Gizmos

There’s a Dongle for That

When Apple takes away a popular iPhone feature, there’s a whole market of people who try to help you add it back.

iPhone dongles.
Photo illustration by Slate

When Apple debuted the iPhone X in September, it garnered a variety of criticism. The exorbitant $1,000 price tag. That unsightly notch at the top of its nearly edge-to-edge display. And perhaps most persistently, its lack of a physical home button. Of course, the iPhone X has a number of positives: A beautiful overall design, superior facial recognition technology, addictive augmented reality features, and excellent rear- and front-facing cameras make it worth the upgrade. But for some, the loss of the home button in favor of new screen gestures and button combinations has been too much to bear. Within weeks, multiple guides cropped up explaining how to return a virtual home button to its screen using the iPhone’s accessibility settings. Engadget senior editor Nicole Lee wrote that the iPhone X left a “home-button-shaped hole in [her] heart” in September, while Hackernoon’s Brion Niels Eriksen wrote that after several months, he still missed the home button as well.

For the diehard Apple fan who can’t live without the newest phone and also can’t live without a home button, there is a fix: A $26 dongle you plug into your iPhone’s Lightning port to return a physical home button to the experience (and a headphone jack, too). First introduced at CES in January, it’s one of the more bizarre third-party iPhone X accessories to make the rounds. Well-known YouTuber and tech reviewer Marques Brownlee has even given it a shot.

Apple has a history of streamlining its hardware, eliminating features like I/O ports in order to simplify and slim its designs—and perhaps make its gadgets more durable, too. Still, those hardware features served a purpose. For those who still rely on them in their day-to-day activities, there’s an awkward-looking workaround: the dongle. The dongle is really a catch-all term for a small adapter or accessory you plug into a device. In some cases, it can add functionality a device never had before, like those Square credit card–reading dongles for smartphones. But for Apple products, it’s not just about adding functionality: It’s also about replacing capabilities that have been taken away.

They were at one point primarily the territory of third-party accessory-makers, but these days Apple itself fully embraces the dongle market—just look at the wide variety of options the company offers under the iPhone accessories’ adapters page on its website. At its most economical, there’s the $9 Lightning to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter, the simplest dongle to address the hardware feature eliminated in the iPhone 7. For those who use their iPhone for presentations, there’s the $49 digital AV adapter. For the Instagram professional, the $29 Lightning to SD card camera reader. And those are just the ones that work with Apple’s newest iPhones and iPads. There are dongles for your Mac laptops, too, which can give you access to multiple VGA ports, ethernet, and add more USB outlets to your MacBook or MacBook Air.

These are all generally simple and straightforward Apple adapters, though. Things get more interesting when you start exploring what third parties offer. Belkin may be the best, with wonders like its $40 Lightning Audio + Charge Rockstar dongle, which lets you listen to music through Lightning-based earphones while charging your device through the dongle’s second port. And then there’s its five-jack headphone splitter—an icon of an earlier time that let you share your smartphone audio with four of your closest friends. Satechi is also a purveyor of some excellent Apple dongles, namely in the form of hubs (larger accessories that often include three or more ports). The $45 Type-C pass-through USB hub emerged after Apple’s ultra-slim 12-inch MacBook debuted. Available in matching brushed aluminum colorways, the hub plugs into the device’s USB-C port and gives it all the other ports needed to make it useful as a desktop machine: an SD card slot, a micro SD slot, and two USB ports. The company offers a number of other hub-equipped dongles at various sizes, shapes, and price points, too.

The home button–toting dongle is the latest in a long line of similar Apple accessories, but in a way, it’s the most extreme. Rather than returning an ancillary feature or port to the device, it adds back a key navigation feature that Apple removed, fundamentally changing the operation of that handset. It certainly could be useful—if your phone is sitting on a desk or countertop, it could be easier to tap that home button . At the same time, it’s extraordinarily awkward—that dongle situation is going to end badly if you keep your phone in your pocket.
But that’s the hideous majesty of all dongles: They look ridiculous, but they get a job done. Apple gives, and Apple takes away, but there’s always a new dongle to fill the void.

Christina Bonnington is a technology writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Refinery29, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere.