While Apple loudly touted the switch from Lightning to USB-C on the new iPad Pros last week as a boon to professionals, there’s still one category of devices that will be left mostly out in the cold for now. As The Verge’s Nilay Patel points out in his review, despite the USB-C port, external storage devices still don’t play any better with iOS 12.1 on the new iPads than they did via Apple’s USB-to-Lightning connector on prior devices. The limitation, of course, is that the iOS Core Storage framework doesn’t (yet) provide any ability to talk to any storage beyond the device’s own internal flash memory. This is the same reason that existing flash-based Lightning adapters like Kingston’s Bolt Duo and Naztech’s Xtra Drive Mini both require their own, vendor-specific apps. In short, external storage continues to face the same challenges on iOS 12.1, even with the introduction of USB-C on the new iPad Pro models.
But one extremely important category of devices will definitely not work: iOS does not support external storage. You can plug as many flash drives or hard drives as you want into the iPad Pro’s USB-C port, and nothing will happen. Apple says third parties can write apps to talk to external storage, but out of the box, this $1,899 tablet simply won’t talk to a flash drive.
Of course, as Patel notes, app developers can still write their own apps to talk to external storage devices, but this isn’t any different than what we’ve been seeing with Lighting flash drives, and while the need for a dedicated app may have been at least somewhat understandable for Lightning accessories, it’s definitely a more serious limitation now that the iPad Pro has moved to a port that is a universal standard — even if it is still “kind of messy and weird” as Patel puts it.
That said, the USB-C port is a boon for many other categories of accessories. While printers are also still excluded — again likely just as a limitation of iOS 12.1 rather than the hardware — pretty much all of the types devices that could be used via Apple’s USB-to-Lightning adapter previously can now be plugged in directly to the USB-C port; this includes USB-C to USB-A hubs and adapters, HDMI display adapters, SD card readers (which still only allow importing photos directly into the Photos app — not other apps like Lightroom), and Ethernet adapters, keyboards, and USB audio input and output devices. Patel even tried plugging a VGA display into the iPad using a Dell USB-C hub, and it worked without any problems — external displays work in exactly the same way as they did with the Lighthing-to-HDMI adapter, meaning most apps will just mirror the iPad display to the external monitor. That said, Patel’s review did note a few USB-C devices that inexplicably didn’t work, but those appeared to be the exceptions, rather than the rule.
One glimmer of hope, however, is that the restriction on external storage devices still appears to be entirely a software limitation in iOS 12.1, rather than a function of the iPad Pro USB-C hardware. This means that it’s entirely possible that Apple can add this support in the future, allowing not only the USB-C-equipped iPad Pro models to gain from it, but possibly even opening up the Lightning flash drives — something we’ve been hoping would come ever since Apple introduces the Files app last year in iOS 11.