External drive support is iPadOS’ best new feature [Opinion]

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iPad Pro with thumb drive
With the right adapter, an a tablet running iPadOS 13 can access USB-A drives and SD cards.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Mouse support has drawn more attention, but giving iPad Pro full access to external drives is the biggest improvement in iPadOS 13. It will make using a tablet easier and cheaper for professionals and average users alike.

With adapters, it’s now possible to access everything from hard drives to microSD cards. This feature is a real gamechanger.

iPad can finally access thumb drives

Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of Software Engineering, said in an interview with MacStories this week, “External drives. We’re willing to acknowledge the 1990s and go all the way back. You know, people still use them sometimes. I’m an AirDrop fan myself, but I understand there are other uses.”

Apple has always made tablet and phone owners jump through hoops in order to move files around with anything but iCloud and AirDrop. The company finally caved into pressure to support direct access to good old-fashioned physical media.

With the iPadOS 13 update coming soon, the 2018 iPad Pro can read and write to USB drives as easily as a Mac can. Drives appear in the Files application, and users can move images, documents, videos, etc. between the iPad and the drive.

We’ve extensively tested this with the first beta of this new operating system, and it does almost everything we want it to.

Apple’s latest tablet for professionals has a USB-C port, but plugging in a multi-port hub, like the excellent HyperDrive for iPad Pro, brings access to USB-A drives as well as SD and microSD cards. Even a cheap hub can do the same.

There are limitations still. iPadOS 13 Beta 1 can’t display how much space remains on a drive. Or reformat drives. And our tests found that it can only mount one drive at a time, making copying files between them a bit of a hassle. Still, it’s early days for this feature.

iPadOS 13 Files app with external drive
A thumb drive called DataTravlr mounted in Files. This app offers quite a few options for its contents.
Screenshot: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Some of the benefits for consumers

An iPad is all the computer many typical consumers need. And with thumb drive support, this tablet just got even more useful in multiple ways.

As mentioned, iPads used to require cloud storage. While sharing files online can be handy, not everyone is comfortable with it. Even in 2019, there’s still room for just putting some photos or documents on a thumb drive and handing it to someone. That’s now possible with an iPad.

It’s also very convenient to be able to make a local backup of important pictures, videos, documents and other files. This is secure and easy with iPadOS 13, and doesn’t require syncing with Mac or PC.

Also, carrying around a collection of movies or TV shows as MP4 or MOV files on a thumb drive is a great way to save space on one’s iPad.

Of course, there’s room for improvement. While it’s possible to play songs off a external drive, this can only be done one track at a time, which is hardly ideal. Perhaps developers will create music apps that can draw from external media.

There are benefits for professionals, too

Previously, an iPad could only transfer images off a camera or SD card into the Photos app, frustrating professional photographers. That ends with iPadOS 13. Apple’s Federighi said, “We know with photographers, the ability to import their photos directly into an app like Lightroom is so important.”

And there’s more benefits, of course. Businesspeople who need to carry around large numbers of PDFs no longer have to put them on their tablet, or hope they’ll have a strong Wi-Fi connection to access iCloud. These same files can instead be placed on an external drive, where they are always available.

Possible savings for all

Anyone shopping for their next iPad should consider whether they could move some of their files onto an external drive, possibly allowing them to buy a tablet with less built-in storage.

Consider that Apple charges $150 to take an iPad Pro from 64GB to 256GB of capacity, while a 256GB thumb drive costs $40 or less.

Potential savings for all, plus less hassle for business users and the average person on the street make accessing external drives the best new feature in iPadOS. Certainly better than mouse support, which Apple doesn’t really want you to use.