Teardown reveals Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter contains tiny computer

By , Mar 2, 2013

digital av adapter 1

This is kind of interesting. The folks over at Panic, the Oregon-based software company behind Mac apps like Coda and Transmit, were doing some digging around in Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter, and discovered it contains a tiny computer.

Now, we know Apple has a penchant for embedding authentication chips and such in its cables, as a way of controlling third party iOS accessories. But this is completely different. The Adapter has a built-in ARM SoC, 256MB of RAM and runs an OS…

The discovery came about while the Panic team was testing a variety of video out methods for iOS devices, for an upcoming project. When they got to Apple’s Lightning Digital AV Adapter, they noticed that something wasn’t quite right with its output.

For starters, it wouldn’t broadcast in full 1080p. The old 30-pin adapter did, but for some reason the new Lightning one will only output video at 1600×900. And they also noticed that the outputted video contained MPEG streaming-like display noise.

digital av adapter apart

To solve the mystery, they broke open the adapter, where they found the aforementioned RAM and SoC. And their theory is that it’s being used to make an AirPlay-like connection with devices, meaning video isn’t actually passing through the port.

“There are a lot of questions. What OS does it boot? @jmreid thinks the adapter copies over a “mini iOS” (!) from the device and boots it in a few seconds every time it’s connected, which would explain the fairly lengthy startup time for video out. Why do this crazy thing at all? All we can figure is that the small number of Lightning pins prevented them from doing raw HDMI period, and the elegance of the adapter trumped the need for traditional video out, so someone had to think seriously out of the box. Or maybe they want get as much functionality out of the iPad as possible to reduce cost and complexity.”

Exact details of what’s actually going on inside the SoC are still unknown—like what’s being used to encode/decode video. But whatever it is, it seems extremely excessive for video output. I guess at least now we know why these new Digital AV Adapters cost $50.

What do you make of all of this?

Top image via iLounge

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  • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

    So the apple video adapter is more powerful than the average droid phone… ? :P

    • JamesR624

      Oh for fucks sake, if you’re going to needlessly insult android even when it’s not even mentioned in the article, at least get your facts straight about it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

        Sorry one could not resist… .

      • http://twitter.com/rud0lf77 rud0lf77

        LOL? It is a fact that many Android phones have less than 900MHz and less than 500MB RAM, obviously I am not talking about the Optimus or Galaxy S-Devices, but the market is filled by small devices like the wildfire or samsungs mini devices. Or No-name androids..

      • http://twitter.com/Nashafa Nathan

        Yes, but being so stubborn like that makes you completely forget the fact that those Android phones w/ little power are 50 times cheaper than the iPhone.

      • Ben

        What! Where did the iPhone come from? We are talking about a Lightning Digital AV Adapter being more powerful than most Androids, not an iPhone. Looks like your stubbornness is taking over. :p

      • trumpet444

        The vast majority of android phones are 1ghz and up. Even the 3+ year old (first) Motorola Droid could be clocked at above 900mhz. This adapter is more like a Raspberry Pi than anything

      • Dlevi309

        EVERYBODY GIVE MY GOOD FRIEND RUDOLF A BIG HAND :-p

      • a smit

        relax ….. :)

      • Raj

        Truth will be bitter always!!!

    • Pashto

      Its funny cause my drroid phone has twice as much RAM than the iPad 4

      • http://www.facebook.com/joe.jonsen Joe Jonsen

        yeah and it still cant scroll the UI Smoothly lol

      • Pashto

        Its funny cos I have nova 3, mc 4 and GTA vice city all running in background and the ui is still smooth

      • Raj

        LOLOLOL

      • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

        So is the droid phone you are running classed as the average android handset? I think not…

  • http://hbang.ws/ Adam D

    Unless the old 30-pin TV out adapters don’t work when used through the Lightning to 30-pin adapter, it most likely wouldn’t be doing something with AirPlay.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tyshawn.anthony Tyshawn Anthony

      The old 30-pin adapter does not work if you connect the Lightning to 30-pin adapter. I have tried and always wondered WHY? Now I know…!

