Proprietary Cables vs Standard USB

prop docks Proprietary Cables vs Standard USB

Since the first MP3 players came on the market there’s been a constant question of what connection method the player should use. Proprietary cables have more potential, but standard USB is easier and more accessible.

For some this might mean the difference between buying a player or not while others don’t care, but what is really the difference between the two? Read on for the connection cable showdown between the two.

Proprietary cables

Proprietary cables are hated by a lot of people, and for many reasons. First of all you need to have the cable with you anywhere to be able to hook the player up to a computer (or even charge it if it charges through USB) and that increases the chance of misplacing it. If you do lose it or maybe just want a spare one for the office, it can end up costing you more than you’d think as the MP3 player manufacturers like to charge a very steep price for replacement cables. As an example, a replacement cable for Sony’s main Walkman series cost $18 on Sonystyle. A car charger is $40. For many players there are third party cables and chargers that are a lot cheaper, but you still need to carry around a dedicated cable for the device and if you have many gadgets thats always a hassle.

There are of course not only bad sides to using a proprietary cable, and many might not be aware of the upsides of the player using one. Proprietary cables are almost always several times the number of pins that normal USB uses. Some use as many as 30 pins on the connector while USB use only 4. These pins open up for using various accessories such as TV out cables, TV in, line out, line out, remote control and so on. These features require their own pins and standard USB can’t provide this. That means that if you want a player with a dock that you can remote control from the sofa, you will most likely have to go for a player with a proprietary connector.

The exceptions are players that use 4 pin audio jacks for TV out and remote controlling such as many of Creative’s players. Some players like Archos PMPs have the ability to connect more advanced accessories, such as camera and GPS, and this need even more connectors and might also require draining power FROM the device to run the accessories. The Bluetooth adapter for the before mentioned Sony players is an example of this.

All in all a proprietary cable is the way to go if you require advanced docking and accessories, but remember that including a proprietary connector on a player is by no means a guarantee from the manufacturer that there will be docking options available. On the other hand it leaves the option open where a player with only a standard USB connector and no 4 pin audio jack will never even have the possibility.

Standard USB

Standard USB connectors are becoming more and more…standard. Last year a bunch of cell phone companies agreed on using mini USB B on future cellphones and that deal is starting to show on the cell phone market. The MP3 player market is also dominated by mini USB B, and it’s been a while since we’ve seen a player with for example a USB B connector . Mini USB B provide a small but effective connector and you can find spare cables everywhere and use them with multiple devices. Chargers for these devices are often sold as product specific, but in reality any mini USB B cable plus an AC to USB adapter (or car to USB adapter) would work. This is also the case for most players with proprietary connectors, but when you need that special cable on top of the AC/car to USB adapter the savings often go up in smoke.

The downside of standard USB is that docking becomes close to impossible. As mentioned before there are 4 pin audio jacks that might do the trick and some cell phone manufacturers also use the 4 pin USB connectors for audio, but all in all 4 pins isn’t enough to provide the freedom that proprietary cables provide with regards to accessories. Some players also use extra USB connectors for accessory connections, like the Cowon D2 which has a standard mini USB B for data transfer and an additional 7 pin micro USB connector for line in, TV out and charging.

The bottom line with standard USB is that it will give you freedom to use cheap cables and not have specific ones for each device, but it will also limit you with regards to docking and accessories.

Which One is Better?

There really is no answer written in stone on this one. It all depends on what you need the player do to. If you need real docking capabilities, go for a player which has that – I can almost guarantee you that it will have a proprietary connector. If you want simplicity and few cables, go for standard USB (mini B). If you want both…well there are players that use a combination, but unfortunately not as many as you would have thought.

You can also ask why the manufacturers don’t use a single standard for docking, so that the proprietary cables themselves would become standard. After all, most of them look alike. Some actually are alike, like the iPod connector and the Sansa connector which are alike except for a tiny dent in the Sansa connector to make sure iPod connectors won’t fit. Unfortunately some people have tried iPod accessories anyways, and through the magic of shoving the player into an iPod dock they’ve ended up frying their player due to the pins being wired differently, This is a good example why you should not under any circumstance try to use a player on a dock that’s made for another player unless you are absolutely sure it’s compatible. As for ever getting a standard multi-pin connector that use the same pinout for several brands that is highly unlikely. It requires two things the manufacturers don’t have: ability to actually talk to one another, and ability to set the customers before their own profit.

Bottom line is that the two connector types both have their own strengths and weaknesses, and only you know which one is better suited for your use, depending on what functionality is most important for you.


