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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  1. The new iPad does have 802.11ac so it might actually be faster to transfer the photos over WiFi. That’d make for an interesting comparison benchmark.


    1. That would be interesting. Although I don’t know if any cameras (yet?) support 802.11ac.


  2. What about the Lightning to SD Card Camera Reader?


    1. No, the support for USB 3 needs to be in he iPad, and it’s apparently not there in the 9.7-inch iPad Pro.


  3. Apple just can’t leave all the details alone can they? It’s bad enough the iPad Pro didn’t get tweaked with True Tone or just have the whole iPad Pro line be in sync (hello 4GB of RAM). Apple HAD to make tiny little differences to the line that are deal breakers for the professionals that these are aimed at. Why can’t size and weight just be the true merits for us to decide?

    I’ll just wait for the next revision now to see what that brings.


  4. Peter Phillips March 26, 2016 at 2:19 am

    I’m one of those photographers that was very keen to get the small form-factor “Pro” version, with the Pencil. The upgraded 4K video-capable camera was a bonus! I’ve had the new 9.7 ” iPad Pro in my Apple “basket” (er… on three occasions), but just can’t commit. It’s an expensive device, and 256 GB + USB2 seems a cruel taunt for those of us that anticipate transferring a lot of data, all the time. It really does doom this version of the iPad for me. Very disappointed, I can assure you.


    1. I forgot to say “Thanks” for your review Jeff, and thought I should add a retraction/follow-up to my earlier comment. Planning to upgrade from an iPad Air, I was really looking forward to TouchID, the Apple Pencil (a possible Cintiq-substitute when used with Astropad), an improved screen and a much-improved camera.

      I finally decided to accept the cost and perceived downsides (USB2 transfers), and went all-in, including the “expensive-but-compact-and-functional” Smart Keyboard and the USB3 camera kit, in a 128GB cellular model. I will put the cost out of my mind soon enough.

      I did some tests, and the iPad will preview 350 photos from my DSLR in about 90 seconds. After selecting the ones I wanted, transferring 20 x 5MB jpgs took about 35 seconds. That’s not so bad now that I think about it, because cataloguing and processing my RAW images will still take place on my Macbook Pro. I intend to get as much out of this little gem of a device as possible, and so far the performance has been quite snappy and the screen is terrific. There’s lot’s to like about the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, if it’s within your budget.


  5. Nice review, i’ll be sticking with my ipad air2 until apple decided to make the new one with larger ram(at least 4gb), and usb3 support” and The fast usb-c charge is very welcome.


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