Does USB-C Turn iPad Pros Into “Real” Computers?

This week Apple announced updated versions of their MacBook Air, Mac mini, and iPad Pro products. As a Mac and iPad user, I’ve been following the news with interest. I’m particularly intrigued by how the iPad is starting to blur the line between mobile devices and computers.

Every year the iPad receives software and hardware updates that make it more capable, allowing it to take up many of the jobs previously performed by more traditional laptop computers. (I’ve written previously about this transition.) However, this year’s iPad models feature an interesting design choice that marks a milestone in this transition: they lose the Lightning port that’s been central to iOS devices (such as iPads and iPhones) for the past six years. The Lightning port is how you connect charging cables and other devices to iPads. In its stead, the new models feature a USB-C port like Mac laptops do.

I was excited when I read about this. My first thought was that I’d be able to pare down my dongle collection. I currently travel with an iPad Pro (which uses Lightning) and a MacBook Pro (which uses USB-C.) I have various peripherals and charging cables for both devices. If they both computers used the same port type, perhaps I’d be able to pare down my travel kit. More intriguingly, maybe USB-C would allow the iPad to connect to more peripherals such as external USB drives. The Lightning port on current iPads and iPhones is constrained in ways that close it off from using these types of devices.

However, the reports I’m seeing suggest Apple is constraining the new iPad Pro’s USB-C port in similar ways to the Lightning port. For example, while the new iPads will be able to use external displays more effectively than previous models, they still won’t be able to use external drives. So what’s the point to the switch? It’s not like Lightning is going away in the near-term; it’s still used on the other (non-pro) iPads, iPhones, and peripherals such as AirPods. Lightning is going to be around for a while. While it’s convenient to be able to share peripherals and charging cables with Macs, it may be even more convenient to do so with iPhones.

I sense that while there may indeed be practical engineering reasons for the change to USB-C on iPads, there’s also an ulterior motive: The new port helps set the iPad Pro apart from Apple’s other mobile devices as a “serious” computing device. It’s a sign that the iPad is no longer an oversized iPhone, but a device in a category of its own — one that’s getting ever closer to becoming a “real” productivity device for many users.