Ditching Your Laptop for an iPad Before Hitting the Road
Part How-To; Part Philosophy; Part Screed
You’re the one I’ve been looking for,
You’re the one that’s got the key.
But I can’t figure out whether I’m too good for you
Or you’re too good for me.
You’ve got a tight connection to my heart.
Bob Dylan, Tight Connection to My Heart, from Empire Burlesque (June 10, 1985)
When Apple’s iPad first arrived in 2010, photographers immediately recognized its potential, particularly as a laptop replacement. Unfortunately, the iPad repeatedly failed to meet photographer expectations. There was a glimmer of hope when Apple released the File app in 2017, but Apple’s annoying array of connectors and cables still posed issues. With the release of the latest iPads, I decided to make another run at configuring an iPad as a laptop replacement.
This article addresses the necessary hardware and software. My efforts are aimed at the travel photographer rather than the professional who is carrying 300 pounds of equipment in suitcase-sized Pelican cases.
: I tested several configurations, obtaining reliable results with this one: (i) the SD card is inserted directly into a Belkin USB-C hub; (ii) a charging cable is connected to the hub’s USB-C port, and the attached Anker 65-watt AC-power adapter is plugged into an electric outlet; and (iii) a Samsung SSD external hard drive is connected to the hub (USB-A 3.0 port) using a USB-C to a USB-2 cable. For purposes of this summary, assume I used a 2021 11″ iPad Pro 11, or a 2021 iPad Mini. Occasionally, the iPad does not see the SD card, but removing the card and then reinserting it fixes the problem—although it may take two or three tries. I may try a different hub at some point in the future to see if I can obtain better results.
In testing various configurations, I encountered two issues. First, one of the test hubs had great difficulty recognizing high-speed SD cards (even after multiple reinsertions). Second, certain configurations transferred the image files from the SD card to the SSD external drive, but the AC-power adapter failed to charge the iPad. I also discovered that older hard drives and iPads may work, but that the transfers are unacceptably slow.
My goal was to find a configuration that produced repeatable outcomes—it always works. Achieving that goal was particularly frustrating because a given configuration would work, then inexplicably stop working, and then start working again. That was true even though all the connections were tight.
Before tackling the how-to’s, I offer the following caveats and thoughts:
First, my intuition long ago told me that I could probably accomplish my objective by switching to a Microsoft Surface or an Android tablet. I, however, am in the Apple ecosystem—not because it is better, but because that is how my digital life has evolved. I chose not to pursue alternative platforms because I didn’t want to incur the associated switching costs.
Second, I am comfortable hacking my way through a computer, home theatre, and network setups, but I am no expert, which means someone probably knows a better way to do what I am trying to accomplish. That’s great. If you are that person, please annotate this article by leaving a constructive comment.
Third, I have intentionally included an agonizing amount of detail. I made plenty of mistakes and false starts. Others can benefit from what I learned from those efforts, particularly if they opt for different cables, hard drives, hubs, and SD cards.
Fourth, I make no representations or warranties. If you decide to buy any of the devices mentioned, first make sure that you can return them for a full refund. I have included links to Amazon’s website for each piece of the device in the chain, but I don’t endorse Amazon. Nor am I receiving kickbacks or endorsement fees.
I have three objectives when it comes to reviewing my daily photographic travel output. First, I want to determine whether my camera’s sensor has troublesome dust spots that necessitate sensor cleaning, or dead pixels that warrant using a backup camera. Dead pixels and travel are not a theoretical issue. About eight years ago, I was using a Leica Monochrom in Florence, Italy. When I reviewed my images for the day, I noticed a row of dead pixels. Thankfully, the dead pixels most often were in the image’s sky.
Second, I want to backup my SD cards for obvious reasons—a second copy protects against lost, damaged, or stolen SD cards, assuming that the cards and the backup are kept in separate locations. Backing up also provides a secondary benefit. When I arrive home, it is much faster to import my images from the hard drive than from the separate SD cards I used each day.
Third, I want to review my results. At one time, I did edits using Photoshop and Lightroom, but I determined that staying up until 3AM was not a good use of my time, particularly because I re-edited the images from the original .dng file once I arrived home. I don’t do that anymore, but I still like to look, or make a quick edit to obtain a preliminary sense of an image’s potential.
