I buy a lot of stuff from Chinese sellers on eBay and various Chinese sites like DealExtreme. It’s a game of luck; sometimes you strike gold and get epic cases for both your devices for less than $2/each, or an iPad mini dock for $10, but other times you end up with a pile of junk on your desk. Bad quality isn’t too critical for a case, since it only means you won’t use it, but for anything charging related it might actually damage your device. I always disassemble any charging related accessory from such places before use, and today that paid off.
There are good charging products out there on these sites. My review of the $10 iPad mini dock showed that, and I also mentioned the importance of checking the internal components before use in such cases. You really shouldn’t skimp out on doing that, even between different units of the same product. Today, I received another cheap dock- this time a white $11.50 dock- and when I opened it up to see inside, proof that I’m not paranoid was glaring back at me.
There, inside the dock, was a giant blob of solder that was splattered across all the pins of the Lightning connector’s internal end. It covers every single one of the pins, short circuiting the entire connector. There is another set of pins on the back that aren’t covered, which means that either this is an actual mistake, or these short circuited pins aren’t actually connected to anything. I dare not take the chance that it’s the former, and don’t have a multimeter to test right now.
Another issue with this particular dock is that the breakout board (the tiny PCB that takes the small pins coming from the Lightning connector and spreads them out for easier access) is very small compared to the other dock I reviewed. I cannot actually tell if the soldering points for the ribbon cable are touching or not, but they appear to be, which means there’s a second potential short circuit point on one single tiny PCB. The other end- where you would connect your own cable- is better spaced out and properly soldered, but that doesn’t help much when one end is so bad.
It’s easy to test for actual short circuits if you have the equipment, but most people don’t. The screwdriver needed to take a dock like this apart, however, is not as rare. It’s easy to spot bad soldering points, and if you see those, stay away. If soldering points are too close for you to see if they’re touching or not, you shouldn’t use them to begin with.
August update: I’ve gotten a lot of comments on this, and many of them complain that the giant blob of solder is just ground, even after I tested the thing to be short circuited. As such, I did another test of the thing (since I still have it in my box of random parts), to find out exactly what’s wrong with it. It comes down to this: The commenters were right about the blob, I was right about not plugging it into something. The connector’s business end pins are short circuited, but the short circuit is located in the breakout board where it connects to the ribbon cable, not the blob of solder like I first thought when I tested it and found the short. So in a nutshell, I was right to be cautious, though wrong about what part of the connector was bad. My apologies to anyone who for some reason took that personally. The bottom line is that I will continue to eer on the side of caution when I see something that looks sketchy, and while I might be wrong from time to time, I’d rather be wrong about it being unsafe than being wrong about it being safe.