USB Storage with iOS 13: The FAQ

posted in: November 2019 | 0
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USB Storage with iOS 13: The FAQ

Of all the email I’ve received about iOS 13 from readers of Take Control of iOS 13 and iPadOS 13, questions about using external USB drives with the Files app have been the most frequent. Here are answers to common questions I’ve received, and to other questions I expect many users to have.

Can I use external USB drives with an iPhone, or does the feature work only on the iPad?

Although Apple has marketed this feature primarily in relation to the iPad—specifically the iPad Pro—it works just the same in iOS 13 on an iPhone as it does in iPadOS.

What types of storage devices can iOS 13 read?

iOS 13 can read any standard USB storage device as long as it has been formatted with a compatible file system and has sufficient power provided (see the next two points). In short, most storage devices should work. 

Niles Mitchell made a series of YouTube videos in which he connects obscure storage devices—including an Iomega Zip disk!—to an iPhone running iOS 13.

How do I connect a USB storage device to my iPhone or iPad?

It depends. Most iOS 13-compatible devices have a Lightning port, while 2018 iPad Pro models have a USB-C port:

  • Lightning options: If your device has a Lightning port, you’ll need a Lightning-to-USB adapter. I strongly recommend Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter because it supports USB 3 and offers a Lightning passthrough port for power, which will be necessary for some devices (see “Buy the Best Lightning to USB Adapter for iOS 13,” 12 August 2019). If you have the older USB 2 adapter without power passthrough, you can use a powered USB hub to power your storage devices. You can also buy Lightning-based thumb drives that eliminate the need for the adapter and passthrough power.
  • USB-C options: Your best bet for USB-C-equipped iPads is either a USB-C–based thumb drive or one of the multitude of USB-C hubs that offer a USB-A port.

What file systems does iOS support?

As far as I can find, Apple doesn’t document what file systems iOS 13 can use: not in the support documents, nor in the most recent iPhone and iPad user guides. So I took matters into my own hands, repeatedly erasing and reformatting a thumb drive and plugging it into my iPhone to see if it would work. Long story short: iOS can read all non-encrypted file systems supported by the Mac’s Disk Utility.

How should you format a storage drive for use with iOS? Here are my recommendations:

  • MS-DOS (FAT): FAT is the most compatible file system if you need to share your storage drive between iOS, macOS, Windows, and Linux. However, it comes with some irritating limitations: files must be smaller than 4 GB, filenames must be eight characters or less, and all filenames must be in capital letters with no spaces.
  • exFAT: exFAT is a newer form of FAT and has fewer limitations. It’s a good choice for portability between iOS, macOS, and Windows. Linux can also use exFAT, though you’ll have to install some system extensions. (Microsoft has promised exFAT support in the Linux kernelbut has provided no firm commitment to when that will happen.)
  • Mac OS Extended (Journaled): The classic Mac file system, also known as HFS+, works fine if you plan to share a drive only between iOS and macOS.
  • APFS: There isn’t much point to formatting a drive as APFS unless you’re planning to boot from it or want to play with containers and volumes.

How do I access my USB storage from Files?

On the iPad in landscape orientation, the drive appears in the sidebar automatically.

A thumb drive in the iPad Files sidebar.

On an iPhone or an iPad in portrait orientation, tap the Browse icon on the bottom of the screen to jump to the Browse screen, which lists all of your locations.

How do I copy files to and from USB storage?

The easiest method is to tap and hold a file until the contextual menu appears and choose Copy. Then navigate to the destination, tap and hold a blank spot in the directory, and choose Paste from the contextual menu. To move a file, choose Move instead of Copy and choose a destination from the browser.

On the iPad, you can use drag-and-drop to copy the file where it needs to go. The easiest way is to split the Files window, pull up the location in the split, and then drag the file from the original window (see “Here’s What Sets iPadOS Apart from iOS,” 25 September 2019). You might find this handier than the above method if you have a lot of files to copy.

The Files app in Split Screen

Can I play media from USB external storage?

Yes, you can, which is an effective way to store movies without taking up valuable on-device space. I tested media playback with the open-source VLC, but other apps might work too. Tap and hold a media file until the contextual menu appears, tap Share, and then tap VLC or your desired app. VLC appears in the second row of the activity view—you may have to swipe left and tap More to reveal it.

Playing a video file from a thumb drive in VLC

If you plan to do this regularly, you can pin VLC to the Files activity view. On the rightmost screen pictured above, you can tap Edit in the upper-right corner and then tap the plus button to the left of Open in VLC.

Pinning VLC to the activity view

When you tap the VLC icon in the Files activity view, be patient since it may take a few seconds before the video or other media file starts playing. I found that sometimes it didn’t play on the first try, requiring a second pass at opening the file in VLC.

Do I have to eject a drive before removing it, like on the Mac?

No, and in fact, that’s not even an option. Just use common sense and don’t pull a drive when it’s reading data or having data written to it.