The iPad Pro's USB-C port is great. It should be on my iPhone, too

Commentary: Who wants incompatible cables, chargers and earbuds? USB-C fixes that, and gives the iPad laptop power.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
The 2018 iPad Pro models use a USB-C port to charge and connect to other devices.

The 2018 iPad Pro models use a USB-C port to charge and connect to other devices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When Apple announced Tuesday that its iPad Pro had ditched the proprietary Lightning port in favor of USB-C, my eyes lit up.

Lightning has had a good run, but I'd be happy to toss my collection of Lightning cables into my junk drawer alongside the ones for Firewire hard drives, VGA video and printers that perversely used those weird squarish USB connectors.

Why? USB-C is better than Lightning, letting you connect Apple products to more devices. It's the new standard for charging Android phones and many laptops , including Apple's own. In Apple's insular world, where Cupertino engineers mostly don't have to trouble themselves about the existence of Windows laptops and Android smartphones, USB-C solves real problems.

Our world has too many incompatible cables and dongles to bridge the gap between old and new devices. USB-C offers a path to a simpler, saner future.

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USB-C in my life

Standardizing on USB-C makes my gadget-heavy life simpler. All three of the following situations happened to me in the last month:

  • At a conference, I was scurrying from room to room and trying to keep my MacBook Pro and two phones charged. Several times I unplugged the USB-C charging cable from my Mac and into my Google Pixel 3 XL phone to top off its battery. My iPhone was stranded because I didn't bring a Lightning cable.
  • I needed earbuds for a Skype call in the office using my Mac. The Pixel 3's USB-C earbuds worked just fine with my Mac.
  • At night, I use my iPad to watch video but my 2-year-old  Pixel phone to listen to music and podcasts. Both work with my old earbuds with a 3.5mm audio jack, but those earbuds just started dying. I could buy another set, but why bother when 3.5mm jacks are disappearing?

My examples involve a Pixel 3, but USB-C is the norm for flagship Android phones including the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Note 9, OnePlus 6T and LG V40. Multiply the number of places you need to charge your phone -- home, office, car, friend's house -- by the number of phones around, and you'll see why USB-C charging would be great for the iPhone as well.

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Although my work means I have more gadgets than the average person, my situation isn't that far removed from the mainstream. My tech hassles often are a preview of what a more mainstream population will have to endure over a longer period of time, while working from a hotel or borrowing devices from friends or co-workers.

And my hassles would be greatly reduced if I didn't have that Lightning port in my life. Even if I only had Apple hardware, USB-C is the one port that best spans tablets, PCs and phones.

What USB-C does that Lightning can't

Another big reason I'm a fan of USB-C is that it's got a better hardware ecosystem than Lightning -- or at least it will as the connection technology matures and spreads.

USB-C already pays me dividends with chargers and earbuds, but other devices will come. On the iPad Pro, it can work to offload photos and videos from cameras, as well as connect to electronic instruments, docking stations and external monitors.

That's a big step toward making the iPad Pro into a full-fledged laptop, even if it's running iOS and not traditional personal computer operating systems , whether Windows or MacOS. I appreciate the fact that the iPad Pro can use USB-C to charge iPhones, too.

Apple's long-term plans aren't clear here, but the company has gone out of its way to show off the iPad Pro as a capable laptop replacement and the company clearly sees iPads as productivity devices. Apple's new iPad keyboard, though it costs $179 and $199 for the two 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPads and lacks a trackpad, features prominently in Apple's iPad Pro promotional photos. Apple let Adobe Systems take the stage during the launch event to show off a full-fledged version of Photoshop for the iPad. USB-C really helps the iPad PC ambition.

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Well, except for one thing. You can't plug storage devices into the iPad's USB-C port. That means no external drives with lots of video to edit or thumb drives so you can transfer that file from your friend. If you're planning on using your iPad to edit your SLR's high-resolution photos while you're on vacation, consider getting the more expensive models with more storage, because you won't be able to just copy the ones that don't fit onto an external USB drive.

Now USB-C iPhones too, please

You're not as likely to connect cameras or thumb drives to your iPhone, but there are good reasons for USB-C there, too.

First, you'd be able to charge in more places, including from your MacBook or iPad Pro charger. That means less junk on your desk or in your suitcase and less of a problem if you forget something. Maybe it'll even mean some price pressure on Apple's expensive chargers, too. (We can dream, right?)

Second, USB-C is the best way out of the industry's abandonment of 3.5mm audio jacks. Because face it, they're not coming back. With USB-C iPhones, you'd be able to use one set of earbuds or headphones with your laptops, phones and whatever devices you buy in the future.

Third, Apple's choices send an important message to any other tech company. A USB-C iPhone would help car manufacturers, speaker makers and others embrace USB-C and deliver on its all-purpose promise. That may never happen -- Apple didn't respond to requests for comment -- but today's iPad Pro already sends a message to electronics makers that Lightning's future is uncertain and that Apple appreciates what USB-C has to offer.

New value for the iPad Pro

The USB-C advantages may not be worth it for you today. Especially if you don't have a newer Mac, don't want to spend $9 for an Apple USB-C adapter for your favorite old headphones with a 3.5mm jack, or have accessories like speaker dock reliant on a Lightning port.

But it's worth it to me, for charging and earbuds today and for digital photography on my next laptop-free vacation.

I still have concerns about the iPad Pro as a full-on laptop replacement. There's no trackpad, the keyboard lacks a forward-delete key, and some things as routine as copy and paste I do hundreds of times a day are slower than on a "real" laptop. But I use the iPad enough that I'm confident it's worth it for me.

USB-C on the iPad -- and on iPhones, too, if we're lucky -- will help make your life better, too.

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