      • http://twitter.com/steelahlive Steelahlive

        Jailbroken? Curious if it would work with re-supported? or something else after the jailbreak?

      • SimonReidy

        Its a hardware limitation unfortunately, so no jailbreak tweak can fix it. There is no uncompressed video out pin on all devices with a lightning port. How Apple thinks this is acceptable in 2013 astounds me!

    • Mohammed Sahib

      It doesn’t. Clearly stated on Apple’s website.

  • Bob

    I want HDMI output from my iPhone 5 to my TV, and 1080p video playback too, probably too much to ask for though? Even though loads of android phones can do this.

    • TriguyRN

      Apple won’t do that. Less money to be made.

    • Infone

      Airplay?

    • http://twitter.com/MCaudebec Maxim∑

      Airplay Mirroring?What you want already exists and has existed for a while

      • trumpet444

        True, but not always practical. It’d be much easier to just carry around a little adapter than to lug an apple TV everywhere you go. If I’m connecting my phone to a TV, there’s a good chance I’m not home

      • SimonReidy

        True. Not to mention true 1080p uncompressed graphics output over HDMI looks much better than 1080p over AirPlay which is compressed to MPEG4 video. I have an ATV3 and the old 13 pin to HDMI adapter and when outputting 1080p rom the 4S and iPad3 over HDMI the picture quality is way better than 1080p airplay and it gets rid of the airplay lag too.

      • http://twitter.com/PhilBeez86 U Kn0w What 1t 1s

        Because the Apple TV is so heavy and big… People will spend 50 on an adapter with no features but don’t want to spend 100 for a Piece of equipment that does exactly what u want it to and more because u have to lug it around? U can fit the Apple TV in your back pocket! Apple TV is nothing special, but if you stream from your phone that often that this new adapter is a total disappointment to you the extra 50 for the Atv will do the job.

  • rain111

    frankly speaking, regardless off the tiny computer it has inside it *ARM*, I would not pay $50 for it, let alone $30.

    • http://www.facebook.com/tafk1 Taf Khan

      Pay abit more for an ATV, no wires needed.

      • rain111

        Exactly!

  • Mohammad Ridwan

    Holy Cow!

  • Mohammad Ridwan

    My iPod Touch 4G has same amount of RAM as this Adapter :(

    • regkilla

      Upgrade that piece of crap!

      • Irfan Tarique

        Its still a good device in my opinion.

      • Raj

        Crap!!! I agree crap is android phone…

  • walt

    Could this be some kind of DRM subtrefuge?

  • http://twitter.com/oneBurge Burge

    Jailbreak it..

    • Mohammad Ridwan

      lol

    • 1337lolzorz

      And install xbmc on it

      • http://twitter.com/oneBurge Burge

        Then it would worth more than a ATV 3…lol..

  • wonderboydave

    so you’re telling me that a $50 adapter that suppose to stream HD doesn’t do what it says. SMH

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.jonsen Joe Jonsen

      this is very bad

  • http://www.facebook.com/ross.ayers1 Ross Ayers

    Something is not quite right here. The Panic Team says the Digital AV adapter only outputs video at 1600×900 and yet the Apple store clearly says “It also outputs video content — movies, TV shows, captured video — to your big screen in up to 1080p HD.”

    Who is correct?

    Also, the iPad 4th generation makes no mention of Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound pass-through with Apple Digital AV Adapter whereas it does with iPad 3 with 30 pin adapter.

    • http://www.facebook.com/joe.jonsen Joe Jonsen

      uh oh

    • Érico Gonçalves

      The compressed 1600x900p image is upscaled to 1080p. Awful result quality.

