You probably hate cables, I know I do. Though hardware manufacturers increasingly turn to wireless technologies in a bid to rid us of the tangled mess we associate with smartphones and tablets, it seems that (for Apple users at least) charging cables are here to stay for a while yet.
Apple’s supplied basic Lightning cables are just like the 30-pin iPod cables that came before them: too short, prone to fraying, and somehow one-per-device never seems like enough.
So you’ve probably considered upgrading your cable, or at least supplementing your existing one with a third-party alternative. Here’s what we think of four top-selling aftermarket Lighning cables from Belkin, Mophie, Native Union and Volts Solutions. At the end of this round-up, we’ll be giving away the complete set to a lucky reader.
Clash of the Cables
First, a word of advice. All of the cables featured in this round-up feature the “Made for iPhone” (MFi) mark, which means that they’ve been designed to meet Apple’s own standards for third-party accessories. This is a third-party guarantee, and though Apple has nothing to do with approving products enrolled in the program, you should avoid products (particularly chargers and cables) that don’t carry this mark.
The program works by allowing users to verify each company and accessory against a publicly searchable database of approved models. Cheap charging cables that don’t carry this mark (or appear untrustworthy in their use of the MFi logo) should be avoided, as many have been linked to electrocution and house fires.
Today we’ll be looking at four models of cable, though each is available with slight differences — be it size, colour and in some cases material:
- Material: Rigid, tough and industrial-feeling “exo-nylon”, also available in fabric braided nylon which is much easier to bend and softer.
- Available lengths: 1m and 2m.
- Colors: Black cable only for the exo-nylon (with silver, gold and “Space Gray” connectors), more colors available if choosing fabric version.
- Material: Flat, tough, rubberized cable.
- Available lengths: 1m and 3m.
- Colors: Black
- Material: Soft yet rigid fabric braided nylon, in a metallic finish.
- Available lengths: 6 inches (15cm) and 4 foot (1.2m).
- Colors: Six metallic colours to match Apple Devices, including Rose Gold, Silver and Space Gray.
- Material: Soft, fairly bendable braided nylon with a leather “belt” to keep the cable coiled in transport.
- Available lengths: 1.2m and 3m (BELT XL).
- Colors: One black and white patterned design with leather strap.
All of the cables featured in this round-up are anti-tangle in nature, with two being a braided fabric nylon, one tougher hard nylon, and the Mophie using that flat tangle-free rubber often found on portable earphones. This is the very least you should expect from an “upgraded” aftermarket cable, at least when you’re looking at a list price in excess of $20.
Arguably the toughest-feeling of the bunch is is Volts Solutions “exo nylon” — a hard, plastic outer shell (below) that makes coiling the cable (and tangling the cable) very difficult indeed. It’s hardy and has a certain industrial-feel compared to similar braided nylon cables — you’ll find it by color choice (e.g. “exo black”) in online product listings.
While most of the fabric cables are evenly matched in terms of feel and the ability to manipulate them, Native Union (below) appear to have chosen the “softest” braid. It’s noticeably easier to manipulate than the rest, which did make me slightly concerned that it would be more susceptible to damage than the others.
Mophie’s choice of rubber is hard-wearing and heavy, and it’s also quite difficult to manipulate compared to the softer braiding. I don’t see this as being a bad thing, particularly as less movement means a less chance of the cable developing faults.
Only the Native Union cable features a strap to hold everything together, so it arguably takes first place when it comes to convenience for travellers. The other cables all have a tendency to unravel, which is generally the point when it comes to anti-tangle solutions, though I did notice that with a good squeeze Belkin’s offering (below) had a little more “staying power” than the rest.
The fact that Native Union used a leather strap seems like a bit of a gimmick to me, as more nylon would have done the trick just fine. It’s also precariously attached with one single screw and feels like it could fall off at any time. A quick look at some online user reviews reveals that this is a fairly commonly-reported issue.
One thing is for sure: All of these cables feel substantially hardier than the one Apple gave you when you bought your iPhone or iPad, though the Native Union cable does feel the flimsiest of the bunch.
In my experience, the number one area of weakness for charging cables is the point at which the cable enters the connector housing. It’s a high-traffic area, and if you’ve had an iPhone for a few years now you’ve probably got a cable that’s starting to fray at the Lightning connector end.
Both Volts Solutions exo nylon and braided nylon cables are quite hard to bend, which means that creating “tight angles” at either connection point is quite difficult. There’s a small amount of rubber housing extending down from the aluminium connector cover to protect this particularly weak spot, and you’ll have a hard time bending it into an awkward angle.
The exo nylon model provides considerably better protection against damaging bending than the braided nylon, though the rigidity of the cable definitely makes coiling much more difficult (you’ll have to go for a circle instead). It’s also a lot rougher against your skin, if you’re bothered by that sort of thing.
