The next generation iPad and what Apple needs to deliver

Summary:Apple's next-generation version of the iPad, presumably due in early 2011, should ship with improvements that make up for the first generation's shortcomings.

Editor's Note: The initial draft of this article was published in July of 2010. It has been updated with current information.

Apple's next-generation version of the iPad, presumably due in early 2011, should ship with improvements that make up for the first generation's shortcomings.

Now that the iPhone 4 has been out in the wild for some time, and many Apple device customers and iPad users are now enjoying the benefits of iOS 4, it is only natural that the armchair tech industry quarterbacks, yours truly included -- have been wondering about what further enhancements to the iPad are in store for 2011.

With the recent iOS 4.2.1 update, the iPad is finally now at OS parity with the current iPhones and iPod Touch devices and finally offers multitasking support. But in terms of actual hardware improvements, what should and could Apple realistically deliver in the next model?

Firstly we can say that right off the bat, the new iPad will almost certainly have the same built-in gyroscope that the iPhone 4 has in addition to the accelerometer. This is a no-brainer addition, as it vastly improves responsiveness and precision control for games and also will permit the creation of even more immersive augmented-reality applications on the tablet.

The second is the question of a front-facing camera and FaceTime. While FaceTime is undoubtedly one of the best features of the iPhone 4 and the iPod Touch 4, it may prove difficult to implement in the iPad without radically changing the existing hardware design and the behavior of FaceTime itself.

The reason being that with the much larger form factor, aiming the camera towards the subject's face is going to be a lot more difficult unless the camera itself is on an adjustable swivel mechanism or is much higher resolution than the iPhone 4's (higher than VGA, such as 2 Megapixels or better).

This is due to the fact that a larger form-factor device such as the iPad is going to be held much further away from the face with regular use than a smartphone due to ergonomic/biomechanical issues and will require the ability to zoom in and crop the facial image without significantly increasing pixelation.

Other tablet devices such as various Androids which have been recently introduced into the market are equipped with front-facing cameras, such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab, but these are about half the size of the iPad and their effectiveness for video chat has yet to be proven.

With above considerations taken into account, a higher-res fixed position camera could work more like a desktop webcam (as the face would be about the same distance away) and could intelligently adjust the field of view and track subject head movement using a digital zoom, much like Logitech's webcam software does on the PC.

This could also possibly be remedied by supplying a snap-on, adjustable webcam accessory for current and future iPad designs through the connector port, but an integrated camera would be a much more desirable feature and more consistent with Apple's streamlined approach.

It should also be stated that the next-generation iPad should be brought to parity or exceed the memory capabilities as its flagship phone counterpart. The iPhone 4 has 512MB of main memory in its A4 Package on a Package (PoP), but the iPad currently only has 256MB, the same as the iPhone 3GS.

Even a typical Android phone such as the Motorola Droid 2 has 512MB of RAM. The new HTC MyTouch 4G has 768MB of RAM. The Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Viewsonic G both have 512MB of RAM and RIM's yet-to-be-released QNX-based  PlayBook has 1GB of RAM.

It is expected that the larger-format Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" tablets which will compete with the iPad 2 when they are eventually released will have a minimum of 1GB of RAM, and some might ship with more.

In my discussions with a number of iOS developers, the 256MB of RAM hard limit on the iPad has made it difficult to code and debug highly exploitable applications for the device -- often resulting in system crashes in multimedia apps which use a lot of graphics and sounds (Such as the X-Plane 9 flight simulator) and has been probably the largest bottleneck in iOS programming.

While I can understand Apple's desire to keep iOS application code tight and not succumb to the potential bloatware nightmares of Windows, I don't see 1GB at a bare minimum being an outrageous amount of memory to supply in the next iPad.

The current 1Ghz A4 System-on-a-Chip (SoC) processor in my opinion, interestingly enough, has been more than ample, but a dual-core and/or higher-clocked version of the chip with more integrated cache and improved integrated PowerVR graphics is probably in the works.

