iPhone Mini Dock DIY

| by Ken | in Automotive, Technology Add comments

I saw a number of so-called “mini-docks” listed on Amazon and eBay for the iPhone.  The problem is that they were too inexpensive!  Well, the real problem is that you can’t get a Apple certified lightning cable for as cheap as these mini-docks were running.  And that means that the lightning connector would not work with the Apple iOS without jailbreaking, etc..  In other words, the mini-docks wouldn’t be an easy charging solution.  And all I wanted was an easy charging solution for my car.

I’ve been using the Waze app more often now and I find that it really burns up the battery in the iPhone.  I can’t really fault it for doing that because it is using all the resources to save me time on my trip – i.e. more battery usage means less time in traffic.  So rather than turn off some of the phone’s features or not use Waze and end up spending more time in traffic, I’ve been hooking the phone in to my car’s lighter socket through a USB charger.  It charges successfully but it makes it harder to position the phone such that I can see the maps while driving.  Since the charging cable goes in the bottom, that means I have do landscape and the landscape mode puts the wire across where the shifter goes and makes it unstable resting in place.  I felt I could come up with a better and more stable solution.

I started off just looking for something to mount the phone to charge it but quickly became enamored with the idea of also getting audio output to my car stereo.  So basically, I wanted an iPhone mini-dock but one that worked with an Apple approved lightning cable.  I came up with a plan that uses basic parts and ends up with a decent looking homemade Apple dock that works with the iPhone’s case on.  And I also skipped using the visible lighter socket for a neater look.

I bought all of the parts from Amazon.  Here’s what I got.

I also used some ring terminal ends, heat shrink tubing, and an automotive fuse.  Besides the tools to take apart the car, I also used the soldering iron to make a good connection on the power leads and fuse holder lead and to connect the terminal ends.  And I used a hot glue gun and hot glue sticks to put the dock together.

The first step was plugging in the lightning cable to the phone and the USB charger and plugging the charger into the lighter socket that came with the car.  Yep, successful charging.  So we know the wire, as I bought it from Amazon, works well to charge and is Apple approved.  That’s a good baseline step.

Next, I plugged in the audio connector and connected that to my car stereo’s input.  That works too!  Okay, so we know before we begin that the parts work.  All we have to do is make it look pretty.

I futzed around a bit with which way the angle connector should go on the bottom of the phone.  I liked having it go toward the middle of the phone but with the lightning connector plugged in, it couldn’t go straight (in line with the phone) and stuck out at an angle.  But going the other way meant the doc would have one wire coming out the bottom and the other wire coming out the side.  So I trimmed the cable strain relief off the right angle connector end to make it so the wire could sneak past the lightning cable more easily.  I also discovered that the right angle connector was much thicker than I wanted so I trimmed it down on the front and back.  That is, when the connector is connected to the phone and turned so the wire passes the lightning connector, I shaved down the part of the audio connector now facing front and the part now facing back to make the resulting mini-dock thinner.

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The lightning cable also needed some, ahem, adjustment.  It’s a nice solid cable with good strain relief.  But that would have meant that the cable would come out the middle bottom of the mini-dock which wasn’t going to work for my plan.  I really wanted the cable to be routed through the bottom back so it could disappear into the dashboard.  Also, I was planning to press the phone on to the dock and have the dock mounted on a bit of a ledge that would hold the dock firm.  If the cable came out the bottom, it would have been squished every time I docked the phone.  So I removed the outer ring of strain relief and dug away a little at the connector itself exposing the metal casing inside and then used some tiny snips to trim some of that away to allow for a nearly right angle lightning connector.  (This would have been way easier if I could have found an apple approved right angle lightning cable!!)

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Now with the audio cable and lightning cable both connected and the wires both running together and off the back center, I measured the minimum height of the connectors and the width of the base of the iPhone – up to where it starts curving.  I cut two pieces of plastic from the ABS sheets in that size.  I took one of them and put two dabs of hot glue on it in the approximate locations of the connectors on the phone and then pushed the plastic piece on to the connectors, taking great care to not allow any excess hot glue to seep out toward the phone or the case!!  Then I repeated the process for the other side, again making sure I didn’t glue anything to the phone or the case!!  The lightning connector is a little thinner than the audio connector, even after the trimming described above and that meant that when gluing on the plastic, I pushed a little harder around the audio connector and tried to push less hard near the lighting connector.

When the glue had fully cooled, I was able to pull out the piece of plastic sandwich with the two connectors inside.  Then I went to town with hot glue.  Filling in all the cavities from both sides and ends.  I also cut plastic for the ends of the mini-dock and attached them while the glue was still hot.  It took a while for that much glue to cool.  And as it was cooling, I made sure that it didn’t ooze out of the top where I wanted the phone to connect.  When the dock was nearly cooled, I connected it to the phone so that I could ensure the connectors were going to be set with the exactly correct positioning.

