The 9.7-inch iPad Pro and the Missing USB 3 Speed

iPad Pro with SD Adapter side

I write this knowing that it sounds like I have a particularly odd spec fixation, but it’s something my brain keeps coming back to.

The newly-announced 9.7-inch iPad Pro (yes, that’s the official name) is in many ways just like the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, but with a different-sized screen. They’re both powered by A9X processors and M9 coprocessors; both support the Apple Pencil; both have four speakers that adapt to how the device is being held; and both claim up to 10 hours of battery life.

In some ways, the 9.7-inch model improves upon the larger one:

  • The True Tone display technology that adapts the color temperature of the screen based on the ambient lighting
  • A wider color gamut (the DCI-P3 color space, which is also used by the 5K iMac)
  • Better cameras—a 12 megapixel (MP) iSight camera with Focus Pixels on the back, and a 5 MP FaceTime camera on the front
  • A screen that Apple says is 40 percent less reflective than an iPad Air 2 (hooray!)

But in one crucial way—especially for photographers—the 9.7-inch iPad Pro lags behind the 12.9-inch model, and it’s almost enough to make me pause. Tucked at the bottom of the description for the Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter is this caveat (emphasis mine):

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro transfers data at USB 3 speeds, while the 9.7-inch iPad Pro uses USB 2.

With so many shared components, why does the smaller model get stuck with slow file transfers?

If we were talking about laptops or desktops, this would be a bigger deal, because there are more occasions when you transfer data over USB. Looking at broader iPad usage, really not a lot of data passes through the Lightning connector other than if you sync to a computer using iTunes. Most people don’t need it.

But for photographers who want to transfer photos for review or editing from a camera to the iPad, this is almost crippling.

When I reviewed the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, I made a short comparison video showing import speeds using the old SD card adapter and the new USB 3-capable one. Transferring 1.5 GB of image files took 30 seconds via USB 3 and 2 minutes 20 seconds via USB 2. That’s the actual data transfer; just moving image thumbnails so I could preview the photos before importing took 23 seconds via USB 3 and 1 minute 16 seconds via USB 2.

That effectively means that when you want to transfer photos to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, you need to also come up with something else to do while that’s happening, because it’s not going to be quick. (And the 9.7-inch model also doesn’t benefit from the fast charging feature in the 12.9-inch model using an Apple 29W USB-C Power Adapter and a USB-C to Lightning cable.)

Other methods of getting photos onto an iPad are available, such as transferring them via Wi-Fi to a camera or adapter that creates its own network or bouncing images to a cloud service like iCloud Photo Library or Lightroom mobile, but those aren’t as fast or reliable as a direct cable connection.

I don’t know Apple’s reasoning for demoting this promising new iPad in this way. Perhaps it’s a component space issue, having less room to fill compared to the 12.9-inch model. I hope it’s not a case of Apple wanting to eke out an extra 97-cents of profit by using cheaper parts. Is it an incentive to convince customers to spend more by buying a 12.9-inch iPad Pro? I hope to find out.

Putting a USB 2-speed Lightning port in the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro doesn’t doom it. My main reason for upgrading to one from my original iPad Air is for overall performance and the ability to use the Apple Pencil. But it does disappoint me that Apple could make a really fantastic tool for photographers by nudging it in a few directions—OS-level raw file support as in OS X, color profiles to bring the iPad into color management workflows, USB 3 speeds. [Update: And, ugh, it has just 2 GB of RAM, not 4 GB like the 12.9-inch model.]

I also recognize that those items really affect a small number of iPad owners. But as Apple says in their 9.7-inch iPad Pro video, “It’s where we believe personal computing is going.”

I just wish that could be a destination, and not just a direction.

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Quick Lightning to SD Card Adapter Speed Comparison

I’ve just received Apple’s newest Lightning to SD Card adapter, which provides USB 3 speeds when transferring photos to an iPad Pro (see more here).

I performed a quick import of 40 Raw+JPEG images totaling 1.5 GB of data using the new adapter and the old one on an iPad Pro. Watch here:

Results:

Loading thumbnail previews

Old/USB 2: 01:16

2015/USB 3: 00:23

Importing Images

Old/USB 2: 02:20

2015/USB 3: 00:30

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USB 3 Lightning to SD Card Reader Now Available

Lightning sd card usb3

Apple now offers for sale a new Lightning to SD Card Reader with two noticeable improvements over the current one: It supports USB 3 speeds on the iPad Pro, and in an unexpected but welcome surprise, allows you to import photos to an iPhone, not just an iPad.

The adapter costs $29 and, according to the online Apple Store, ships as early as next week.

Update: Sachin Patel on Twitter points out that iOS 9.2, also released today, adds iPhone support to the existing Lightning to the SD Card Adapter. No need to buy the new one if you don’t have an iPad Pro.

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iPad Pro Lightning Port Is USB 3 Speed

Update, Nov. 12, 2015: I just confirmed with a source at Apple that there are forthcoming adapters that take advantage of the USB 3 speeds, but they aren’t yet confirming when they will ship. That’s bare-bones Apple-ese for “Yep, and you’ll find out more when we’re ready.”

As iPad Pro units are now shipping, people are discovering the USB 3 hardware and testing copy speeds between the iPad Pro and computers.

Original post, Sep. 11, 2015:

I learned a little tidbit from a source today: the Lightning port on the upcoming iPad Pro will transfer data at USB 3 speeds, faster than current iPads. 

That’s potentially good news for photographers and videographers who import images and video clips from SD cards or cameras directly to the iPad for editing and reviewing. I don’t know offhand if the existing Lightning camera adapters will also support that speed or if new adapters will be required. But it’s a welcome change for those of us who have spent many many minutes waiting for media to transfer before we can act on it.

I can’t wait to learn more details as we get closer to the November release date.

Related: I’m running a survey to see how photographers are using the iPad in their workflows. It takes just a couple of minutes, and you could win a bundle of three of my latest books. Click here to take the survey.

The iPad for Photographers survey results are here.

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