The iPad Air 2 and what Apple needs to deliver

Summary:Apple's sixth-generation iPad, due presumably in October 2014, is likely to have important but incremental improvements over its predecessor.

In July 2010, I wrote The next-generation iPad and what Apple needs to deliver.

ipadair2
Image: ZDNet; Apple

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 the iPad 2 might look like or the features it should contain.

In the sixth version of the iPad, as well as with the third-generation iPad mini, Apple will need to maintain a balance between introducing significant new features and iterative improvements, while keeping its technological edge over hungry competitors.

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

This was further refined in an early 2012 article about the iPad 4, and then another one year ago in October 2012, a mere seven months after the third-generation iPad was released.

The fifth-generation iPad, or rather the "iPad Air", is now here, one year after the fourth-generation "New iPad" release.

The "New iPad" was already an amazing feat of technology and consumer electronics engineering, but it was only an incremental improvement on the iPad 3. So it was expected that Apple really had to pull out the stops and land some significant improvements with its fifth-generation product, which clearly it has done by reducing its weight and vastly improving processor performance with its 64-bit A7 SoC.

In the sixth version of the iPad, as well as with the third-generation iPad mini, Apple will need to maintain a balance between introducing significant new features and iterative improvements, while keeping its technological edge over hungry competitors that are going to compete on value and performance, as well as with displays of similar or superior resolution and pixel density.

Let's go through last year's predictions about various anticipated features in the iPad Air to find out where the hits and misses were, and to see whether there is room for improvement in any of these areas that could make their way into the next-generation iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina display.

Sensors

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.

Gyroscopes are clearly so 2011 and 2012. It's now all about the sensor co-processor, the M7, which was introduced with the iPhone 5s. Nobody saw that one coming at all.

It's a safe bet that the M7x or M8, or whatever it chooses to call it, will have some additional sensor improvements, perhaps things like the light sensor and the GPS. Today, the M7 collects data from integrated accelerometers, gyroscopes, and compasses, and offloads the collecting and processing of sensor data from the A7, the 64-bit SoC.

In the sixth-generation iPad, potentially, we're looking at integration of the Mx co-processor component into the Ax processor, to reduce overall components in the BOM.

The iPhone 5s also got the way-cool Touch ID sensor, but the iPad Air and mini did not.

Next year: Expect next year's iPad Air and mini with Retina display to get Touch ID.

Cameras

The 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 Nokia is doing with its Lumia 920 Windows Phone 8 handset and 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.

So there were some interesting developments here. The iPhone 5s ended up getting a minor camera upgrade from the iPhone 5 in terms of the actual sensor, but no improvement on the optics. However, the true-tone LED flash was a nice addition.

That being said, there's no apparent changes to the glass or the sensors on the front and rear-facing cameras on the iPad this year, we've still got the same or similar 1.2MP and 5MP parts. We also don't get the cool LED flash from the 5s.

However, based on real-life tests, it appears that the inclusion of the A7 processor and better built-in camera software may have improved imaging performance for the iSight camera, although not in low-light situations.

Next year: Better rear-facing and forward-facing camera, and the flash part from the 5s.

System on a chip/CPU/GPU

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

But the Apple staffers are 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.

Wow, we really missed on this one. Nobody expected the A7 to be a dual-core 64-bit CPU, and nobody expected the mini to get a Retina display with the same resolution as its larger sibling. Both products use the A7 to drive all those pixels, so the products are at SoC parity with the iPhone 5s.

However, I think the natural evolution of the A-series SoC is to be a quad-core chip, potentially utilizing a variant of ARM's big.LITTLE architecture as used in Samsung's Exynos in order to conserve battery power.

Next year: Hybrid-Multicore 64-bit architecture.

Display

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 that 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 two more generations, minor improvements such as better luminosity, outdoor readability, and power efficiency might be good tweaks to put in the iPad 5.

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

A bit of a mixed bag this year. It has the same resolution, which was to be expected. But we got a thinner component sandwich and a reduction of LEDs , which has contributed to reducing the iPad's girth a lot, allowing it to brandish the new "Air" moniker. However, there have been no apparent improvements in luminosity or outdoor readability.

IGZO would have been really nice to have, but we (probably) didn't get it this year.

[Editor's note: An independent analysis by DisplayMate claims Apple has moved to IGZO on the current-generation iPad Air, which would yield improved electron mobility and lower power consumption, but this has not been confirmed yet.]

The current component is still really good, but it's starting to lag behind competitors like the one on the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9.

Next year: Next-generation Sharp IGZO display.

Audio

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-inch Macbooks that were recently announced. It has the same speaker as last time.

Next year: Stereo speakers. Got it, Apple?

This year, we actually got the stereo speakers. I guess Apple listened to me.

I say next year, we get it to push the envelope and include a dedicated subwoofer radiator for low-frequency bass. Maybe even get Sonos to design it.

Video output and networking

The iPad 2 and iPad 3 still only had that anemic 1x1 Wi-Fi transceiver 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.

However, the Apple TV 3, despite having two antennas and 1080p capability, can still 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.

So in summary, we ended up with an iPad Air with a 2x2 MIMO spatial stream, which is a nice improvement from the 1x1 in the previous model and should be able to support 130Mbps to 140Mbps transmission, although to support AirPlay at those speeds on a current-generation Apple TV, you are going to have to hardwire it using Ethernet.

And, as predicted, there's no 802.11ac chipset.

The power efficiency of the LTE chipset in the iPad Air and iPhone 5s has yet to be fully vetted, but it looks like a decent improvement so far.

Next year: 802.11ac.

Dock connector and charging

A less-fragile dock connector? Yay, Lightning connector! Magnetic induction charging? That's a miss, but maybe we'll see it next year.

There are no apparent changes in the charger itself this year; it appears to be the same 12w adapter as we had last year, so there's no indication of what the upper limit of the Lightning connecter can actually handle yet, although it is possible that we have reached the limit.

Next year: Magnetic induction? Please? Pretty please?

There are many other features that I would like to see in the iPad Air 2, but the ones I've described above are the most likely to make an appearance in October 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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