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Apple's iPad Pro gets PC power with USB-C port

You'll be able to connect accessories and even use it to charge your iPhone from your tablet. Is this the beginning of the end for Apple's Lightning ports?

iPad Pro 2018

The iPad Pro now has a USB-C port instead of Apple's Lightning connector.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple just made its iPad Pro a lot more like a personal computer by giving it a USB-C port, a connector that can be used not just to charge it fast but also to link it to monitors, cameras and other gear.

Apple helped push the PC industry toward USB-C with its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops, but its iPhones and iPads for years have used the company's own Lightning connector. That's been OK for earbuds and Apple-approved accessories like speaker docks, but USB-C opens the door to a much wider range of options.

"A high-performance computer deserves a high-performance connector. On these new iPad Pros, we're moving to USB-C," said John Ternus, Apple's vice president of hardware engineering, at Tuesday's launch event in New York. Specifically, you'll be able to attach docking stations, cameras, musical instruments and 5K displays, he said. And because USB-C is two-way, you'll be able to charge your iPhone from an iPad Pro.

The change reflects how Apple is trying to make its iPad Pro models more like laptops. A 2017 iPad Pro ad campaign asked "What's a computer?" and featured a girl using an iPad to take photos, type on an external keyboard, draw on the screen with the Apple Pencil and use the iOS split-screen interface with two apps. The point, in Apple's view: iPads are for creating, not just for sitting back and playing games, watching videos and reading e-books.

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The port will make the iPad Pro work with all kinds of accessories that now use USB-C.

Sarah Tew/CNET

What's unclear is whether Apple will embrace USB-C on iPhones at some point. The new iPhone XS and XS Max still come with Apple's proprietary Lightning port. USB-C on an iPad, though, is a signal that Lightning accessory makers should at least broaden their horizons. But the iPad Pro is the most laptop-like of Apple's iOS-powered products, a tablet paired with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard Folio, so its uses are very different from an iPhone or lower-end iPads.

Port changes can be tough. Apple introduced the Lightning port with the iPhone 5 way back in 2012, and lots of us have Lightning cables handy in cars, offices and bedrooms for charging. The hassles of a change in connectors can make some accessories obsolete and give you a whole new pile of stuff for your junk drawer.

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You can even use the iPad Pro's USB-C port to charge an iPhone.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But if you're going to have to endure some transition pain, USB-C is a good destination. It's now widely supported on laptops and Android phones, and accessories like memory card readers, network adapters, flash drives and external drives are now commonplace. Moving from old-style USB ports on laptops and phones has inflicted dongle-mania on us all, but gradually USB-C is becoming ordinary.

Imagine a docking station that links your iPad Pro to a keyboard, mouse, big monitor and charging cable. USB-C can handle up to 100 watts of power for a fast tablet charge (or to power high-end laptops and perhaps other devices later).

USB-C video remains a work in progress, but DisplayPort and HDMI adapters let you connect monitors and TVs to a USB-C port.

Another reason adopting USB-C isn't so awful is its spreading use on Macs and outside Apple's ecosystem. If you have a recent Mac laptop, you're likely to have a USB charger on your desk that you can borrow for a quick charge. You'll be able to mooch chargers and headphones from plenty of USB-C Android phones, too.

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