For me, a good night’s sleep is more important than a three-hour editing session, particularly if it means I awaken earlier, permitting me to capture a city as it arises from its slumber. Moreover, a little time away from photography heightens my next day’s efforts. I might even use some of the recaptured time to read a novel set in Paris (e.g., Proust’s In Search of Time Lost Writing This Article) or wherever else I might be visiting.
Over the years, I have tried various solutions; all were kludgy, including WIFI and the Gnarlbox, so I still traveled with a laptop until the pandemic put an end to travel.
A Solution That Works
Travel is now a reality, so I once again have been looking for a solution. During the last 24 months, Apple introduced the M1 chip. I am not sure exactly when it happened, but Apple is now using the USB connectors as digital roadways and power pass-throughs. Both developments are potentially game-changers in terms of using peripherals with an iPad.
My First Attempt Failed
I began my efforts last year when I traveled to New York, stopping at B&H. The computer department sold me a SanDisk 1TB Extreme SSD drive and a Hyper hub. That system did not work, which surprised me. If any retailer should have a surefire solution for photographers, it should be B&H.
While writing this article, it finally dawned on me why the Hyper hub might not have worked. I use SanDisk 128 GB cards; some are rated 300-MB per second. I reviewed the Hyper hub’s specifications: “1 x SD (Unspecified Type) (UHS-I [104 MB/s].” I dug out an old SD card: 64-GB at 80-MB per second. The hub worked.
End of story? Nope. During some further tests, the higher-speed card did work, but for the most part, it did not work. I suspect the SD-card slot in the Hyper hub does not produce a tight connection, which is not surprising given the second row of “gold teeth/connectors” on higher-speed SD cards (compare the SanDisk XC1 card to the SanDisk XCII card).
My Second Attempt Worked, but It was Not Universal or Practical
I was recently in New York for a few days, using two Leica M cameras. I simply relied on the Leica FOTUS and Lightroom Mobile apps to review photographs. For my purposes, both worked fine, although I encountered one glitch.
To do quick edits, I had to download the files to the iPad. Although I had plenty of memory on the iPad, the default settings for the Apple Photos app resulted in the large .dng files being automatically uploaded to my iCloud account. After editing 30 or 40 files over three days, I received a message that my iCloud storage capacity had maxed out. I addressed that problem by turning off the photo upload feature (Settings; Photos; iCloud Photos, Off). When I returned home, I deleted the files from the iPad, which freed up space for routine automated iPad backups.
If I were willing to buy an iPad with 2-TB of storage, I could have backed up all my image files to the iPad, but Apple storage capacity is outrageously expensive. The current version of the 11″ iPad Pro with 2-TB of storage sells for $1,899. The same iPad Pro with 512- GB of storage sells for $1,099, which is an $800 difference. I can purchase an external 2-TB SSD drive for just over $200. If the economics are not obvious, the gouge is.
I am not normally a critic of Big Tech, but I have long assumed Apple has made it difficult to attach external hard drives to the iPad because limiting the use of external drives is in its economic interest. Presumably, Apple doesn’t want to cannibalize its laptop market. If someone does choose to use an iPad rather than a laptop, Apple still generates “laptop-like” revenue by selling the user very expensive storage. At some point, Apple should focus on the customer’s experience and needs rather than its short-term profits.
My Third Attempt Worked
When I returned from New York, I decided to see whether there was a better solution. Based on my B&H experience, I decided I needed either an AC-powered hub or an AC-powered hard drive—I hadn’t yet considered the possibility that the SD card was the problem. Finding a compact SSD hard drive that is AC-powered is next to impossible, so I went with an AC-powered hub—testing three of them.
I first tested a configuration using LaCie HHD Rugged (orange case) 2-TB drive with an AC-powered hub. I am not entirely sure when I bought this drive, but it most likely was sometime in 2016.
