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M1 iPad Pro upgrades from USB-C port to faster Thunderbolt

The new port is four times faster and connects to a new class of peripherals.

Apple's 2021 iPad Pro gets a Thunderbolt port.
Apple's 2021 iPad Pro gets a Thunderbolt port.
Apple/Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Apple's new top-end iPad Pro tablets come with a Thunderbolt port, an improvement in speed and peripheral capability from the USB-C port on previous models. The new port quadruples data transfer speed so customers can connect to external storage devices and big monitors, Apple said.

Thunderbolt is important for Apple's iPad Pro vision, which is to offer a device with much of the power and utility of traditional PCs like its own Macs. iPads start from a sleeker touchscreen foundation -- the "magical sheet of glass," as Apple likes to call it. Thunderbolt ports give that sheet of glass the ability to connect to lots of peripherals to better match what PCs can do.

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The new iPad Pros are priced like PCs, too. The 11-inch model has a starting price of $799 (£749, AU$1,199); the 12.9-inch model starts at $1,099 (£999, AU$1,649). Preorders begin April 30, with shipments in the second half of May.

The new iPad Pro also now is powered by Apple's M1 processor and is an "absolute powerhouse," Chief Executive Tim Cook said at Apple's Spring Loaded launch event Tuesday. That's the same chip it's using to overhaul its Mac family. The new iPad Pro models also get a wider-view webcam, Wi-Fi 6 networking, a 5G connectivity option and a new HDR display on the larger model.

At the event, Apple also announced AirTag tracking tags, new M1-powered iMacs and a purple iPhone 12.

Thunderbolt uses the USB-C port design, so existing USB-C devices should work fine with the Thunderbolt port. The new iPad Pro also works with Apple's existing snap-on keyboards.

iPad Pro Thunderbolt port

The iPad Pro's Thunderbolt port looks like USB-C but handles faster Thunderbolt devices, too.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Intel developed Thunderbolt, but Apple has been its biggest champion with support on all its Macs, and iPad Pro support helps make Thunderbolt a bit more mainstream. With Thunderbolt available on M1-based Macs, Apple had an easy option to add it to the M1 iPads, too.

iPhones and lower-end iPads still come with Apple's proprietary Lightning port, a move that preserves compatibility with the chargers Apple customers are likely to already own. But USB-C adds a much broader range of peripherals, including flash drives, monitors and hubs that connect to a range of other peripherals. Thunderbolt is like USB-C but reaches speeds of 40 gibabits per second; most USB-C ports reach only 10Gbps.