Apple hardware designers are rumored to cringe at the idea of encasing their beautiful phones and tablets in protective cases, so I can only imagine what they would think about BoltHub, the “invisible USB-C hub” that I just got for my iPad Pro.
The BoltHub essentially “bolts”—really, it sort of clamps—onto the top right of your iPad Pro in landscape orientation, with an ominous-looking, short-run USB-C cable connecting it to the USB-C input. Once attached the device gives you a 4K HDMI slot, one slot each for Micro SD and SD cards, a plain old USB 3.1 port running at 5GB/second (suitable for thumb drives), a USB-C passthrough port to make up for the one you gave up to attach the BoltHub, and even a 3.5mm audio jack to replace the one that Apple so bravely omitted.
Personally, I missed having an audio jack on my 2018 model iPad Pro tremendously, so the inclusion of one in the BoltHub is a big win for me. Unfortunately, in my testing the audio jack doesn’t actually work with in-line remote controls on headphones, so my RHA-brand earbuds couldn’t pause the music or turn up the volume. But the audio output sounds fine and the microphone actually works too. By and large all the ports work as advertised, adding significant utility to the port-challenged iPad Pro.
I’m glad to have this in my travel kit now for those times on the road that one or more of these ports will undoubtedly save me from some sticky situation, but I’ve also never in my life felt so bad about owning a peripheral the way I do about the BoltHub. One of the distinctions of Apple’s iOS hardware has been its elegant, self-contained, almost hermetic nature—any added appendages seem to disrupt these devices’ natural balance in some ineffable way. Apple’s posture has always been that the iPad is basically perfect on its own, that you really don’t need anything more than the tablet itself in order to do everything you could want to do with it. One could even argue that the company sells its own keyboard and stylus for the iPad with great ambivalence, as they continue to wrestle with the suggestion that these things are necessary to fulfill the iPad’s potential—even though it’s become obvious to millions, including myself, that they are.
So just to entertain the idea that these ports are necessary feels like kind of an affront, a heresy against the iPad’s most bedrock principles. On top of it all, the BoltHub, while designed with care, is fundamentally ugly. It’s hard to blame the designers for this because the challenge they took on is at its essence an ugly one: attach ports to a device that defies the very need for ports. (And, to be fair, the BoltHub is much more elegant than most USB-C hubs for tablets out there.) Still, with its USB-C cable dangling off the side in a vaguely life-support-ish fashion, the whole presentation looks somewhat sci-fi, but in a cheap, made-for-TV kind of way—think of the Borg from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
I admit these criticisms might come off like an aesthetic evaluation of a utilitarian tool, and based on at least two successful crowdfunding campaigns, BoltHub offers enough utility for at least thousands of users to buy it. But there are more than superficial concerns here. It’s basically impossible to add this kind of functionality to a device that basically doesn’t want it—without compromises. For the BoltHub, the added bulk is nontrivial, though perhaps not a dealbreaker. It makes it a little harder to handle and a little more awkward to use the iPad in portrait mode. If you have Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio, the BoltHub is compatible with that, but you can’t fully fold the keyboard itself back behind the iPad itself. Well you can fold it back, but it won’t lay flat against the back of the iPad, which is awkward. Maybe the worst compromise is that the BoltHub, once attached, is constantly drawing power, sapping at least an hour or two from a full battery charge. Even if you’re okay with the ugliness, you probably don’t want to keep this thing attached all day. After keeping it bolted to my iPad for a couple of days after first getting mine, I now keep my BoltHub in my bag.