help with capture higher-quality audio when recording video.
iPhone 5: Likely Software Features
Besides all of the wonderful features in iOS 6, what other features can users expect to be showcased in the iPhone 5? Here's a breakdown of rumors, reports and patent filings that suggest a number of killer features and applications may be included in this year's iPhone model:
LTE Connectivity: Despite the significantly higher download and upload speeds of LTE, previous implementations of the high-speed network in smartphones ravaged battery life, which was a major complaint from users. If Apple wanted LTE in the iPhone 4S, it would have been forced to increase the phone's thickness to accommodate a larger circuit board and a bigger battery. As Apple CEO Tim Cook noted in a company earnings conference call in April 2011, "first-generation LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises."
But now, with new LTE chips from Qualcomm now available, it's a foregone conclusion that Apple will implement radio bands for 4G LTE in the iPhone '5', given that Apple introduced the high-speed network on its new iPad, released March 16. Since LTE in tablets isn't a feature users were breaking down doors for, its implementation was likely done as a "practice run."
NFC: Near-Field Communication is nothing new. In fact, many current smartphones have the chip built-in so owners can use mobile payments solutions like Google Pay. Apple has held off on implementing NFC technology into its iPhone, but a slew of recently granted patents seem to suggest that will change with the sixth-generation model. Two of the major features said to use NFC rather heavily are the iWallet, and iTunes "Gifting."
The iWallet: If you saw Apple announce iOS 6 at WWDC, you may have heard about a new application called Passbook, which is designed to keep all of your gift cards, coupons and tickets all in one place. With a simple flick, users can summon their Starbucks cards, loyalty cards, train tickets, plane tickets and sporting event tickets, too. While Passbook will work on every iOS device, Apple has reportedly been building an expansion of this software specifically for an NFC-capable iPhone.
Apple won a major patent on March 6 for a piece of technology called the "iWallet," which is a digital system that gives users complete control over their subsidiary financial accounts on their iPhones, and also leverages Near-Field Communication technology to complete credit card transactions directly on the phone as well. The iWallet has many different features, including giving users the ability to see their entire credit card profiles, view statements and messages from their banks, and even set parental controls for their children, should they also want to use their iPhones as digital wallets. Outside of the iPhone, users can keep track of their payments and statements within the iTunes billing system, which keeps credit card information and records safe and secure. There's a possibility that iWallet could also work with other Apple utilities, which could allow users to buy things like movie tickets directly within the apps, but only time will tell with that one.
iTunes Gifting: Speaking of NFC ... Another Apple patent unveiled in April described a system for standardized buying, sending, and receiving of media files from a media provider (iTunes) between multiple devices (iPhones, iPads, and iPodTouchs). The process was simply called, "Gifting," and it would certainly work with an NFC-capable iPhone.
Downloading and storing digital media with online service providers has become commonplace -- more so than purchasing DVDs and CDs at physical stores -- but it's not very easy to transfer digital files from one individual to another, usually because of copyright laws. Apple believes "Gifting" is the solution.
One method for gifting requires the sender to authorize a gift charge to their iTunes account, which is then transmitted from the sender's device to the receiver's device -- via tapping, or as long as they're nearby -- thanks to the NFC chip. If the recipient of the gift isn't nearby -- or you want it to be a surprise -- the gift-giver may submit an official request with iTunes, which then processes the request and charges the initiator's account for the given file. The patent also allows for multiple gifts to be sent in a single transaction, as well as certain customization options for the gifts -- including voice greetings and custom gift images, likely to conceal the gift's identity before the recipient opens it.
Audio Sharing Network: The last few months have seen Apple pay increasing attention to its audio network. It released its Podcast application as a completely separate application, and now, according to a newly-filed patent for the iPhone, Apple plans to make the iPhone into a "conference telephone" designed to cut out the background noise while recording audio, which can then be packaged and distributed. This feature would certainly appeal to students that want to record their lectures, as well as enterprise professionals that want to hold and record teleconferences with multiple individuals and be able to hear everyone clearly.
OLED Display: Apple is reportedly testing the iPhone 5 prototype with an A5X chip, which is the quad-core graphics processor used to power the Retina Display in the new iPad. But why would Apple need such a powerful chip for an iPhone? Given that the A5X chip is a graphics powerhouse, if Apple doesn't drastically change the physical size of the screen to 4.6 inches, it may be changing the display's overall quality.
Apple has plenty of money to afford OLED screens in an iPhone-sized display, and it would make sense for Apple to ask Samsung to help build its iPhone 5 displays. Samsung knows how to build big, beautiful screens for any size device: Just imagine what Samsung could do with Apple's Retina technology implemented into an OLED. Apple would effectively put distance between the iPhone and all other smartphone competitors for another five years, at the very least.
