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 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 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.