Here's the next iPad Pro Apple should build: Specs and speculation

Apple's third-generation iPad Pro, due presumably in June 2018, is likely to have important but incremental improvements over its predecessor and include technologies introduced in the iPhone X.

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

Based on information gleaned from updates in iOS and intelligence coming out of the semiconductor industry at the time, I polished the crystal ball -- in my usual purely speculative way -- of what I thought successive iPads might look like, or the features they should contain.

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I iterated this over the years -- for the third-, fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation of the iPad. Some stuff I got right, some stuff I got wrong.

Typically, I've done this shortly after an iPad's release. This time, I'm going to do it only a few months before, because, up until recently, I didn't think we had enough clues.

Apple announced its new, lower-cost, Apple Pencil-compatible iPad at its education event only a few weeks ago, but it did not announce new iPad Pro models, which have not had a revision since June 2017 and, arguably, have not changed much since September 2016.

So, for the purposes of this article, with WWDC coming up in two months, I would like to concentrate on the iPad Pro models and speculate what features they might contain.

NEXT APPLE IPAD PRO: SENSORS AND CAMERAS

The Touch ID sensor, which has been part of the iPad Pro since its inception in 2015, is likely to make a departure with the introduction of the 10-inch and 12.9-inch models in favor of the Face ID sensor in the iPhone X.

The usability changes on the iPhone X were substantial enough to cause some controversy because it required significant user adaptation.

I would expect that those folks who did not migrate to an iPhone X -- who would be using Face ID for the first time on an iPad Pro -- would endure similar issues, although iOS 11 has undergone enough tweaks in the intervening time period that a lot of the quirks have been sorted out.

I'm still not crazy with the double-click action on the side power button to confirm purchases in the App Store on an iPhone X. I'd probably dislike it even more on an iPad Pro, because you can't do it one-handed, assuming Apple uses the same UX mechanism.

Another issue that goes beyond usability -- and unlearning learned habits with the home button and Touch ID with a Face ID-based iPad Pro -- is how well we can expect Face ID to work on a much larger device that is held further away from the face and in two different orientations.

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I tend to use my iPad Pro most in a landscape orientation, because it is the 12.9-inch model and holding it in a portrait mode is cumbersome. On the 10-inch model, it is less cumbersome, but I still feel that most people tend to use this device in landscape due to how most apps are written to take advantage of the screen real estate.

Placing the Face ID sensor with the front-facing camera on the top of the screen in portrait mode, as it is on the iPhone X would be aesthetically weird, but it would probably still work.

However, if the iPad Pro has the same iPhone X-style "notch" in a similar position on the device, it would likely annoy a lot of users, because it would appear on the right side or the left side of the screen in landscape.

So, I am going to go against convention and say that on the next iPad Pro, the selfie camera and the Face ID sensor will be placed on the top of the screen in a landscape orientation -- not a portrait one.

As to cameras, it's very likely that at least the 12.9-inch SKU of the iPad Pro will inherit the front- and rear-camera configurations of the iPhone X, and that includes the dual 12-megapixel (f/1.8, 28mm) sensor in the rear and 12-megapixel (f/2.4, 52mm) sensor in the front with optical image stabilization (OIS).

NEXT APPLE IPAD PRO: SYSTEM ON A CHIP/CPU/GPU

It is in this area where I believe the most amount of (modest) speculation is going to occur. The fastest chip Apple has right now is the 2.39Ghz 64-bit A11 Bionic, which utilizes a big.LITTLE-style Hexa-core asymmetrical-multiprocessing architecture using two larger "Monsoon" cores and four smaller "Mistral" cores.

The existing A10X in the second-generation iPad Pro utilizes three large "Hurricane" cores and three "Zephyr" cores. While Apple could simply dump the existing A11 into the new iPad Pro, I think they will revision the chip to an A11X, by adding a third Monsoon and a fourth "Mistral" using the existing TSMC 10-nanometer process.

I don't expect 4-4 and 4-6 or 6-6 until the introduction of an A12 or A12X potentially in an ARM-based Mac.

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The A11 in the iPhone X uses the M11 motion chip. I expect there will be an M12 -- but, probably, not until the next iPhone release.

