Why Apple's Accessories Are Better Than Everyone Else's

Hint: It’s not just about the magnets

Key Takeaways

  • Apple is planning a new MagSafe battery pack for the iPhones 12.
  • The tight integration between hardware and software lets Apple add unique extra features to accessories.
  • Third-party gadget makers don’t always get access to these deep hooks.
Apple iPhone 12 Images, Front, Back, and Side.
Apple

The iPhone and iPad accessory market is huge, with every need catered for. Apple itself makes relatively few add-ons, but when it does, they’re something special. Apple’s deep integration between hardware and software lets it add features that are impossible for anyone else.

For example, whenever you venture outside, you’ll see people with charging cables running from their phones to a battery pack in their pocket or purse. You even see battery packs clamped to phones with rubber bands.

With Apple’s planned MagSafe battery, the entire solution is more elegant: you’ll just stick it to the phone and forget it. This magnetic battery pack is another example of the superior accessories that Apple can make—because it owns the whole system, it can add deep-rooted features not available to other manufacturers. 

"Apple has amazing system integration," CocoSign co-founder Caroline Lee told Lifewire via email. "Apple fully controls the field of manufacturing iOS devices as well as the related accessories."

Secret Apple Sauce

Ever since the Smart Cover on the iPad 2, Apple has built in clever hardware/software pairings. The Smart Cover woke the iPad when you opened the cover, and put its screen to sleep when you closed it.

This was done with magnets, and was quickly reverse-engineered by third-party case makers. They just added magnets in the right places on their cases. 

iPad Air Smart Cover
Apple

Other tricks require deeper hooks into the operating system, hooks that Apple doesn’t make available to third parties. For instance, iPhone 12 cases have NFC chips inside that the phone reads when you snap the (magnetic) case into place.

This chip tells the phone the color of the case, and the iPhone can then automatically change its wallpaper to match. 

iPhone Smart Battery Case

Apple’s own iPhone battery case has two excellent features. One—easily copied—is the square hump containing the battery, which flaunts rather than hides the battery part. The second is the smart circuitry that interacts with the iPhone.

Apple’s case isn’t just a dumb battery pack with an on-off switch. It displays the battery pack’s charging status on the iPhone’s lock screen, and in the Today View. It can be charged via Qi pad, or by using a Lightning cable, and supports fast-charging from high-power USB-C power bricks. 

An iPhone with a smart battery case on a Qi charger.
Apple

When connected to power, the iPhone will charge first if its battery is low, then the battery case will be topped up. You also can plug in Lightning accessories, like AirPods, and use those as if they were plugged directly into the iPhone. Recent models of the battery case have a dedicated camera button. Press it and the camera app launches. Then you can use it to trigger the shutter.

KeyBoards

The iPad’s Magic Keyboard and Trackpad case is a genuine wonder. It is both absurdly expensive and worth every penny. The case adds a backlit keyboard and a multi-touch trackpad to the iPad, and does it more or less seamlessly (on my iPad, a persistent bug stops the keyboard working when the iPad’s Dock is showing, for example).

You’d think that adding a keyboard and trackpad would be an easy third-party task, especially as Apple has made these features available for anyone to use. But in practice, it hasn’t worked out.

Apple Magic Keyboard
Apple

Writing about the latest update to the Brydge Pro keyboard and trackpad case, veteran Apple journalist Jason Snell writes that, even with an update, the Brydge can’t match the slick feel of Apple’s own trackpad. “Only the Magic Keyboard offers a trackpad experience that's equivalent to a desktop Magic Trackpad 2," he writes.

Good and Bad

Apple isn’t shy about digging deep into its hardware and software to make the integrations seamless and powerful. But these integrations aren’t always available to third parties.

On the other hand, if Apple made them available, they’d also have to offer ongoing support for those features to third-party manufacturers, which would slow down the pace of innovation. 

"Apple fully controls the field of manufacturing iOS devices as well as the related accessories."

The biggest downside for users is the "Apple Tax." Apple’s accessories are almost always way more expensive than third-party alternatives. If you want to get the best accessories, you’ll have to pay. The fantastic iPad Magic Keyboard and Trackpad mentioned above is a great example.

If you want one for your 12.9-inch iPad Pro, it’ll cost you $350. For a keyboard that will be obsolete as soon as the iPad Pro changes shape. I have one. That price hurt, but it's also the best computer accessory I've owned in a very long time. And that’s how Apple gets you.

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