Marxian on May 1, 2008 5:29 AM


Alex M on May 1, 2008 6:05 AM

I agree. As much as I like standard usb, my collection says otherwise.. The players I currently own:D2(standard), E270(proprietary), Archos 504(proprietary), Sony A-728(proprietary).

Wilson on May 1, 2008 11:28 AM

People make so much noise about nothing. It’s just a cable.If you really want to complain about something then complain about car light bulbs. There are more than dozens and dozens of varieties and each car maker insists on using different ones.

Wilson on May 1, 2008 11:31 AM

Don’t even get me started on batteries especially for watches.

LunarFlame17 on May 1, 2008 11:34 AM

Somehow I’ve managed to end up with 5 Zune sync cables, so even if I lose one, I’ve got plenty of backups. And I hardly ever use one anyway, cause I have a dock, so I can sync wirelessly. Anybody need an extra Zune sync cable?

troxy on May 1, 2008 12:37 PM

make all players wifi compatible, then we don’t need cables at all.

The Little Guy on May 1, 2008 7:25 PM

troxy, (i’m not an expert…) a cable transer is much faster than wireless transfer.

No Really on May 2, 2008 8:50 AM

Standard USB is required.If you really have to put some other feature on there, add some sort of connector, but I already have to carry more cables than the players weigh.

Hillshum on May 2, 2008 1:10 PM

use the connector of a sync cable to make a mini usb adapter

Syndrome on May 2, 2008 8:53 PM

Mini USB B is a must have on any player, Its sheer stupidity to not do both of them like the Cowon D2 IMO.

Someone on May 3, 2008 3:14 AM

I love the Cowon D2 but how is the Ext Port any better? Custom TV output cable, check. Custom line in cable, check. Remote control, wait a minute. The D2 screams for a remote because trying to fumble with the hold switch and three buttons or worse the touchscreen while in my pant pocket might get me arrested for lewd behaviour in a public place. The Ext Port for most D2 owners is as useful as a vestigial tail.

Andreas Ødegård on May 3, 2008 11:29 AM

As i wrote in the article a proprietary port is not a gurantee for features, but a possibility. The D2 does not have (AFAIK) a 4 pin audio jack and so without the 7 pin micro usb port it would never have tv out etc. I do agree it needs a remote though.

xinzhitan14 on May 4, 2008 11:10 PM

Propietry usb does have much more potential but i dont think i’ve actually taken advantage of that. maybe investing in one of those Clix docks would’ve been good but i havent seen soemthing that i’ve had to get. standard usb is convinient as it would be easier to replace the cable if it was lost or broken.

E0157H7 on May 5, 2008 9:42 AM

Proprietary cables: Arghh.Standard USB: Yay, but can be prohibitive.My solution: Put a normal USB mini socket at the bottom of your player, and then a proprietary “accessory interface” socket right next to it for docks and other doodads to connect to the player with.

Oneiroi Phobetor on May 8, 2008 1:04 AM

I have no strong opinion one way or the other on this subject. I have a Sansa e280 V1 with RockBox installed along the original firmware in a dual-boot setup. The Sansa players use the same proprietary cable as the Ipod devices, and I have to date never had a problem getting a cable or finding a cable or buying a cheap one at a discount store in a pinch. I’m fine with it as is. However, I do recognize that in an ideal world we’d like to have as many options open to us as possible. Would it be nice to have the proprietary cable AND a Standard USB B connector? Hell yes it would! Is it a necessity? I think not. And it is therein why so many manufacturers have not/will not implement such an innovation. Allow me to explain.Adding a standard USB connecter along with a Proprietary connector on the same device can be difficult. I used to work in Cell Phone Beta trials (I won’t say which brands) as a Project Coordinator and Executive Assistant at a prominent Research Firm. And we had the same issues on beta phones that never hit the market. (And even some that did) I’m not sure how it is with MP3 Players, (I’m sure it’s similar for ALL modern electronics) but with cell phones the manufacturer had to be VERY, VERY, VERY selective as to what was placed into the device as every little addition added size and weight. And in these days all electronics are all so crammed full of stuff and smashed down so incredibly tiny that redesigning and adding in additional hardware for features that would “be very nice” but are not “totally necessary” tend to be outweighed as being “more trouble than they’re worth” by the corporate bean counters.Everything comes down to the bottom dollar. What is the cheapest way we can produce it? What would be nice that is CHEAP to implement and what does it NEED to have to be competitive in the marketplace? What does it HAVE to have to SELL? The only way to get both type of cables implemented as standard would be to have a company that controls (or companies) a large segment of the market to begin production of such a device and the public would have to show overwhelming support for it. When a vast majority of the consumers are asked in focus groups (qualitative research) and large beta trials (quantitative research) “Why do you prefer brand A over brand B or C?” It would have to be a vast majority of the respondents that answered within their top 10 or sometimes 20 answers for a company to even consider it. (Of note too is that all LARGE companies do BOTH qualitative AND quantitative research and they compare the results. The things that stick are the ideas and answers that correspond between the two.)To put it in Layman’s terms, when they put a big survey together to evaluate their own devices compared to other companies devices about 70% of the people participating would have to say “I prefer brand C to your brand A BECAUSE it has two cable connections, a standard and proprietary.” That is usually the only scenario that will bump such an innovation into a MUST have from a WOULD BE NICE. I can tell you this from EXTENSIVE experience… you know how all cell phones are now also like a PDA? How they have contacts other than phone numbers, text messaging, Internet capability? The industry was capable of doing these things about a decade before they became mainstream… It was NOT done cause the Corporate Bean Counters crunched the numbers and it was more expensive. What changed that was when a few companies went in at an angle and did it anyway and began to dominate market share. At that point EVERYBODY did it as they HAD to in order to stay competitive.Basically I’m saying, it is up to US, the consumers, if this is a feature we want (both standard USB AND proprietary connectors for added features) then we have to support the brands that implement that feature to enough of an extent that the other companies take notice. It’s the only way to effect change in such a marketplace as ours.Peace out fellow tech heads,O.P.~_^

