The iPad Air 2 and what Apple needs to deliver

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.

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TOPICS: Apple, iPad, Tablets
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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 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.

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23 comments
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  • Waste of pixels

    There are way too many pixels invested in writing or debating about the iPad. The iPad is nothing more or less than a good tablet that showed to way to the others. Since then, many other tablets came out that are as good or even better. I understand the adoration that some users might have about it. I don't share this adoration and honestly, from the outside of the Apple circle of “abductees”, this post is pretty much useless.
    gbouchard99@...
    • And yet...

      You not only took the time to read the article, but also logged on and commented!

      I guess you must really enjoy bashing Apple. Which is pretty sad really...
      Christo the Daddyo
    • Never once logged into a site to trash Samsung

      I am not sure why Apple haters/idiots would spend their time, reading write-ups about Apple, create an account, sign in and trash Apple. I never once log into anywhere to trash crapDroid or "Samesung". I love Apple because Apple makes great products. These idiots trash Apple simply because they are just idiots.

      These idiots keep saying how Apple products are the same year after year, and yet they see all the lines formed around the world and the insane numbers unit sold are still somehow not real to these idiots. They must realize at some points, you are an idiot and there is a simple reason why no one EVER lined up for anything other than Apple stuff.

      So, quit it already. We get it that you don't have the money to buy high quality Apple gears. We get it that you are bitter. Just don't show me how stupid you are. Just go away.
      Plogpower
      • Ipad air

        I didn't have an awful lot of money spare. Christmas is coming two kids to buy for. But my ipad 2 has seen better days. I nearly and I repeat nearly bought a Samsung tablet. It was either a tablet with a lot of memory or the ipad air with 16gb. I went for the ipad as I know with apple I will be buying a device that will last me for a while. My ipad 2 is still going strong since release day.
        My son has a Samsung tablet. Less than a year old that has just completely stopped working. He's hardly used it. I use mine everyday. Now I'm trying to get Samsung to repair or replace it.
        With apple when my iPhone 4 broke after 8 months it was repalced in store. That's why I stick with apple.
        Tracey Cross
  • We're worried about what Apple should do in 12 months?

    Why not just enjoy the products they just put out the other day?
    William.Farrel
  • Job 1 at apple , find more buzz words for products/features

    meanwhile products stay the same.
    everss02
  • No IGZO display?

    I guess this article is wrong then...

    http://www.macrumors.com/2013/11/05/apples-ipad-air-adopts-igzo-technology-for-thinner-lower-power-displays/
    Christo the Daddyo
    • A single third-party analysis does not the truth make

      I would like to see multiple analyses along with a electron microscope imaging of the component to validate that.
      jperlow
      • A miracle didnt happen

        You cant just cut the leds in half, either IGZO was used or LTPS. That being said it would be nice indeed to have confirmation from another source.
        herbapou
  • Get a life!

    What exactly is the purpose of this article? And why all the, "nobody saw that coming at all", and "wow, we really missed on this one" comments? And now you have seen it, and it has come, in what way has any of this changed your life, Jason?
    Spindlebox
    • Do you know how bloggers get paid?

      Your comment suggests otherwise. Bloggers get paid on their page views, and having a number of articles that are likely to come up while somebody is searching for things on their new iPad air is a good way to get them. When a new iPad is released it is a large media event, and it is a good idea to write a post on a blog if you have a blog on the new iPad unless it is a android blog or a Samsung blog.
      JJSCHMITTY
  • I doesn't really matter what they put in their next gen

    It doesn't make any difference what these devices get, because the Apple buyers will buy this stuff regardless. Seriously they can do anything or pretty much nothing and it won't matter at all. Everything will still sell like hotcakes, so why would they waste their profits putting a bunch of major improvements in their devices. They can do minor incremental improvements and the Apple people will fawn all over it and perceive it to be the most amazing, stunning technical achievement ever.
    j-mccurdy@...
    • Happy now?

      N/T
      kenosha77a
    • Thanks

      Yes we are just a bunch of mindless zombies that dwell at the sight of apples, the logo or the real thing...

      Imo geeks that think stacking a bunch of specs in a box will result in a better product are a bunch of fails. The end result and user experience is what counts in the end.
      herbapou
    • Really...

      Some of us actually like the hardware upgrades that we get in our new Apple devices. I used to have a iPad 2 and I upgraded to the air. The new iPad air is very much so faster than the iPad too, and the screen is better, which is partly why I bought it. Are you suggesting that we get some other answered device instead? Even if said android device does not fit our needs as well?
      JJSCHMITTY
  • Apple never does a full technology upgrade on their models1

    Apple just does what it considers to be competitive and leaves out a lot of stuff until their competitors do it and Apple just reaction and put it in the next generation's line up. That Apple way of being competitive these days - to match their competitors offerings.

    But it seems to be a sound business practice. Sales are up and profits are good.
    Harry_Wild
  • But Apple isn't exactly meeting the competition with their upgrades

    also with the exception of iPhones, sales are down, as are profits and marketshare with revenue being flat YoY.

    Apple used to be the trend setter and front runner in everything mobile. Now they are lagging behind to the point the tech journalists that used to fawn over whatever Jobs revealed have turned to writing articles hoping the next version of the device will have the things the brand new device doesn't have.

    While all the points James goes over above sound great on paper the odds are that an average user isn't going to have any noticable change between the iPad3-4-5 except for the weight. The "experience" hasn't changed is years and that is a hard pill to swallow starting at $500 + accessories.
    Emacho
    • The experience certainly has changed during the past 3 iPad years.

      I will cite just one example out of thousands I could mention. It concerns apps written by cable or Telcom corporations for their content viewing on the iPad.

      I myself have DirecTV and it's iOS app allows me to stream on-demand or other DirecTV content to my iPad 3. Verizon, Comcast and AT&T's U-verse have similar apps supporting similar capabilities.

      That's just one example from thousands.

      First comes the hardware and then the software that takes advantage of the hardware capabilities. The newly incorporated M7 chip should start a whole new experience for iPad users although I suspect that chip will prove more beneficial for iPad mini users because the mini is far more of a mobile device than the 10 inch iPad model.
      kenosha77a
  • Next Year - the iPad Vacuum

    They reduce the component weight so much that it's not even as heavy as Air - it's the Vacuum.

    Has an optional Roomba accessory - slip your iPad Vacuum into a slot, and, well, it really IS a vacuum.
    daboochmeister
  • I'm not an Apple fan...

    ...but the new devices are pretty nifty. I work in IT, and there are two types of IT folks where I work: Those that are real IT folks who work in the weeds - engineering types, who all have Android... and those IT folks that are less geeky who like flash - who all have Apple.

    I loved my iPad, until I was introduced to my Asus Transformer TF700. If you sit and put down your affinity for Apple - and actually do an active point by point comparison, I think you'll drop the expensive Apple product. I also loved my iPhone 4S until I was introduced to an HTC DNA.

    The difference is stunning.

    I like Apple products, they are flashy, trendy, and cool.... but I love my tablet and DNA. They provide me a better experience in every aspect.

    Apple is losing traction and producing components (like the camera for example) that are substandard isn't helping them.

    If they want to rock the market, they need to amp it up. I'd go back to them if they (in my mind) could compete.

    JMHO
    YehudahGriffin