The 4th generation iPad and what Apple needs to deliver

Summary:Apple's fourth generation version of the iPad, presumably due in early 2013, will have to break new ground in order to follow such a powerful third act.

In July of 2010, I wrote “The next generation iPad and what Apple needs to deliver.” Based on information gleaned from updates in iOS and information coming out of the semiconductor industry at the time, I updated that article in November and polished the crystal ball — in my usual purely speculative way — of what I thought that iPad 2 might look like or the features it should contain.

I followed that article up with a sequel in March of 2011 called "The iPad 3 and what Apple needs to deliver".

The iPad 3, or rather "The new iPad" is now here. For the most part, much of what I thought would be in the new model did actually come to fruition, but as usual, we got a number of surprises and also some disapointments as well.

The iPad 3 is an amazing feat of technology and consumer electronics engineering, and I have to say I am extremely impressed with what Apple has brought to market, given the manufacturing challenges and supply chain issues which almost certainly pushed the company's capabilities to its limits.

In the 4th version, Apple is going to have to break new ground, because the iPad 3 is such a strong product in and of itself. It's going to be a tall order to impress the market after what they've just done.

Let’s go through last year’s predictions about various anticipated features in the iPad 3 to find out where the hit and misses were, and to see if there is room for improvement in any of these areas that could make their way into iPad 4.

Gyroscope

"Yup, the iPad 2 did in fact get a gyroscope, likely the same or similar part that’s in the iPhone 4. So all future iPads are going to have gyroscopes. Will there be new applications on iPad that will really take advantage of it? Does the iPad 3 need a higher precision gyroscope part than what is shipping today? That remains to be seen, especially when iPhone 5 ships and we see what features it contains."

There is yet to be any indication if the precision gyroscope part that was included in the iPad 2 and the iPhone 4S (heh, no iPhone 5) is any different. Until we get a teardown we won't have any idea if the part changed significantly. I'm leaning towards "No."

Cameras

I would expect that the specs on both the front and the rear cameras on iPad 3 to be improved. iPad 2 uses a VGA-capable camera on the front and a “HD” camera that can do 720p video in the rear. Competitors which are shipping with integrated cameras in 2011 include the Blackberry PlayBook, which sports a 3MP video camera in the front and a 5MP in the rear, and the Motorola XOOM, which is 2MP in the front and 5MP in the rear.

Still, we can speculate that 3MP and 5MP camera components might be able to be secured in volume by Apple by end of CY 2011 to ship a device with upgraded parts in early 2012.

Well, that was an interesting one. Never mind the fact that both of the competitors I named originally ended up becoming total market duds, but we sort of went halfway. The crappy VGA front-facing camera remains, and there's certainly a ton of room for improvement especially if the new HD screen on future generation iPads is to be taken advantage of by Facetime.

In the rear, we got the new 5MP iSight camera, which while a substantial improvement over what we had previously and is 1080p video capable, is still not as good a camera as what's inside the iPhone 4S.

Next year, I should hope the front-facing camera is improved, and we get some rear-camera parity with the iPhone 4S.

System on a Chip/Central Processing Unit (CPU)/Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)

Room for improvement in the iPad 3 will be yet more graphics performance (particularly if the screen resolution is improved) such as moving to a PowerVR SGX6 GPU, increased clock speed and/or increased integrated L1 cache on the chip. The A5 has 64K of integrated cache (32K instruction + 32K data) like the A4. I’m not expecting a quad-core design in the next iPad on the A6 or A8, but I wouldn’t put it out of the question that it exists in Apple’s roadmap over the next two years.

That's about as good as I could have expected to do, prediction-wise. The A5X is in fact a dual-core ARM Cortex A9 SoC with a significantly improved (quad-core) GPU, which is needed to drive the 264 pixel-per-inch "retina" 2048x1536 HD display. No word yet as to whether the integrated cache has been bumped, but we'll find out as soon as the PoP is inspected under a X-Ray microscope.

Next year we will almost certainly see a quad-core CPU with yet even more GPU performance behind it. The current iPad 3 GPU, which is expected to be a PowerVR SGX543MP4 is rated to be twice as powerful as the iPad 2, and four times as powerful as the nVidia Tegra 3 in the current generation quad-core Android tablets.

So a move to a PowerVR series 6 GPU with twice the performance of the iPad 3 seems likely.

Display

I don’t expect that the iPad 3 will have the same resolution screen as an iPad 2 — all indications are that the next model will almost certainly have a higher-res display, whether it is SXGA or UXGA or something even higher. In my earlier piece, I speculated that iPad 2 might have even used OLED or transfective-type displays, but this was a real reach on my part.While I won’t put some new technology out of the question for the iPad 3, it’s possible that what we will see next year will be a higher res, but still a commodity IPS LCD part. OLED is still too expensive to source in quantity and obviously transflective technologies such as Pixel Qi and Mirasol aren’t ready to use on tablets yet

So, this one is where we both got it right and got it very wrong. "Something even higher than UXGA" is correct, but I didn't realize just how high it would be -- QXGA, which is 2048x1536, which is even higher than the highest-resolution broadcast HD television (1080i) and even higher than 1920x1080 (1080p) Blu-Ray resolution.

While the iPad 3 uses LCD technology, I definitely wouldn't classify its retina display as a "commodity part."