The HHD Drive
For the test, I used a SanDisk 128-GB Extreme Pro SD card, rated 300-MB per second. It had 643 files totaling 54.56 GB (the “Test SD Card”). The transfer from the Test SD Card to the LaCie drive took somewhere between 60 and 70 minutes. My configuration worked, albeit very slowly.
Two observations. First, the hub, although powered, did not charge the iPad, so the iPad should be charged before attempting a large transfer, at least when using a vintage hard drive. Second, even though I moved all the files from a prior trip to the trash can before attempting the transfer from the Test SD Card, my first attempt failed because the system still apparently read the LaCie drive as nearly full. I successfully addressed that problem by reformatting the drive.
The SSD Drive
At that point, I ordered a Samsung T7 Portable SSD 2-TB Solid State USB 3.2 External Hard Drive (Red) from Amazon ($219.99), which has a credit-card-sized footprint. People may hate Amazon for any number of reasons, but it is great for testing equipment. I ordered the drive sometime around 5 PM, and it arrived at 5 AM the next day.
As for the hubs, I first tested my setup using a Lionwei LIUC4101 Hub, which is an AC-powered hub that includes six USB-3.0 data ports and an SD card reader. It worked (12-minute transfer time), but the hub is bulky.
I then tried the Samsung with the Hyper Hub. Surprisingly, given my overall experience with this hub, it worked (12-minute transfer time). As noted, in subsequent tests it occasionally read the SD card, but more often than not, it didn’t read the card.
I then tried the Belkin USB-C 7-in-1 Multiport Adapter, which also worked. The transfer from the Test SD Card took 10 minutes, and it charged the iPad during the transfer.
Of the three hubs, I have a strong preference for the Belkin because it consistently transfers the files to the SSD drive. Occasionally, the Files app does not immediately see the SD card but removing and then reinserting the card solves that problem. I don’t know whether that glitch is due to my impatience, dirt on one of the card’s pins, or a loose connection. Because I can fix the problem in a matter of seconds, I don’t care.
For my tests, I used the iPad Mini (Sixth Generation, released in 2021), as well as an iPad Pro 11″, which is the current version (Third Generation, released in 2021).
I also tested an iPad Pro 12.9″ (Fourth Generation, released in 2020), which uses the USB-C connector. It works with both the Files and Lightroom Mobile apps, but it is much slower. It took somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes to transfer the data from the Test SD Card to the Samsung SSD drive.
Finally, I have an iPad Air (Third Generation, released in 2019). I did not test that because it utilizes a Lightning port rather than a USB-C port, and I don’t have a converter. Given the performance of the 12.9″ iPad Pro, I was not inclined to invest in a converter.
And Then Disaster Struck
After testing the 12.9″ iPad Pro, I decided to do another test using one of the 2021 iPads. It worked, but the iPad was no longer charging during the transfer. I assumed that the earlier test might have “fried” a circuit in the Belkin hub, so I ordered a second one. I also did some additional research. The Belkin-hub documentation indicates that its two USB-A, 3.0 ports are rated three amps. In response to my online chat inquiry, Samsung indicated that 1.5 amps would be sufficient to power the Samsung SSD drive.
I first used the AC-power adapter that came with the iPad, which is rated 20 watts—it would be nice if Apple put the specs on the adapter in legible form, but Apple is far more interested in an all-white minimalistic design. The Belkin documentation recommended an adapter rated 65 watts, but the diagram showed a laptop attached to the hub. I researched power adapters, and I ordered an Anker USB-C Charger Rated 65 Watts, together with an Anker cable that was bundled with the charger (Anker Powerline+ II USB-C Cable, USB-C to USB-C (6ft, 60W) USB-IF Certified Cable, Type C Charging Cable, Fast Charge for MacBook Air, iPad Pro, iPad Air 4, Galaxy, Pixel, and More (Black)).
The long and short of it: The Anker setup worked.
I took the following five lessons away from my efforts:
First, there are currently at least four iterations of the USB-C standard, so when a device indicates that it is USB-C compliant, that is not the end of the story. Moreover, each manufacturer using USB-C can configure the connectors to meet its needs.
