The iPad Pro's single USB Type-C port is one of my biggest frustrations over an otherwise real piece of technology. You can use it for one thing at a time, be it charging, using the USB-C headphone adapter or connecting a variety of dongles (and soon, mercifully, external hard drives). I ask: can some devices be "pro" if it only has a solitary port?
Fortunately, the jack-of-all-trade nature of USB-C means that you can use USB-C hubs to recover the missing ports – and then some. Apple provides very little guidance on which hubs work best with iPad Pro 2018; all the company really says is that hubs and docks will both work over the USB-C connection. None of the products I tested had the label on the box to indicate MFi / Made for iPad certification, but they all worked (pretty much) as expected.
If your iPad Pro is going to be yours and your computer only, you can be drawn to USB-C hubs specifically designed to lock onto Apple's flagship tablet. You can even keep them attached full-time if your iPad Pro is most commonly used on a desktop. The two I tested include USB-C (for both data and iPad charging), a USB-A 3.0 port, microSD, SD, HDMI and a headphone jack. There is a nice little selection in a package that fits securely against the iPad Pro.
Most of these range from $ 90 to $ 1
Note, however, that the device I received from B&H lacks a second grip compatible with screen protectors, which came with the version Kickstarter backers received. USB-C is reversible, yes, but tilting this bare hub around the longer grip edge will create enough distance between the iPad Pro and Apple's keyboard to prevent it from working. If you don't have a screen protector on the iPad, there's nothing to worry about.
HyperDrive did what it promised: the Photos import screen came up fast every time I slid an SD card. The USB-C port supports USB PD up to 60W, which is plenty to charge the iPad Pro at the fastest possible speed, and I got a steady video feed from the HDMI connector on top. Mostly, I liked that HyperDrive allowed me to do so much at once. I could charge the iPad, charge PowerBeats Pro (or something else) through the USB-A port, and even listen to wired headphone sound when the need arose. The company also promises USB data transfer rates of up to 5 Gbps.
Recently, a funkier alternative has come up with: a USB-C hub wrapped around one of the Pro corners. The one I tested was from Kanex, and it is sold exclusively through B&H in the US. But it seems like this is a situation where Kanex just stamped its name on a Chinese design that others also use: the same product is on Kickstarter here as BoltHub. (Based on the comments, I would stay away from that campaign.)
Regardless, I enjoy where this thing is, although a USB plug coming out from the top will never look anything but completely ridiculous. A permanently attached USB-C cable is plugged into your iPad and controls the hub, which is designed to be used with or without Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio. (It's a distance that magnetically attaches to the hub if you need to use it with the iPad by itself.) The oddball design doesn't give you any extra ports compared to HyperDrive. It's the same choice (albeit with USB 3.1 instead of 3.0), but hey, this style makes the iPad Pro look like some kind of sci-fi computer. See!
Unfortunately, this hub is machined so precisely that it will not fit properly if you have a tempered glass screen protector on the iPad Pro because the edges are starting to lift. You can get it on there enough that it doesn't come off, but I didn't love the idea of the glass protector being tightly pressed against the iPad's very expensive screen.
It's not the smartest investment either. When Apple inevitably makes changes to the iPad Pro design, what should you do with this thing when you upgrade?
Traditional nodes are probably still the way to go
I can see the closure of these nodes designed to be matched with an iPad Pro. But overall, I came away preferring a more traditional USB-C hub from Belkin. It includes Ethernet, which may prove to be important in hotels and other travel situations, or if you are interested in working with wired internet connection at home.
It also has two USB-A ports (with 15W shared power output), HDMI and an SD card reader. (No microSD on this, but I never use the cards, and you can use an SD adapter if you need to.) The simple USB-C port supports both USB power supply (60W) and data access. There is no headphone jack, but the full-service USB-C option allowed me to connect to Apple's headphone card so I could monitor audio when playing guitar through a microphone connected to one of the USB-A ports. I had zero expectation that this scenario would work properly, but it did. Get one point for USB-C hubs. (This convenience also applies to HyperDrive and Kanex.)
Apple recently began selling a $ 69.95 Satechi USB-C hub in stores. It gives you a single USB-A 3.1 port, microSD / SD and HDMI in a very lightweight hub. But it doesn't look to me as the best option. First, it's basically the same Satechi sells on Amazon – but with just one USB-A port instead of two. More importantly, the USB-C port is only for charging, not data connections, which limits the utility. For iPad Pro, specifically, this also lets you without the headphone jack solution. And lastly, it is not flat when used with a 12.9-inch iPad Pro backed up by a smart keyboard, if there is something that will be wrong with you.
If you go the standard USB-C hub route, there are countless options to choose from, and you certainly don't have to choose $ 100 Belkin. HyperDrive just released this 9-in-1 hub that includes a headphone jack in a more standard form factor. However, I wish more companies followed TwelveSouth's example and moved away from the built-in USB-C cable. That cable will inevitably face a lot of wear and tear and can be released long before any of the technology in the hub itself does.
I will leave a few recent observations from my experience trying to unleash more port power on the iPad Pro.
- The iPad Pro tends to restart randomly when you receive throughput power from a USB-C hub. This happened across all the products I tested. You just travel in an app, and then boom : black screen and Apple logo. It is very annoying since there is no message when it should happen. Fortunately, it is also a relatively rare problem. I'm not running iPadOS on my iPad Pro, so I can't tell if the bug is completely fixed there. Here's hoping.
- The 3.5mm headphone connectors on the HyperDrive and Kanex hubs do not match the audio quality of Apple's USB-C headphone adapter. If you just want to listen to music or watch a movie, I think it's completely satisfying. But if you do sound-critical work on your iPad, this probably won't do the job.
- You only get 4K at 30Hz over HDMI with the products mentioned here. The 2018 iPad Pro is capable of sending 4K at 60Hz to an external monitor, but I haven't seen any hubs that can manage to be intermediate if you need that kind of smooth video.
- It is often a game to disconnect and reconnect. The connection between an iPad Pro and a USB-C hub is not perfect and it can be inconsistent. Sometimes the iPad will display a "no charge" message for no apparent reason when the power is running into a hub. At other moments, you may need to unplug the hub and reconnect before a USB accessory – like an Apogee microphone, in my case – is recognized by iOS.
Even with those warnings, I think a hub is worth bringing your iPad Pro case with for the one time you really need it. Just like with Apple tablet keyboards, there is no perfect alternative for everyone, but several competitors may appeal to you for one reason or another.
Maybe next time Apple can just add another USB-C port. If the iPad Pro is worthy of its own operating system, I think it is also worthy of new I / O options and evolves from this idea that iOS products can have just a single contact at the bottom.
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