It's going to be very hard to improve on such impressive display technology, and certainly Apple's competitors are going to have a devil of a time getting anything like that into their own products.

My main concern with the iPad 3 retina display is whether or not Apple's supply chain for this part, which is likely to take up the lion's share of the bill of materials and will almost certainly result in this product being sold at much thinner margins than previously can actually keep up with consumer demand. Will shortages occur? Is the part reliable? We'll have to wait and see.

Next year, Apple is going to need to be able to produce this same screen at very high volumes, because by then the iPad 3 will be in the same place as the iPad 2 occupies today, as the loss leader high-volume seller.

If there are any tangible improvements to be made at all with this display, it will have to be in the areas of power consumption and outdoor readability, and that will require moving to a completely different type of technology, such AMOLED and the aforementioned Transflective displays.

They could certainly make the display more retinized, such as the original 326 pixel per inch that was proposed well over a year ago, but I'm not sure if that would actually be a noticeable improvement. Goggle-less 3D, that's a strong maybe considering that a good number of movies have now been released in 3D theatrically and certain types of games might be able to take advantage of it. 4K resolution? Maybe not for five years.

[Next: Audio, Video Output, Networking & Connectors]»

Audio

While I haven’t yet experienced the quality of the speaker output of the iPad 2, I understand that they went from two smaller speakers that had monaural sound output in the iPad 1 to a single, but larger monaural speaker. With stereo devices coming out this year from Apple’s competitors, I would expect iPad 3 to have stereo speakers.

In actuality they ended up putting two speakers in the iPad 2, but they put them behind a single grille and still had monaural output. In any case, there is no indication they put stereo speakers into the iPad 3 yet. If they didn't, there's certainly room for improvement next year.

In order to support voice dictation I have to assume that a better noise reducing microphone was introduced in the iPad 3 hardware. My guess is that once Siri exits beta, we'll get it in a software update for iPad 3 or it will be introduced on the iOS released with iPad 4.

Video Output

Apple definitely delivered on this one. They created a new HDMI accessory that works on both iPad 1 and 2 and also included display mirroring capability on iPad 2, which is a big improvement in my book. The only thing I can think of to improve this on iPad 3 would be screen mirroring over Airplay to an Apple TV, but that might require some serious wireless network bandwidth.

Interestingly enough, Airplay screen mirroring is something that Apple ended up doing with the iOS 5 update for the iPad 2. However, it's kind of hokey when you use it with fast-moving games. I'm not sure how well this is going to work with the new, 1080p Apple TV 3 since we're talking about a massive increase in native pixel density in the iPad 3.

You'd have to downscale it to fit within a 4x3 box at 1080p (or 720p) resolution, of which you'd have to pipe the equivalent bandwidth of over wireless-N. On the iPad 2, you only had 1024x768 to deal with. Now you're talking about a LOT more pixels over Airplay.

I'm guessing improved Airplay mirroring is in the works for iOS 6 and iPad 4.

Networking

The current model iPad only has a single-antenna Wireless-N transceiver and has a maximum network throughput of 65Mbps. For 1080p, you’d need at least two antennas and would want to double (or triple) that throughput, and have network performance much closer to what a 5Ghz Wireless-N laptop chipset can achieve.

We haven’t done any throughput testing on the iPad 2 yet, but it would not surprise me if Apple stuck with a similar Wi-Fi transceiver on the new device in order to keep costs down and battery life where it needs to be. Obviously, I still think the iPad 3 would benefit greatly from a dual-antenna design that would permit full Wireless-N at 270Mbps and increased power for longer range signal.

Last year, it completely escaped me to talk about 3G. The 3G version of the iPad 2 apparently uses an integrated transceiver chip set that works on both CDMA and GSM 3G networks. However, unlike the Motorola XOOM and the BlackBerry PlayBook, the iPad 2 is not equipped to run on 4G this year. I’d expect that the iPad 3 will ship with models that support Verizon LTE as well as ATT’s 4G network.

We did end up doing throughput testing, and the iPad 2 ended up having pretty much identical 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz 65Mbps Wireless-N network performance to the iPad 1. There's no indication of whether the Wi-Fi version of the iPad 3 uses a more powerful transceiver or if it is MIMO, like a 2x2 or a 3x3, but it's something we plan to test as soon as we can.

One would hope that it can transmit and receive at double the rates of the iPad 2. If not, this is an area that is going to require serious improvement, particularly when heavy streaming of HD 1080p content is occurring.

The iPad 3 did get 4G LTE on Verizon and AT&T. That much I did get right. I would expect next year's iPad 4 to have more power-efficient versions of the LTE chipsets.

Dock Connector and Charging

This category didn't exist last year or the year before, but it's one that I do find particularly important. The 30-pin connector introduced in the iPad 1 is still in the iPad 3. A less fragile charge connector needs to be introduced, such the quick-disconnect type that is used on the MacBook Pro. Ideally, some type of magnetic induction dock or mat that could be used with both the iPad 4 and the next-generation iPhone would make sense in order to go completely cordless.

There are many other features which I would like to see in the iPad 4, but the ones I’ve described above are the most likely to make an appearance in 2013. What have I left out? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: iPad, Apple, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Processors, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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