The A11 uses a 3-core custom Apple GPU, which is a departure from the 12-core PowerVR-based architecture on the A10X. I expect that the core count will probably increase, likely to four or six based on display requirements.

I also feel it is safe to assume that the iPad Pro will have modest RAM improvements over the previous model and the iPhone X, which had 3GB LPDDR4X onboard. So, 4GB is probably what we are going to end up with, with 32K Instruction/32K Data of L1 and 8GB of L2 cache, respectively.

NEXT APPLE IPAD PRO: DISPLAY

I believe that the 10-inch version of the iPad Pro is likely to maintain the same or similar screen technology and specifications as the previous version at 1920x1080, but the 12.9-inch is likely to undergo significant improvements.

Currently, the 12.9-inch iPad has a 2732x2048 264ppi screen, which uses Apple's Promotion screen refresh and wide-color display tech. The resolution of the iPad Pro 12.9-inch has not changed since its launch in 2015, so it is due for a change.

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I believe the 2018 iPad Pro 12.9-inch will be the first Apple mobile device to integrate a 4K (3840x2160) resolution screen so that it can consume 4K native content on the iTunes store, which, currently, only some of the highest-end Mac systems and Apple TVs connected to 4K televisions can natively display.

While many of the other improvements described in this article are highly iterative, a 4K display on an iPad Pro would be a significant enhancement and departure from what the product has now, but it would also demonstrate significant value-add and a reason for existing iPad Pro owners to upgrade to a new model.

NEXT APPLE IPAD PRO: AUDIO AND INTEGRATED NETWORKING

As to communications and networking, there have been very strong indications that Apple is going to abandon the Qualcomm modems in favor of Intel modems in the next iPhone.

Given that Apple ships much fewer iPads than iPhones, in order to simplify its supply chain, I see the company testing the waters with this early, and we are likely to see an Intel-only LTE modem in the iPad Pro.

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I also expect to see the same or a similar USI 339S00448 802.11ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi/Bluetooth module, which is used in the lower-cost iPad and was just released along with the same Cirrus Logic CS42L42 audio module.

I also think that, like the iPhones that recently did away with it, we can finally say goodbye to the headphone jack in the iPad Pro. If you are still using wired headphones (like me), it's time to break out that Lightning-to-Mini jack dongle, in case you haven't been using it on both your iPhone and iPad already.

NEXT APPLE IPAD PRO: DOCK CONNECTOR AND CHARGING

This is an area that can go two different ways: Either Apple does nothing different and maintains the status quo by sticking with Lightning and a USB PD-compatible charging interface, or it does something different.

Going with the 7.5W Qi charging, which the iPhone 8 and iPhone X has, is probably out of the question.

We already know what the AirPower looks like, and there doesn't seem to be an easy way to lay an iPad on top of one. It would be totally unbalanced. So, while Apple could equip an iPad with Qi charging, it doesn't appear equipped to do it with its own accessory.

I think it is very likely the updated iPad Pro will maintain the Lightning connector and USB PD from the previous model.

While USB-C-to-USB-C (Thunderbolt) connectivity, as used on the current MacBooks, would be nice and inject some long-term sanity and industry standards into the equation, there are enough people who own both iPhones and iPads that keeping two (or three) different sets of cables would be perceived as annoying.

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It's bad enough that those of us who have iPhone 7s and older phones have to keep USB-A-to-Lightning cables around. Can you imagine, in order to take advantage of the latest fast charge technologies, having to keep USB-C-to-Lightning and USB-C-to-USB-C cables (assuming you don't already do, as a current MacBook owner), as well?

One reason for moving to a USB-C-to-USB-C dock interface would be if Apple decided to fully implement Thunderbolt on an iPad so it could be used as a makeshift workstation with a much larger external display, mouse, keyboard, and an external GPU.

This sounds like a natural evolution for the iPad Pro, particularly if we see device convergence with the Mac, and the company finally decides to take on Microsoft's Surface professional vertical markets. I just don't see that happening this year, though.

What technologies do you think will be introduced into the new iPad Pro? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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