Accessories for Apple’s new Lightning connector are more expensive than for the old 30 pin connector, and this has made the cost of moving to the next generation of devices significantly higher for a lot of people. The old Camera Connection Kit that gave you both an SD and a USB adapter in the same package has been replaced with individual SD and USB adapters, and the price for each individual Lighting adapter is the same as for both the old adapters combined.
Design-wise, there isn’t much to this adapter, but it’s actually very different from the 30 pin version. Instead of being one solid adapter, it now has a short cable between the Lightning and the USB connectors, which should prove a more flexible solution. The old adapter looked a bit ridiculous if large USB drives or cables were inserted into it, so I think it’s a nice change.
This is an official Apple product, which means that the build quality is solid. This adapter cost more than 10 times what I paid for a similar adapter for my Android phone, however, and I’m not quite sure I see where that money has been put. Then again, I can’t look in Tim Cook’s pockets.
The Lightning to USB Camera Adapter is frankly the better choice of the two now-separate adapters, now that you have to buy them separately. You can use memory cards with this adapter via an SD card reader, however you cannot use USB accessories with the SD version of this adapter, so I think it’s safe to say this is the more versatile adapter. If you only plan on using this for SD cards, however, it will save you some hassle of also carrying a card reader.
The adapter is sold as a “camera adapter”, which means that it’s first and foremost a way to transfer images and photos off cameras and memory cards. The USB version of the adapter is meant for direct camera connections, meaning you connect your camera directly to it via USB. I only have my Canon 1000D DSLR to test with, but it works fine with that. It also works with the SD card reader that came with my Eye-Fi card, allowing me to read files off an SD card. This means I have the same functionality that the SD adapter has, just slightly larger. This stock file transfer system only works with photos and videos, so no documents, no music.
That is however just the beginning of what this adapter can do, as there are several hidden features for this adapter- features that Apple doesn’t advertise, for some reason. Heck, they don’t even list these features in the description for this adapter in the Apple Store! Why Apple doesn’t want people to know of these features I don’t know, but it would probably sell a whole lot more of them if they did.
Anyways, these features have been there since the old version of the adapter, and they’re still supported. First you have USB keyboard support, which allows you to connect any normal USB keyboard to your iPad. I got warnings saying the connected accessory wasn’t compatible when I plugged in a USB keyboard, but it still worked perfectly for typing, so I’m not sure what that’s all about. Second is USB MIDI support, which essentially means you can use instruments with the iPad via USB. I wasn’t able to test this myself with this specific adapter, but reports online state that the functionality is still there in this generation, and I have no reasons to doubt that. Finally, you have USB audio support. I plugged in a USB audio card, plugged some headphones into that, and sure enough, audio was coming out.
All those features are supported on a normal iPad, no jailbreak of anything like that required. If you do jailbreak your device however, you gain something extra with this adapter: the ability to read any file off it using the jailbreak-only app iFile. It will allow you to do basically anything you would expect to be able to do with a USB drive on a computer, including copying files to and from it, and even stream video and music from it. You can even create something called “symlinks” between the flash drive and an application’s documents folder, which allows off-the-shelf App Store apps to read files from the USB drive directly. The way this works is that the app sees a folder, opens it, and is sent via the symlink to a different part of the file system altogether, namely the flash drive. I have for instance set up a video player to be able to browse for files on any inserted flash drive, and it works brilliantly. When there is no flash drive inserted, that directory shows up as blank, but when I insert one, I can browse it and view videos from it. It’s weird how perfectly it works, considering that it’s not meant to. Anyways, here is a very nice tutorial for setting up such “symlinks.”
A few years ago, Apple added a software restriction to limit these adapters to outputting only 20mA of power, down from 100mA. This essentially means that you often get a warning that the accessory uses too much power, resulting in it not working. This is especially a problem with a lot of flash drives that use more than 20mA of power, which means you can’t access them, jailbreak or not.
There is however a workaround. By using an unpowered USB hub, you can trick the device into providing more power, through what’s essentially a weird bug/feature. More on this in this article. To top it all off, the USB hub still works as a hub, so that you can access multiple drives in iFile. That 128GB iPad 4 might suddenly seem like a low capacity device when you throw a few large flash drives into a hub and connect it to your iPad.
This adapter is really just the Lightning version of the old 30 pin adapter, just with a higher price tag and different design. It still supports the same things, which means very little on paper, but a ton more in reality. On a jailbroken device like mine, it works for photos and videos, but also any other file. I can throw a ton of video files on it, and access them using standard App Store apps, which is frankly a bit ironic. I can connect USB audio gear, instruments, and keyboards. When you consider all of that, the price tag of $29 isn’t so bad after all. Still, the high price, jailbreak requirement for proper access, and ridiculous power limitation means that this still ends up far from a high rating.