After the dock fully cooled and was set, I tested out the electrical functionality again.  I confirmed that the phone would still charge through USB and would still play through the audio connector.  Oh good – I didn’t damage any parts through trimming or hot gluing.

I soldered the fuse holder in-line with the positive wire coming out of the lighter socket and I soldered a ring terminal to the end of the fuse holder and another ring terminal to the end of the lighter socket ground connection.  I figured out where I could tap into a switched hot terminal in the car.  Good luck with that for your car.  I thought switched was important because since I was planning to always leave the USB charger plugged in, I didn’t want to risk that it would drain the battery while the car wasn’t “on”.  And even though these chargers theoretically don’t draw current when they aren’t charging something, why risk it.  With that sorted out, I was able to connect the fuse holder side terminal to the switched hot of the car and the ground terminal to the car’s ground.  (Note that this would have been way cooler if I could have used an unused circuit in my car’s fuse box.  But the only empty ones in my car didn’t even have the metal inside them so there was nothing to attach anything to.)

I plugged in the USB charger and wrapped the socket and the charger with electrical tape so that it couldn’t come loose.  The socket with USB charger is then stuffed up behind the dashboard and the USB wire from the mini-dock plugs into it easily.  I used a zip tie to secure the socket to a dashboard mount.  The mini-dock’s audio connector is also then plugged into the stereo’s audio input behind the dash.  And finally, I used the pseudo-velcro that comes with an EZ-pass to mount the mini-dock to the dashboard.

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One thing that I hadn’t planned for is what happens with the microphone input.  I used a TRRS/4-conductor right angle audio cable to plug into the phone but the connector to the car is only a 3-conductor stereo audio connection.  I hadn’t planned on using the dock to place or receive calls but I was driving and got a call so I answered it and somehow the person who called could hear me.  I’ve since done some testing and it appears that the phone is smart enough to know that it doesn’t have an external microphone connection and therefore uses the internal microphone which is somehow good enough to work in the mini-dock, facing the dock’s hot glue wad just as well as if you had the phone on speaker and were holding the phone in the air a foot away from your face.  Neat!

I did do some research into some alternate ways to hook in a special microphone setup.  One of the options is to use the Monster iSoniTalk which would allow you to break the microphone signal out of the 4-conductor cable and use the iSoniTalk’s built in mic – which you could attach to the dashboard or perhaps the A-pillar, if you had enough wire.  (You’d definitely need to length the cable if you planned to mount the mic on the headliner.)  There are bad reviews for the iSoniTalk mostly due to the bulky nature of it causing problems for people with their phone in their pocket.  Since in this case, it would be behind the dashboard, between the mini-dock’s audio connection and the car’s audio input, that’s not an issue.  So I think this would be a decent option, although I don’t know if the mic would be good enough to pick up your voice if it wasn’t on your body and how much road noise would be picked up.  For only $8 or whatever, I thought about trying it, but the quality of the mic connection just with the phone is good enough that I didn’t want to pull apart my dashboard again to test.

Another option similar to the iSoniTalk is using a microphone and headphone splitter in conjunction with a separate microphone.  I found a splitter that looks perfect at Amazon.  I had a lot more trouble finding a good microphone.  Considering that you would only want to go this route if you wanted something better than the built in phone’s mic and better than the iSoniTalk’s mic, there’s no point in getting anything of equal or lesser quality.  But better quality mics start getting expensive fast.  About the best option I could find is a Movo PM10 Lavalier mic for about $25 and even then, I’m not sure if it would work well being 24 inches away from you.

Another thing to note is that I used generic hot glue.  I actually tried to find black hot glue but it wasn’t easy enough to get my hands on.  And in the end, the generic stuff I used ends up looking sort of black, presumably just picking up the color that it is next to.  So appearance-wise, that’s good.  What is less good is that the glue appears to remain slightly pliable when it is cool which allows the audio connector and the lightning connect to go slightly askew.  I don’t know if there is a hot glue that would dry more firm but if there is, I’d suggest going with it.

I wrote this post intentionally generically for any car.  But if you happen to have an Audi, my post about the specific install in my car may be more interesting or useful to you.

2 Responses to “iPhone Mini Dock DIY”

  1. […] how the console comes apart, I used the knowledge to add an iPhone mini-dock described in my mini-dock post and the post about installing it in my […]

  2. […] another post.)  For now, I’m happy to drive it and even improve on it.  As I wrote in another post, I’ve been needing to charge my phone in the car more frequently than before.  But I wanted the charging system to be a little nicer looking than the various wires draped […]

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