Alex on May 13, 2008 1:24 AM

LESS TRASH! ! ! USE ONE CABLEU S BI can’t believe that the simple concept of waste wasn’t really stressed in the article or following posts.The amount of trash we produce in making single purpose items is staggering. You only have to walk into your local electronics, cell, or even 99 cent store to see a WALL of chargers that will soon be on a way to a landfill near you. Don’t forget that plastic will NOT biodegrade. If we’re lucky it will break down within 1000 years.A simple usb cable is so much smaller than a proprietary cable or charger, and it can be used on more than one device.That means, dead phone? Use in on your next one. Lost your mp3 charger? Don’t buy more trash, just use your cell cable.I’m not saying this will save the world, but it helps to keep from kicking her when she’s down.

Kane on May 21, 2008 10:28 PM

There is nothing that is done on a proprietary connector that can’t be done through USB. Just think of how much your multimedia 150-key keyboard can do through USB.In the end the only thing proprietary connectors do is allow the manufacturers to license their device to 3rd party companies whom wish to make accessories. This is just another case of corporate America giving the consumer a poorer grade product so that they can make even more money after they rip you off. But as long as the consuming public remains uneducated and uninterested companies will continue taking you to the bank.If it isn’t USB (or another standard connector) you’re being played.

Andreas Ødegård on May 22, 2008 1:15 AM

You’re wrong there, Kane. Yes, USB can handle massive amounts of DATA, but a lot of what is outputed through a dock connector is analog signals (audio, video) and cannot be handled without enough pins.

Kane on May 22, 2008 11:09 AM

Well Andreas, I don’t want to turn the comments section into another article, but some last few points.The choice to send analog data as opposed to digital is just that, a choice. Though the pros & cons of transferring only digital data would require another article. I personally see a lot of benefit to allowing docks and whatnot to process the information. Either way, it is important to remember that proprietary cables are NOT required.I would propose a standard mini-usb and a standard pre-amp analog out separated by an industry-agreed distance. The pre-amp already exists in their circuitry most likely as most companies use off-the-shelf mp3 decoder chips and then pump it to the audio amps.As for video output, that’s so far from anything standard that I wouldn’t even dream of trying to reach any agreement at this point.

kk on August 16, 2008 2:14 AM

proprietary cables are a stupid idea, after getting burnt and facing inconvenience customers curse manufacturer and do look at connectors.I like sansa but did not buy just because of mindless connector. I hated ipod for long.All functionality provided by proprietary shit can be provided by standard usb. When usb can power 3 in 1 very complex multifunction printer driver combo and other devices, i do not see any reason for this shit.Digital camera market is much better in this regard. Shame on sansa, ipod and zune.

Naa on October 18, 2008 5:33 PM

Thank you for an alternate view on proprietary connectors.While I still refuse to buy a device that doesn’t connect via standard USB, knowing the reasoning MAY be additional functionality might dial back my ire just a bit. I frankly think that most companies don’t use the additional abilities at all, but fall into the Apple/Sony business model trying to force loyalty though slavery to accessories and format.As it stands, I use a single charger for my phone, bluetooth and mp3 player, I also can charge my brother and sisters devices (I’m in charge of gadget buyin’ here).Of course this comes in handy when I am at home, but it is invaluable when on the road.

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