The iPad needs a new kind of USB-C dock [Opinion]

By

Friends don’t let friends get to this stage.
Friends don’t let friends get to this stage.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

If you have a new 2018 iPad Pro, then you probably need a new USB-C hub. Without it, you can only plug in one accessory at a time, and that includes the charger. With a hub, you can plug in an almost unlimited number of USB devices (and other gear), plus provide power for everything at the same time.

The problem is, almost all USB-C docks are designed for laptop computers like the MacBook. They’re designed with short tails so they can sit on a desk next to the MacBook’s desk-level USB-C port, and plug in without trailing a long cable all over the place. But these short tails are terrible for the iPad — especially if you use the tablet on a stand.

They result in a dongle dangling from the iPad, trailing all the cables and accessories hooked up to the hub. This puts a strain on the USB-C port, and reduces mobility for the iPad. It also looks ridiculous. Ditto those docks that clip to the iPad itself. They’re a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, I have a better idea.

The long tail

The main problem with existing USB-C hubs is that they have short tails. Their output cables trail from the unit, and cannot be detached or replaced. The quickest fix for this, iPad-wise, would be longer tails, or — better — a USB-C output port, so you could use the cable of your choice, long or short.

This single change would mean that the hub and peripherals could sit permanently on a desk, or clipped to the back of a stand. You could pick up the iPad and move it around as you use it, just as you can when it’s connected to a 6-foot charging cable.

What about a USB-C extension cable, you say? In my research, it seems that the USB-C spec forbids extension cables. For full-speed, USB-C needs a short cable. Adding an extension, plus another point where data has to be transferred, would slow things down. I looked into buying a cheap USB-C extender from Amazon. Then I remembered how much the iPad Pro costs, so I ditched that idea.

USB-C dock not hub

OWC’s USB-C hub almost fits the bill.
OWC’s USB-C hub almost fits the bill.
Photo: OWC

But just extending the tail would be missing out. How about a bigger dock that sits on the desk, and lets you plug everything into it? Then, when you hook up your iPad, it both charges and links to the connected peripherals. One USB-C cable would run from dock to iPad, carrying all data and power. Here are some possible ports, all of which would work fine (and simultaneously):

  • SD card slot
  • Headphone jack
  • Ethernet port
  • Microphone input
  • USB-C and USB-A ports to connect and charge older devices (including mass storage)
  • HDMI display

Specialist docks could add MIDI ports and other capabilities. In fact, there is a dock from OWC that already does much of this. It even packs an AC adapter, so you can use it as a charger without needing to plug it into a separate USB-C power supply.

Take a look at Amazon and you’ll find quite a few USB-C docks that almost fit the bill. But if this is meant to be an iOS dock, then why not go wild? How about a switch that lets you plug in the iPad and only supply power? You don’t always want to connect all your accessories. Sometimes all you need is power.

And talking of power, how about making this into a “wireless” Qi charger for your iPhone? Why not? It just sits there on the desk, after all.

Surely an iOS-targeted gadget like this would cost more than the already-expensive USB-C docks available today. However, if it were designed with the iPad in mind, it could be a winner.