To be blunt, this is a disgrace that does nothing but cause confusion. As a practical matter, if you are buying a hub, cable, or SSD drive, make sure that the specs list the device you are using it for (e.g., an iPad). I found that the specs for some AC-power adapters mentioned Android and other non-Apple devices, but not iPads, while I found some that mentioned iPads and iPhones. Further clouding the waters: I found no references to 2021 iPads; only to 2020 iPads. I ASSUMED the device would work with the 2021 iPads. I suspect that Apple has not made significant changes since 2020 in terms of connectivity, which might explain why the web pages outlining specs have not been updated, but your guess is as good as mine—more about this shortly.
Second, some people express concern that a 65-watt adapter could fry an iPad. Two points are worth noting: First, Apple is coy about AC-power adapters, recommending Apple-branded adapters, but in a post to its support website, Apple states:
Charging. Charge iPad with the included USB cable and power adapter. You can also charge iPad with “Made for iPad” or other third-party cables and power adapters that are compliant with USB 2.0 or later and with applicable country regulations and international and regional safety standards. Other adapters may not meet applicable safety standards, and charging with such adapters could pose a risk of death or injury.
As for using a 65-watt AC-power adapter rather than the 20-watt Apple AC-power adapter, an Apple support document indicates that in the case of the iPad Pro 11″ (First Generation or later) and the iPad Mini (Sixth Generation), the higher-wattage charger will work, stating:
If you have a higher-wattage USB-C power adapter—such as the one that came with your Mac notebook—you can use it with your iPad for faster charging. You can also charge your iPad by connecting it to the USB-C port on your computer.
Interestingly, I read several posts in Apple’s Support Forum indicating that the iPad would not charge any faster than with a 20-watt adapter, but that a higher-wattage adapter was useful for powering peripherals attached to the iPad through a hub. I subsequently e-mailed Anker, and they responded within less than 24-hours, informing me that the Anker meets Apple’s specs; works with the 2021 iPad Pro 11″ and the 2021 iPad Mini; and that the Anker cable I was using would work with the Belkin adapter that I was using. They also included a link to an Anker hub, which I have not tested. Kudos to Anker for a quick response.
In a third e-mail to Anker asking whether the 65-watt Anker AC-power adapter would charge the iPad faster, Anker stated:
If the iPad supports fast charging 20W max, the 65-watt Anker adapter won’t charge the iPad faster than a 20-watt Apple AC adapter. The Anker adapters of the same wattage and charging technology won’t be faster than Apple adapters. Hope it’s clear.
For me, it isn’t clear because Anker’s assessment seems to conflict with Apple’s, as quoted earlier. Moreover, the debates in the online forums add to my confusion. Candidly, I don’t have a need for faster charging when it comes to iPads, so you are on your own if one of your objectives is faster charging.
Third, virtually every article I read was emphatic: only buy devices made by reputable manufacturers; avoid cheap knockoffs from unknown manufacturers. I agree.
Fourth, although longer cables are often convenient, I noticed that people posting to various online forums seemed to have fewer problems when they used shorter cables (six-foot rather than 10-foot).
Fifth, there will inevitably be newer standards that create more confusion. The industry standards-setting groups have done a lousy job. They should settle on one standard for a given protocol; require that the device be labeled with a clear logo or language specifying the standard; and prohibit individual branding by manufacturers.
This is the configuration I have settled upon: (i) the SD card is inserted directly into the Belkin hub; (ii) the charging cable is connected to the hub’s USB-C port, and the attached Anker 65-watt AC-power adapter is plugged into an electric outlet; and (iii) the Samsung hard drive is connected to the hub (USB-A 3.0 port) using a USB-C to a USB-2 cable.
It worked and continues to work for me, but once again, you need to make your own assessment—I offer no guarantees. You are free to substitute different cables, hubs, AC-power adapters, and hard drives. I would probably start with the Apple 20-watt AC-power adapter to see whether it is sufficient for your needs. I found that it generally worked, but during several tests, it stopped charging the iPad.
I used the Files and the Lightroom Mobile apps to transfer and review my image files. While Lightroom Mobile is respectable in terms of editing, both it and the Files app are subpar in terms of file management and review. I suspect this is due to Apple’s paternalistic attitude toward file management on iOS devices, as well as its legitimate concerns regarding privacy and security.
