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Apple 5W Adapter Knock-offs: The Colorful A1265 Tear-Down

Bottom Of The Barrel. Hopefully.

More than one decade ago, Apple introduced its A1265 compact 5W AC adapter. As with most high-margin convenience goods, countless cheaper imitations of varying quality flooded the market over time. But the media's focus on unsafe adapters only peaked in the year following the electrocution death of nurse Sheryl Aldeguer in April 2014.

Has the safety of generic adapters improved over the past few years, or are we just more fortunate? Dredging what is hopefully the bottom of my AC adapter barrel, the $6 Colorful four-pack (that's $1.50 per brick) gets the honor of heading today's feature.


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Spotting A Fake

A real Apple A1265 announces itself with “Designed by Apple in California,” followed on the next lines by the model number and electrical specifications, with a “For use with information technology equipment” note at the bottom.

Here, those two blocks got swapped, while the “Designed” bit is omitted altogether and “equipment” gets misspelled “eauipment.” Also, instead of the UL mark between its prongs, we see a CE (European Conformity) mark that is completely out of place on a NA-style plug and therefore fake. Should we find this sad or hilarious? At least it does have the merit of making this set of fakes readily identifiable as such.


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Popping Open

Some of Apple’s early versions of its genuine adapters had a tendency to split open or lose prongs when pulled out of power outlets. On a genuine adapter, the green dot identifies updated designs that address this flaw.

Popping the prong cap away from the adapter’s housing required considerably more force than I would deem acceptable to apply to a power outlet, which makes the pull-apart ‘test’ a pass: it shouldn’t come apart any time soon from normal use.


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PCB Top

A first look from the top reveals what appears to be a minimalist two-transistor setup split between two small boards. You might think that the two boards are functionally separated between primary and secondary side for safety reasons. However, the optoisolator’s presence on the output board is a clear indication that mains-referenced voltages must be going over the ribbon cable. An additional cause for concern is the lack of a fuse on the input, which means the wires or circuit board traces will burn out should the circuit fail. And an uncontrolled failure could degenerate into a fire hazard.


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PCB Bottom

What do we find on the board's back? Decent soldering, no surface-mount components, almost no separation between the primary and low-voltage sides, and no anti-tracking slots to prevent a permanent path from forming where static discharges are most likely to occur across the isolation boundary.

With a layout like this, it is painfully obvious why folks keep getting shocked by aftermarket “A1265” adapters.


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AC Board Top

How many components are on the AC side of things? Three resistors, two ceramic capacitors, one electrolytic capacitor, one diode bridge, a 8050S 20V/700mA NPN transistor, an MUE13003 400V/1.5A NPN transistor, and the transformer. A 5.1MΩ resistor provides base bias to the 13003, while a 680Ω resistor and orange ceramic capacitor limit the oscillator’s positive feedback current. Lastly, the 6.2Ω resistor provides current sensing on the 13003, which drives the 8050S acting as a current limiter.

Sounds complicated? Perhaps it’ll be easier to digest in schematic form after taking a closer look at the bottom.


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AC Board Bottom

Whoever designed this board appears to love removing small lines of solder mask around pads. I find it funny that this individual went through the trouble of adding solder to traces when those traces normally carry less than 100mA and aren’t connected to heat-generating components. Even funnier is that the bottom beefed-up trace ends on a non-connected pad, while the one above it feeds the 5.1MΩ resistor.

Safety-wise, the area of greatest concern is the red ellipsis where clearance between primary and low voltage is merely a millimeter. There should be an anti-tracking slot there, at least.


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AC Board Schematic

Here’s the schematic I put together by reverse-engineering the board while preserving the general component locations and trace layout. Following Q1's emitter, you see it go to circuit negative through the 6.2Ω resistor, which is also connected to Q2’s base. That transistor's collector, in turn, is connected to Q1’s base. If you know how an NPN transistor works, you can see how enough current through R3 will cause Q2 to dump some of Q1’s base current to negative and limit its collector current. Such a scheme is necessary to prevent Q1 from instantaneously self-destructing should the transformer momentarily reach saturation for any reason and limit its power draw.


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AC Board Schematic Unscrambling

Redrawing the schematic in a more human-friendly manner yields this more intuitive layout where we can clearly see how sufficient current through Q1 (~90mA) will cause voltage across R2 to rise high enough to turn Q2 on and rob Q1 of its base drive current, in turn reining in its current. As far as oscillators go, it doesn’t get much simpler than this.

On the output board, the opto-isolator’s photo-transistor is connected across the bottom two connections, diverting an amount of Q1’s base current proportional to the opto-isolator’s LED current to circuit negative, throttling the oscillator’s power or stopping it altogether.


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DC Board Top

There isn’t a whole lot happening on the output board aside from the fly-back diode dumping the transformer’s energy into the output filter capacitor and a resistor providing bias current to the zener diode driving the optoisolator.

From an electromagnetic interference point of view, having the transformer’s secondary routed across the AC board, through the ribbon cable, before its round trip around the DC board sounds horrible. I doubt this design would pass FCC compliance tests.


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DC Board Bottom

If separation between mains and low voltage on the AC board made you cringe, it gets much worse on the DC board. Less than 0.5mm separate one of the AC-side optoisolator traces from the USB connector shield’s tab, while the innermost vertical trace corresponding to USB negative is a mere 0.6mm away from the isolator’s mains-referenced voltages.

This trace routing likely violates every credible safety standard in existence. Assuming the transformer and EMI capacitor don’t fail first, these traces are where I expect arcs to occur.


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Daniel Sauvageau is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He’s known for his feature tear-downs of components and peripherals.