  • Pashto

    The awkward moment when a charging cord has the same amount of ram as last years iPod touch

  • SimonReidy

    This is terrible news and confirms what my colleagues and I recently discovered. I work for a video production firm, and we only just bought the HDMI adapter and we are totally unhappy with it. This post helps confirm what I thought was going on, which is recompression of all content (whether raw graphics or video) to low bit-rate video. So even when you are outputting graphics, the feed is compressed down to low bit-rate video before being upscaled to 1080p. That’s why Apple is dubiously claiming the adapter supports up to 1080p output, when its in reality only up scaled to 1080p.

    This actually results in worse picture quality than airplay, which defeats the purpose of getting it in the first place (I already have airplay and while picture quality is ok for video content, its much softer for graphics, and there is lag due to the real-time compression of the signal to video).

    Here’s the worst thing – I also have the old 13 pin to HDMI adapter for my iPhone4S, and the 1080p picture quality output from that BLOWS AWAY THE PICTURE FROM MY IPHONE 5. I put that in caps so you can soak up how pathetic this situation is. All Apple had to do was add a digital video out pin to lightning, but they skipped it, so now the best any current lightning adapter chip can do is compress a native 1080p signal down to 900p then it scales to 720p/1080p video. It looks terrible. Everything is super-soft, lacking detail and there are chunky mpeg artefacts like a bad DVD copy.

    Needless to say I’m returning the adapter. This means the only way to get native 1080p off the phone is to copy it to another device like a computer and play it back from that. Even 1080p AirPlay using an ATV3 heavily recompresses the picture to save bandwidth, so naturally for those of us wanting true 1080p output (like all new Android phones do over MHL) this is a massive step backwards.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ken.ikuno.1 Ken Ikuno

      That post was more educational than this article. Thank you.

      • SimonReidy

        No problem. Just wish I wasn’t bearing such bad news. From what I can ascertain there is literally no raw HDMI output pin available on all lightning equipped devices, so from this point forward Apple thinks compressing graphics to MPEG4 video at 1600x900p and then upscaling to 1080p is “good enough”.

        I have to say this makes me very glad to own an iPad3. Given I use it to output proper 1080p via HDMI to a plasma. if I had waited for the iPad4 I would have unwittingly bought it thinking it could do the same thing with lightning + the $50 adapter. Turns out its a total downgrade for people that work with video.

        So just to summarise, the size has gone down for lightning, but its meant a transition to expensive chipped cables (still USB 2.0 speeds only) and dodgy video converters, and the loss of native graphics output. This is a horrible sacrifice Apple has made, for what is supposed to be a next generation connector.

        The truly crazy thing? If they had just adopted the industry standard of microUSB, it could easily output uncompressed 1080p HDMI over mHL (even the $400 Nexus 4 can do that). But as we know its Apple’s way or the highway :(

      • http://www.facebook.com/ken.ikuno.1 Ken Ikuno

        This just gives me one more in my long list of reasons not to upgrade my iPhone 4S to the 5.
        I’ve always been a fan of the iPhone but these days the choices Apple is making and forcing its customers to live with are beyond my tolerance for bad decisions. I’m happy with my 4S for now but I honestly don’t know if I’ll stay with Apple in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.jonsen Joe Jonsen

    so hold on the cable is over complicated and cant out put pure 1080p? and has mpeg compression noise? and costs $50?? WTF?

  • medzener

    Looooooooooooooooool Jailbreak it…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-Leonardo/1031115435 Joe Leonardo

    Huh..

  • http://www.facebook.com/joe.jonsen Joe Jonsen

    omg well sad thing is ipad 4 has a much more powerfull graphics processor than ipad 3 but it can send its video to output at 1080p except with apple tv!? lol appele dide tgis in increase applke tv sales lol

  • http://twitter.com/david11629 David Wu

    So if I want 1080p output from my iPhone 5, can I just use a lightning to 30-pin connector and use the 30-pin adapter?

  • http://i-adapters.com/ i-adapters.com

    I hear about this convention for first time and Its happy to know that we have such good one. My great appreciation goes to its founder.