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Lightning 30-pin adapter works with analog audio, "iPod Out" doesn't mean what you think it means (Updated)

A certain degree of confusion around not-yet-shipping products is inevitable, as hands-on information is limited and manufacturers' descriptions may be cryptic. In the case of the iPhone 5, Apple's not helping matters with its spec page for the Lightning to 30-pin dock adapters, specifically the mention of "iPod Out" not being supported.

[Updated: As one of our commenters noticed, Apple has now removed the confusing reference to the "iPod Out" feature. The store page now says "This adapter lets you connect devices with a Lightning connector to many of your 30-pin accessories. Support for analog audio output, USB audio, as well as syncing and charging. Video output not supported." It's not clear if this actually means that the adapter does support iPod Out for car stereos, but it is clear that analog audio is included.]

The $29/$39 Lightning adapter certainly sounds pricey (and is generating some high-profile complaints for its cost and for the retrofit challenges), but one reason for that is the amount of work it has to do. As with Thunderbolt, these are "cables with a chip"; they handle digital to analog conversion, USB audio, all the signaling for track changes, etc. that were part of the original 30-pin connector standard.

There are two things these adapters won't do to emulate the 30-pin dock link. They can't send analog video out, and they don't support "iPod Out" mode. As soon as people began reading that the adapters didn't support "iPod Out" they immediately assumed (in the absence of helpful information, like a link on the spec page or something of that sort) that meant the adapters wouldn't handle analog audio, and that the iPhone 5 would completely obsolete millions of dockable devices at a stroke. Cue mass panic.

Here's the thing, though: "iPod Out" doesn't actually mean "audio output from an iPod." It's the branding for a very specific feature for cars and remote-screen tools that was included in iOS 4, which delivered a customized iOS graphic display via the in-dash screens when the device was docked. BMW made a big deal of including this feature as early as 2010, but few other manufacturers have jumped on board. [Reader Abraham V. points out that the 2012 Honda Civic supports iPod Out; if you know of other cars that do, chime in via the comments. –MR]

For my money (and possibly for plenty of other people's money), Apple ought to clarify the "iPod Out" notation ASAP on the adapter page, and it might need to do a little bit of consumer education about the capabilities of the adapter. Folks are definitely confused out there.

Unfortunately, this consumer confusion isn't helped by coverage like this post at Cult of Mac or this CNN Money story, which erroneously conflate the "iPod Out" feature support with the fact that the Lightning interface is "all digital" and leap promptly to the conclusion that you can't get any analog audio out of the 30-pin adapter. That's incorrect. Macworld sought and received direct confirmation from Apple that the adapter does supply analog audio, and the company told The Verge that future adapters will support VGA and HDMI video out, just like the current 30-pin accessories.

What does this mean for you? If you don't have a car that supports iPod Out, and you don't plan to buy one, go ahead and get that iPhone 5 or new iPod touch you're craving. The Lightning to 30-pin adapter may be clumsy and certainly isn't cheap, but it definitely will let you connect to your music.