For the most part, both apps are self-explanatory—that is particularly true for Lightroom Mobile if you already are a desktop user—so I will focus on a couple of quirks rather than providing a detailed discussion.
The Files App
After selecting the images that I want to transfer to the hard drive, I am given five choices at the bottom of the screen—”Share,” “Duplicate,” “Move,” “Delete,” and “More.” Under “More,” I found a “Copy” function, but I cannot get it to work—the app freezes. If, however, I select “Move,” the subsequent screen (top right-hand corner) gives me the option to “Copy” the files to a user-specified location. Obviously, I don’t want to move the files from the SD card to the SSD drive if that means physically removing them from the SD card. Fortunately, selecting “Copy” does not remove the files from the SD card (but verify that for yourself).
Lightroom Mobile App
As noted, I use the Lightroom Mobile app to review and make quick edits to files. I am a Creative Cloud (“CC”) subscriber, so Lightroom Mobile is included in my subscription. I assume that those who are not “CC” subscribers must either pay a fee to use Lightroom Mobile or put up with ads.
To review a file in the Lightroom Mobile app, I first select the icon displaying a group of books located in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. I then click the blue icon with the “+” sign located at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Then I click “From Files;” use the browser to select the SSD drive, and then I select the desired file. I then click on the image to open the editor, and then I do my edits.
The edits are saved to the iPad, as well as to my Adobe cloud account—I wish Adobe had used the term “Adobe Cloud” rather than “Cloud,” because at first it was not clear to me whether “Cloud” meant Adobe’s cloud system or my Apple iCloud account.
I don’t really care about saving these edits to Adobe’s cloud, but when I go to http://www.adobe.lightroom.com/ and sign in, I see the edited images. Adobe has designed the system so that your edits are awaiting you when you arrive back at your workspace, but you may need to “flip a switch” before that happens. I am sure that this is a useful feature for many people, but because I now use CaptureOne, it is of no use to me.
What I can’t do is save the edited files to the SSD drive. I assume this is a restriction imposed by Apple. I can, however, export the files to the SSD drive by pressing the “Download” icon in the upper right-hand corner (in between the “?” icon and the “Cloud” icon). I am given the option to select a file type for export, but despite selecting .dng, the files have always shown up on my hard drive as .jpgs. I don’t care because I just use the storage on my iPad for the edited files (with the photo upload feature turned off). I prefer to transfer only the original .dng files when I return home.
Good news for Apple Pencil users: the pencil works in Lightroom Mobile.
The Capture One App
At this time CaptureOne has not released a version for mobile use, but it has promised a release of a mobile app in 2022. It will be interesting to see how CaptureOne ports its desktop app to the tablet world.
I hope that this article proves helpful for those who are trying to lighten their load while on the road. At this point, I am confident that my configuration works, and I will now use it when I travel. Three closing points: First, if you decide to rely on this article, I strongly suggest acquiring the equipment well in advance of your trip, and then learning how the system works before hopping into the car or heading to the airport.
Second, if you decide to use vintage iPads and hard drives, all bets are off. You can then do battle with configuring the cables, connectors and adapters, hoping that your iPad will not meet a tragic end. Given how much money photographers spend on camera equipment, I highly recommend throwing money at the problem by using the latest iPads, hard drives, hubs, and cables.
Third, I make no guarantees that my configuration will work for you, but most likely it will. More importantly, I have given you a good starting point.
B&H Photo, Adorama, and other retailers who sell both camera gear and computer equipment should put surefire bundles together—an iPad, an SSD external drive, cables, and a hub that reliably work together to copy image files from SD cards to an external hard drive. Most photographers have better things to do with their time, like taking photographs, rather than reinventing this wheel.
Jack B. Siegel is a Chicago-based photographer who focuses his cameras on musicians, cityscapes, newsworthy events, Parisian cemeteries, and anything else that catches his gaze in Chicago or during his travels. Jack began life as a tax lawyer, went on to develop software, and then provided consulting services to nonprofit associations. Over the years, Jack has lectured extensively, written two books, and maintained a widely read blog focused on nonprofit governance and scandals.