The 5th Generation iPad and what Apple needs to deliver

Summary:Apple's fifth generation iPad, due presumably in early 2014, really needs to up the ante on what is widely considered to be a very incremental improvement over the iPad 3.

 

ipad5-techbroiler

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 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". 

This was further refined in an early 2012 article about the iPad 4, with the expectation that it would ship in early 2013. 

Boy, did we mis-read the tea leaves on that one.

The iPad 4, or rather "The new 4th-Generation iPad with Retina display" is now here, a mere seven months after the "The new iPad" or iPad 3 was released.

Some of what I thought would be in the new model did actually come to fruition, but this time around, because of the much shorter time between product refreshes, what we really got was more of an "iPad 3S", or a generation 3.5 iPad, as well as a miniaturized iPad 2, in the form of the iPad Mini. 

The iPad 3 was already an amazing feat of technology and consumer electronics engineering, so to expect Apple to break a lot of new ground with the iPad 4 was probably a stretch, especially since what we're really looking at here is a very incremental improvement, particulary if you already own an iPad 3.

I'm planning on purchasing an iPad 4, but only because I write about technology and I wil be deferring some of the cost by selling my existing device. If you already own an iPad 3, you might want to think about waiting another year, because I don't think the improvements really justify the purchase.

In the 5th version of the iPad as well as with the second generation iPad mini, Apple is going to have to step up its game, or risk an leaving an opening in their dominant market share for hungry competitors to exploit such as Samsung, who are going to compete on value, with displays of similar or superior resolution and pixel density, such as with the rumored Nexus 10 due to be announced on the 26th.

Let’s go through last year’s predictions about various anticipated features in the iPad 4 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 5.

Gyroscope

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."


At this point in the iPad's evolution it's a given that the device is going to have more or less the same gyroscopic component as the comparable generation iPhone. While there hasn't been an iPad 4 or iPad mini teardown yet, I'd be surprised if the gyroscopic component is any different than what exists on the iPhone 4S or iPhone 5.

Cameras

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.

This was a bit of a mixed bag. iPad 4 and the iPad Mini both got an improved front-facing camera that is 720p capable for doing HD Facetime and Skype video sessions. However, they both have the same 5MP iSight rear camera. I think that it would be nice if the iPad 5 and iPad Mini achieved rear camera parity with the iPhone 5, but we'll have to see. The iPad 4 apparently has some form of image stabilization in the rear camera when taking video, so we'll see how that shakes out. Shakes out... GET IT?

If we see what the Nokia folks are doing with their Lumia 920 Windows Phone 8 handset and their PureView technology, there's definitely some interesting things that can be done with the image processing software/camera app in iOS, even if the megapixel count doesn't get bumped up next year. 

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

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.

Well, we didn't get the quad-core CPU in the iPad 4, since it likely utilizes a similar dual-core design the iPhone 5's A6, but Apple claims that the A6X is twice as fast as the A5X in the iPad 3. Nobody has put the A6X SoC under a scanning-tunnelling electron microscope yet, and there haven't been GPU benchmarks on it yet, but I wouldn't surprised if we see six or eight (or hell, twelve) distinct GPU cores instead of the A6's three in the iPhone 5.

Given that this year's iPad 4 is really an iPad 3.5 or a "3S", if there's room for a quad-core CPU in the A8 or A8X, it will be in next year's model.

But Apple is going to have to really put their heads together to keep the iPad 5 from heating up like the iPad 3 does when doing heavy gaming. Come to think of it, I really hope the iPad 4's A6X runs cooler than its predecessor, the A5X.

The iPad mini uses a dual-core A5 that is very similar to what is used in the iPad 2. If the Mini gets a retina display in 2014, it will need a variant of the A6 or the A5X. The Mini is literally a big iPhone.

Display


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.

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.

So as far as we can tell, nothing has changed with the iPad 4 display. It seems to be the identical iPad 3 part. It's obvious that Apple has been able to keep the supply chain pumping out screens, but next year could be challenging given that it seems likely Samsung is going to terminate its display manufacturing contract with Apple at some point in the near future (this, despite denying accusations) and is at least one of the primary sources producing the screens for the iPad. 

While the current iPad 4 display resolution is probably good for at least 2 more generations, minor improvements such as better luminosity, outdoor readability and power efficiency might be good tweaks to put in iPad 5.

iPad Mini 2 will almost certainly have a retina display of some type in late 2013 or early 2014.

Audio

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.


So, we did get Siri in the iOS 6 update for the iPad 3, which was released only a month ago. But it doesn't look like we got stereo speakers in iPad 4 like the new 13" Macbooks that were recently announced. Same speaker as last time.

Next year: STEREO SPEAKERS. Got it, Apple?

Video Output

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.

So, the Airplay implementation in iOS 6 doesn't appear to be greatly improved over iOS 5, but let's face it, the iPad 2 and iPad 3 still only had that anemic 1x1 Wi-Fi transciever with a single spatial stream, so it's not like it had the bandwidth to push anything better than 720p.

The networking on the iPad 4 has improved, but if we really want to drive silky smooth 720p or even 1080p output on an Apple TV over Airplay, we're going to need much faster wireless networking than what is in the iPad 4 and also the current generation of Apple TVs.

Networking

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.

The iPad 4 now has "2x faster WiFi connectivity" with 802.11 a/b/g/n so we have to presume it is a true 2x2 MIMO device with 130Mbps maximum throughput using 2 spatial streams and possibly some increased range.

However, the Apple TV 3, despite having 2 antennae and 1080p capability, still can only transmit and receive at 65Mbps, using a single spatial stream, at the maximum speed of the iPad 3 and iPad 2. Presumably, an updated Apple TV 4 is in the works to take advantage of the iPad 4's improved networking.

802.11ac routers and compatible bridge/home networking devices have only just been released, so I think it is unrealistic to expect this spec to appear in iPad 5. But you never know.

The LTE in the iPad 4 is almost certainly the same Qualcomm chipset that is in the iPhone 5, so it should be world capable and will run on all the major LTE networks in the US. Next year, we should see some better power efficiency from the next generation of that chipset in the iPad 5.

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.

Less fragile dock connector? Yay LIGHTNING CONNECTOR! Magnetic induction charging? That's a miss, but maybe we'll see it next year.

There are many other features which I would like to see in the iPad 5, but the ones I’ve described above are the most likely to make an appearance in early 2014. What have I left out? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, iPad, 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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