Crack-Proof Glass: Everyone who's ever had a rough Saturday night would certainly love this patent.Granted on Nov. 15, Apple's patent for crack-resistant glass uses the same alumino silicate glass solution used in the iPhone 4 and 4S, but chemically treats it with potassium and sodium ions to achieve greater compression thresholds on the surface and edges of the glass, making it less susceptible to cracks.
Apple also included a handy feature that will appeal to everyone who's ever dropped their iPhone: The patent calls for a shock mount to be placed between the glass and the body of the device, which will instantly inflate if the device senses it's falling. If the iPhone's internal accelerometer senses it's falling, an actuator within the device sucks in the cover glass as it accelerates to the ground, protecting it from damage.
Advanced Haptics: Another recently published Apple patent describes a new haptics feedback system that allows a user to interact with the content on the screen by touching it, which is accomplished with sensors and actuators working simultaneously. The new multi-tiered system is extremely sophisticated: Using several layers of elastic screens stacked on top of each other, Apple's screen can produce 3D buttons or objects to interact with, as well as give texture to images, like topographical maps.
Apple's haptic system can create different types of actions, including vibration, net displacement, bending, deforming, or any combination of those elements. The technology can also work with a secondary display screen or audio system, which would be useful if Apple ever builds its iTV, but the system can also be applied to flexible organic light emitting diode (OLED) screens. This advanced haptics system would also work with almost every portable Apple device, including iPhones, iPod Touch devices, iPads, MacBooks, and even TVs, video projectors and e-Ink displays.
Apple Avatars. If you want to buy movies, apps, or any content through Apple's iTunes Store or App Store, Apple requires you have an Apple ID. Your Apple ID sticks with you in the company's Game Center, which keeps track of a user's achievements across purchased and downloaded games. But if this recently granted patent has any bearing on the immediate future, Apple users may soon get to make customizable Apple Avatars, which users would use to represent themselves within potential online or gaming environments. Apple users could create a 3D model of themselves, customizing features like hair, eyes, nose, and eyebrows, as well as other features and accessories. While avatars seem to be geared towards kids, it would actually help give users a source of identity while making the Apple brand -- and identification procedures -- a little more fun. Don't be surprised if Apple had Pixar's help on this one: Just look at the eyes.
The Photographer's Timer. Traditionally, self-timing cameras are used to take pictures of a big group, or a self-portrait. But in Apple's self-timer, a patent granted March 8, the iDevice's camera can identify the photographer and ask if they want to be in the picture. At that point, the iPhone will simply wait until it detects the photographer's face in the viewfinder before it automatically snaps a photo. If you are the "photographer" who also wants to be in the picture, the iPhone will simply wait until it detects your face to take the picture.
"But what about interruptions? What happens if I get a call after I set the self-timer?" Wonder no more. If you set the timer and then your phone goes off, the timer will still wait until it has detected, recognized and verified that you are the photographer and that you're in place for the photo. Now if only Apple patented a tripod...
3D Photography. While existing 3D cameras and video recorders can gather three-dimensional information from objects, they're generally incapable of getting detailed enough information in relation to the shapes, surfaces and depth of the objects. Apple's solution involves a series of systems, tools and methods to capture a 3D image by using multiple sensors and cameras. One sensor would capture a polarizing image, while two other sensors would capture two different non-polarizing images, and Apple's system would combine the images into a composite.
3D Object Recognition. On May 10, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a series of Apple patents relating to 3D face and object recognition technology. Apple's system involves taking a picture -- either with a front or rear camera -- and the 3D recognition software would distinguish between the two-dimensional projection of the image and the three-dimensional shape of the objects in the image. The process would be fully automatic, which would help for identifying faces in a group of objects, or even identifying objects in X-ray images.
Micro SIM Connector: It's definitely not the sexiest feature, but if Apple decides to include this patented micro SIM connector in the iPhone 5, you won't be unhappy. Apple usually doesn't like people tinkering inside its devices, but the company's micro SIM solution is described as "easily removed and replaced," as well as "resistant to damage by an improper insertion of a SIM card, and may provide reliable mechanical performance."
Multi-Player Gaming. The iPhone 5 might also be the first phone to feature a new piece of software for multi-player gaming. On March 15, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office published a patent application from Apple that describes a system for multi-player gaming, which allows groups of people to play the same game together and even see it from different perspectives according to the devices' physical relation to one another. The system actually mimics that of the "Find My Friends" app, in which a user's device detects other nearby devices that it recognizes as "friends," and invites them all to join a common application. The technology also determines the relative position of those devices, so some games -- like turn-based role-playing games or card games -- can be played in a specific order.
Do you hope Apple makes the new dock connectors MagSafe? Have you ever accidentally pulled out the iPhone cord too hard? Have your devices ever been damaged as a result? Let us know with an email or a comment in the section below.