Belkin’s tough braiding was among some of the best of the bunch, and creating problematic angles at the point of connection is quite difficult without some serious force. Despite this, the braiding is still pretty soft and comfortable and even manages to coil up easily. Aluminium connectors provide a metal finish that matches your device and protects the cable.
Mophie’s premium flat cable is unique in this test in that it can only bend two ways — forwards and backwards. In theory this should provide ample protection for the cable’s weak point, and the tough rubberized finish does a good job of keeping the connector flat. That said, it’s not quite as effective as the Volts or Belkin cable at reducing movement.
Mophie’s connectors might be only be plastic, but they seem to do a good job of keeping the cable straight at the join, even under pressure.
The nature of the soft braiding used by Native Union mean that it offers the least resistance, which means the cable is very easy to manipulate and bend. As a result, there’s a high possibility for movement and tight angles at the Lightning connector. Though portability and travel are clearly at the forefront of the design, I’m not hugely confident the cable will withstand being plugged in and out, pocketed, and shoved into bags over time.
In short: Volts Solutions and Belkin probably offer the most rigid nylon cable, particularly the exo nylon finish from Volts (at the expense of a soft, comfortable finish) with Mophie’s movement-restricted rubber beating Native Union’s soft and possibly problematic finish.
There’s nothing quite like spending $30 on a cable to find out it won’t comfortably sit in your iPhone’s case. You don’t want to constantly be taking the case on and off in order to charge your phone, as this will result in a stretched and poorly fitting case within a few weeks (been there, done that).
Few connectors are as thin as Apple’s but the Belkin (above) comes pretty damn close. You’d probably struggle to find a case that the Belkin isn’t able to fit into, thanks to the ultra-slim aluminium finish that’s just barely wider than Apple’s own flimsy plastic connector. If your case uses a particularly small point of connection, then the Belkin is sure to offer the best fit.
In close second place are the Volts Solutions cables (above), which offer a similarly small connector that should fit most cases. It’s not quite as trim as Belkin’s offering, but it’s another tick in the right box for a cable that can be found for around half of the price, in two finishes, and in much longer lengths.
The other two, from Native Union (above) and Mophie (below), are equally matched in terms of Lightning connector cover size, though I’d argue that the Mophie offers better protection from bending thanks to the fact that it will only move in two directions.
After working my way through many cables and cases over the years, I’d argue that this should be an important focus for cable manufacturers. Almost everyone keeps their iPhone in a case, and most people buying an iPhone in your local Apple store will head straight to the wall of cases before completing their purchase. Increasing case compatibility should be right up there alongside preventing damage to sensitive points and providing durable outer coating.
If it fits: All of these cables were able to squeeze into my fairly accommodating Quad Lock bike mount case, but tighter cases would have had issues with the connector size provided by Mophie and Native Union.
Value & Overall Thoughts
Even though it seems like I’ve given the Mophie and Native Union offerings a hard time, all of the cables featured here surpass the quality of Apple’s basic white Lightning cable that comes with your iPhone or iPad. That means they all count as an upgrade, but some will probably last longer than others.
Prices will vary depending on the size of cable you choose, and you can almost always find money off these products if you look hard enough. That said, the best savings I could find online were from Volts Solutions, which seem to have positioned themselves as the bargain option. Despite being listed for $28.99, I found the metre-long exo-nylon cable selling for closer to $12 with the 2 metre offering at $15 and 3m of cable for around $17.
Belkin’s 1.2m Mixit cable is listed at $30, but can be found for $20 — though you’ll have to make do with that length, so it might not suit those looking for a long cable. Native Union has some of the most expensive per-metre prices, with their cable listed for $25 at the Apple store, and the XL 3m variant coming in at $35. Mophie also offer little in the way of a budget buy, with the flat 3m cable costing $35.
Belkin’s cable seems to provide sturdy connection points without breaking the bank, though you’ll have to settle with a 1.2m length; so it’s not ideal for those upgrading because they want a longer cable. I’d personally avoid the Native Union cable as it’s not particularly cheap, the nylon braiding is soft and very bendy, and the leather “belt” feels like it’s probably going to fall off at some point; negating it’s only unique selling point.
The flat 3m offering from Mophie certainly offers a tough, rubberized coating but it’s quite stiff and heavy for travel purposes. If you like to read in bed while your phone is plugged in, it’s not ideal — and nor are the tough exo-nylon cables either.
At current prices, Volts Solutions cables provide excellent bang for your buck, with Belkin sitting pretty at a slightly-more-expensive price point (though build quality and design considerations are great too). One possible reason that Volts cables are cheaper is due to the packaging, which is fairly barebones compared to the rest of the cables on this list. To me, that’s a good thing — the packaging is the least important part of what you’re buying.