Apple’s New iPad Port Adds to USB-C Mess

As with any new Apple product, the new iPad (released along with the new MacBook Air and the new Mac Mini) have created quite a buzz in the tech industry.

While the new iPads are incredible from a CPU standpoint (outperforming 92% of other laptops, including many of Apple’s own), the inclusion of a USB-C port instead of the iOS-standard Lightning port is a very interesting choice.

For whatever reason, I’ve written more than a bit on the USB-C connector that is slowly becoming standard on a most tech hardware. You can read more (lots more) about USB-C here. From phones to tablets, and computers, USB-C offers many advantages over its Micro-USB predecessor, but at its core, USB-C is still new and more than a bit confusing for lots of people.

The thing to remember is that USB-C refers only to the connector, and not its capabilities.

The USB-C Possibilities are (Almost) Endless

USB-C ports can be used for simple charging, data, or charging and data. The data speeds can be relatively slow (USB 2.0 (480Mbits/s)) or faster (USB 3.0 (5Gbits/s), USB 3.1(10Gbits/s), or really fast (Thunderbolt 2 (20G/bits/s) or Thunderbolt 3 (40Gbits/s)).

Additionally, you not only need to make sure both ports are capable of handling the proper protocol, but also make sure that you have the proper cable! Some cables will only do slower USB 2.0 speeds (and charging), while other cables will be able to handle faster USB 3/Thunderbolt speeds.

All this is to say that right now USB-C is a bit of a mess.

And while I definitely applaud Apple for including a more open standard connector instead of its proprietary Lightning port, Apple doesn’t help make things any clearer by some of their hardware and software choices.

Open Standards, the Apple Way

For example, although you can now attach external storage (like a hard drive or flash drive) with a USB-C cable, the built-in Files app has no way to read that external storage. That’s right – the app that Apple includes to allow iPads to have a browse-able file system (and browse iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.) has no way to view an external drive.

There are third-party apps that can do this (or so I’ve heard) but this is just a staggering oversight, and I can’t help but imagine this is due to the rush to make iOS 12 more of a patch-release than a feature-release.

Additionally, while you can also use this port to mirror the iPad display to an external monitor, the USB-C to USB-C cable that is included in the box won’t let you do it. The included cable is only capable of USB 2.0 speeds, meaning that it just doesn’t have the bandwidth to drive a 4k display. To add to the confusion, if you want to buy a cable from Apple that will support a 4k external monitor you have to get the Thunderbolt 3 USB-C cable, even though the iPad doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3 (only USB 3.1). Ugh.

While I’m glad that Apple decided to put a more standard port on the new iPad, their timing does seem to be both a bit premature and very Apple-like. Much like removing the headphone jack, the CD/DVD drive, or the floppy drive, Apple does like to push the industry to abandon extraneous or outdated ports, but the current confusion of USB-C and the lack of some basic functionality in the iPad’s own software and included hardware makes the current integration of USB-C on the iPad something to keep an eye on.

The USB-C Future

It will be interesting to see how this progresses over the next few months and how this effects upcoming hardware releases from Apple, and other USB-C cables and accessories. Certainly abandoning the Lighting port on the iPhone will be a pretty big deal (like when the iPhone moved from the 30-pin connector to Lightning) but it does seem inevitable. Whether it happens in 2019 or 2029, though, is yet to be seen.