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Thursday, May 26, 2022

AirPods mod ditches Lightning port for USB-C

Robotics engineering student Ken Pillonel has followed up his USB-C iPhone mod with a modified pair of AirPods with a USB-C port for charging — replacing Apple’s proprietary Lightning port. Although the result is simple (USB-C cable goes in, power goes up), it was an engineering challenge that Pillonel says consumed “pretty much all my weekends for a few months.” It comes around a month after he completed a project that brought a Lightning port to an Android phone.

Pillonel plans to release a full-length video explaining the project in the coming weeks, but for now, he’s put out a short clip showing his modded AirPods being charged with the same USB-C cable as a MacBook and his previously modded iPhone. He plans to open source the project like he did with the USB-C iPhone for others to follow in his footsteps.

In an email, Pillonel explains that he started by creating a proof-of-concept without regard to the appearance (the results of which he published a few months ago), before gradually refining his work to fit inside Apple’s case. Eventually, the student says he designed a custom flexible PCB containing the necessary charging hardware, which he was able to bend to fit into the AirPods case. In photos, the USB-C port looks almost as neatly integrated as the earbuds’ native Lightning port.

Apple already uses USB-C ports for charging its laptops and an increasing number of its tablets, but it continues to ship Lightning ports on its smaller and more portable devices like iPhones and AirPods as well as Mac accessories like its mouse, trackpad, and keyboard. It means even someone who’s entirely bought into Apple’s ecosystem of products can’t get away with carrying just one charging cable around. As mods like this prove, there’s little stopping Apple from switching to a more convenient universal charging standard, a choice that probably has something to do with the control the proprietary Lightning interface gives Apple.

USB-C AirPods with charging LED illuminated.
Image: Ken Pillonel

EU regulators are attempting to change things with new legislation that they hope will force companies like Apple to use the universal USB-C charging standard on phones, tablets, and headphones, with the aim of reducing e-waste. But until such legislation comes into force, mods like Pillonel’s are likely the best we’re going to get.

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