Key TakeawaysThe next iPad Pro, due in April according to rumors, will have a Thunderbolt connection.Thunderbolt uses the same connector as USB-C, but is four times faster.Software, not connectivity, is holding the iPad Pro back. Jeremy Zero / Unsplash
The next iPad Pro will replace the current USB-C port with a faster Thunderbolt connection, but is there anything Thunderbolt can do that USB-C can't?
According to rumors, the next iPad Pro will arrive in April and will offer a brighter, higher-contrast miniLED display, Thunderbolt connectivity, faster CPUs that will perform similarly to those in the M1 Macs, and better cameras. But will these be enough to set it apart from the already amazing iPad Air? And what's the point of Thunderbolt anyway?
"USB-C is capable of delivering display signals up to 4K. Thunderbolt would allow 5K," musician “Krassman” replied in an Audiobus forum thread started by Ach5.
"I think another advantage would be to allow Thunderbolt hubs with several outgoing Thunderbolt ports where each of them maintains a high bandwidth. So, like using an external 4K monitor and an SSD."
Thunderbolt vs USB-C
Thunderbolt and USB-C are both data connections, and they both use the same symmetrical USB-C plug. But they are not compatible with each other. While some devices have ports that can accept both USB-C and Thunderbolt, in general, you can't just plug one into the other.
Even the cables are not interchangeable. Thunderbolt speeds are only possible with (expensive) Thunderbolt cables.
There's another element to add to the confusion. USB-C can support USB 3 or USB 4. USB 4 is essentially USB with Thunderbolt included inside, and is currently available on very few devices.
It's likely that the next iPad Pro will use this connection because that's what the current M1 Macs use. But for this article, we'll stick to USB-C that uses USB 3, because that's the current standard.Sirisvisual / Unsplash
This brings us to the main difference between the two: speed. USB-C supports up to 10Gbps, while Thunderbolt can shift data four times as fast.
Another important difference is how Thunderbolt can be daisy-chained, letting you connect more Thunderbolt peripherals to your existing ones, instead of directly to the computer. These connections allow for some extra features.
"This development is purely about increased bandwidth. You don't need Thunderbolt to match display resolutions or extend displays. That's basic functionality that any Chromebook can do," MacRumors forum member JPack replied to a thread started by Ach5.
"Thunderbolt means Apple is serious about the iPad Pro being a computer. There's enough bandwidth for a pair of 4K displays, peripherals, and gigabit Ethernet connection."
What Can Thunderbolt Do That USB-C Can't?
A single Thunderbolt connection could drive four external USB-C SSD drives, all at full speed. And Thunderbolt lets you connect two 4K displays (or one 8K), vis a single 4K display for USB-C.
Thunderbolt certification is also stricter than USB-C certification, so you can be sure that docks and hubs will be reliable.
Another big difference is docks. USB-C docks and hubs are available to extend your computer's USB-C ports, but very few of them offer extra USB-C data ports—they usually only allow you to connect USB-C power supplies. Despite the relative maturity of USB-C, it's still impossible to find one of those simple USB hubs that we're all used to, one that just offers four or more USB ports.
There are plenty of Thunderbolt docks available, though. They're expensive and can get hot, but they offer more Thunderbolt ports, and extras like Ethernet, HDMI, DisplayPort, and more.
Pro Support is a Software Feature
Right now, a professional using an iPad can connect anything they need. External storage, cameras, high-end audio interfaces. Hardware-wise, USB-C is already good enough, unless you want to hook up multiple displays.
"Thunderbolt means Apple is serious about the iPad Pro being a computer."
The bottleneck is software support. Connect an external display to your iPad, and it mirrors the screen, complete with black bars on the left and right (some apps do offer custom external screen support). Connect a second audio device to your iPad's USB-C hub, and it disconnects the one you already hooked up.
These might sound like small differences, but these are exactly the kind of differences that will bring pro users to a new iPad. Dual-monitor support would even beat the M1 MacBook Pro, which only can drive a single external display.
"I would seriously consider chopping in my iPad Pro if the new iPad Pro supported dual external monitors, even if all the other specs were the same," MacRumors forum member NastyMatt replied to a thread started by Ach5. "To be hugely productive you cannot get away from real estate size as the limiting/increasing factor."
If Apple is serious about the iPad Pro actually being pro, it needs to improve iOS. Thunderbolt and a mini LED screen are fine, but it's the software that will make the machine more capable.