I wouldn't consider these processor improvements a necessity in the next iPad, but it would certainly be nice to see. Certainly, in combination with more RAM, more cores with a higher clock and better graphics performance would allow for more exploitative multitasking iOS 4 apps and better games, and would bring it more in line in terms of pure spec competitiveness with the dual-core RIM PlayBook and forthcoming Tegra 2-based Android tablets.

Next: Displays and Multimedia Enhancements »

The next is the issue of the display on the next-generation iPad, and this is where I think Apple could go down two different paths, depending on what market segment and what features they feel are more important.

It would certainly be possible to do a 9.7" display using the high-density 326 pixel-per-inch "Retina" technology, allowing for the display of true HD video at 720p or higher with an SXGA/UXGA resolution, but doing this might be hard for Apple to keep the entry-level version of the device at a $499.00 price point unless volume manufacturing of this technology improves significantly.

However, should the "Retina" technology become affordable to use in a larger format device, Apple still might want to go in an entirely different direction with the next iPad -- such as by using "Transflective" color LCD technology.

Widespread use of Transflective technology would allow the iPad to be used outdoors in bright sunlight, consume significantly less power and would completely replace E-Ink displays, effectively heralding the end of dedicated e-Reader devices such as the Kindle 3 and the original Nook.

In the summer of 2010, Pixel Qi, the most well-known manufacturer of Transfective LCD screens, released 10.1" 1024x600 parts at developer pricing for $275.00 each.

In addition to Pixel Qi, Qualcomm's Mirasol transfective screens also have potential for a future iPad display.

While such pricing for these next-generation displays at low volumes still makes tablets like the iPad prohibitively expensive, the target price for Q 1M is probably around $100.00 or less per part if Apple and other manufacturers (such as those working on Android tablets) were to make substantial commitments with Pixel Qi, Qualcomm or another manufacturer in Asia working on similar technology.

Still, even with such commitments, ramping up production of these newer Transflective screens (and it's unclear that with these screens, iPad would stay with it's current 4:3 form factor for the next device, since all of them are 16:9) it would take at least another refresh cycle, so we might not see this technology in tablets from Apple until 2012 should the company decide to go this route.

Taking those factors into account, "Retinized" iPads or ones which use a variant of OLED are probably more likely than Transflective technology in 2011.

While a subject that is largely ignored in relation to the iPad, I also happen to think that the device needs a serious audio upgrade. Although I tend to use the device with headphones, I find the speakers  to be anemic in terms of their overall volume and dynamic range -- hopefully the next version will have nicer built-in speakers.

I also think that given the video output capabilities of the latest generation of Android smartphones and Tablets, the next iPad should definitely have a way to output HDMI video, be it using an updated video output accessory (the current VGA kit is next to useless, even with Netflix support in the current software) or even with an actual integrated mini-HDMI port, such as on the Samsung Galaxy Tab or the Archos 101.

Of course, it could be argued by some that the iPad doesn't need HDMI now that it has Airplay in iOS 4.2 to output to a second generation Apple TV, which costs a whole $99.00.

But I would posit that for 1080p output to be viable on a future iPad or even with future versions of AirPlay on a possible third generation Apple TV, you either need a HDMI port or the Wireless-N networking capabilities have to be improved, if not both.

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.

Lastly, there's the issue of memory expansion, which seems to be a hot-button subject with the folks who responded to the original draft of this article over the summer -- the iPad lacks an SD memory card slot, unlike like its Android competitors.

While I'd love to see such a slot implemented in the next design, unlike the other enhancements I spoke of above, it's the one that Apple is least likely to implement, as they have a history of not allowing media to be directly side loaded onto their devices, and I don't expect this policy to change.

There are many other features which I would like to see in the next iPad, but the ones I've described above are absolute requirements in my opinion. What have I left out? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Apple, iPad, Mobility

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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