Apple doesn't want you buying cables for your iPhone 5 (or new iPads) from anyone other than Apple, because it charges a fat $20 for each one. Luckily, we can now confirm a flood of cheap knockoff cables are real.
We already know there's a tiny security chip inside every Lightning cable that's mandatory—the cable won't work without it, and only Apple makes these chips. Ergo, Apple holds a monopoly on the cables, and can charge $20 a pop.
Until now. Say what you want about China, but it has the determination required to bootleg, knockoff, counterfeit, and reverse engineer whatever the hell it wants—and it's happened again. Suppliers have successfully cloned the Lightning chip, according to our pal Peter at Double Helix Cables, who got his hands on a counterfeit Lightning and carefully dissected it. The results are mixed: a fake cable (seen charging an iPhone above) definitely works, costs less than half as much as Apple's, but you are getting your money's worth. That is, a knockoff cable that is very, very much a knockoff:
The cable has a similar feel as the apple one, maybe slightly dingier, and the plug housing is sized differently.
The plastic white housing is securely glued on with a glue that doesn't melt easily (without damaging the rest of the connector potentially) so it was cut into two pieces and removed very unwilingly. Very similar to the Apple shell in how it's attached.
The strain relief coming out of the plug was trimmed away, showing that the USB cable is not very secure and will likely suffer the fate that previous third party favorites of yours endured, like that dock cable that lasted a week.
Opening the plug up, with the plastic shell removed, we see a large amount of injected silicone. This is all the strain relief and protection that we've got. It is easily cut away once heated slightly to soften it.
SSilicone removed, we can see exactly what you think that is in the pic. Masking tape. That's right, it's not just for painting anymore. This is a far cry from the steel-armored interior of the Apple cable.
Masking tape removed, we can see that the plug and board are not very obscured - it's one neat, easy to remove little assembly. The wires are easily desoldered. Looking at it from the front, solder contacts facing up, we have V+ D+ D- V- aka pins 1 3 2 4 from the USB-A connector as viewed from the front, also solder contacts facing up.
There's a few resistors and one unobscured chip. I will continue the teardown to expose the chips here. The one unobscured chip reads EHD 148. This bears a strong resemblance to the small EHD 210 chip seen in Chipworks' teardown of the stock Lightning cable.
I tried to solder some of my own wires to this plug to see if I could make my own Lightning cable. The tiniest pressure on the solder pad once a wire was attached lifted the trace off the board like plucking the wing off a moth. The quality is not there on these boards, because I've never seen a trace lift in all of my DIY adventures.
Suppliers have warned me that the cloned chips might not function after later Apple software updates. They quoted me a cost of about $4.50 per piece for 100 of the plugs on their own with board and lightning end. They told me the price would be "two to three" times as high if I wanted the original Apple chips from Apple's supplier and not the cloned ones.
To recap: the cables are shoddily constructed (masking tape!), and there's a chance a future iOS update could totally nuke them. But for now, these cheap-o cables from the dark recesses of some spoof Chinese lab will let you charge and sync your phone just like anything you'd cop at an Apple Store. Peter expects cloned cables to hit the likes of eBay and Amazon within the next couple of weeks—but he certainly doesn't think you should buy one:
It is ridiculous to purchase a third party Apple cable at this time. Besides the fact that the consumer has no guarantee that the chip isn't cloned and thus carries the potential for non-functioning later [after an iOS update], the strain relief is not quite as good on this cable and it may not last as long.
Of course, this comes with the territory when you're talking reverse-engineered Chinese electronics. Whether that's worth saving ten bucks or so is your call. For under $10, I'll take my chances with China, thank you. [Double Helix Cables, cable via @magnus_hanso]