iPad Air 2 features that are coming your way

When is the updated, 6th-generation version of Apple's flagship tablet coming? All signs point to October or November of 2014. But the real question is not when the product is going to be released, it's what's going to be in it.
By Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
1 of 8 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

iPad Air 2

The iPad Air 2. It's only a year away.

The iPad Air has only just been released, but the rumor mill is already spinning as to what might be in the next-generation version, which is likely to appear in October or November of 2014. Let's have a look at the technologies and features that might make their way into the next version of the product.

Read more about what features could appear in the iPad Air 2 here.

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Industrial Design:More of the same

The iPad Air got a complete design overhaul, mimicking the appearance of the iPad mini by reducing the width of the bezel and dropping a lot of weight by simplifying components in the build. 

Expect the next-generation iPad Air as well as the mini with Retina Display to look a lot like the current one, but next year we're likely to get the Touch ID sensor from the iPhone 5s.

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Display: SHARP IGZO Retina

The iPad Air 2 is likely to have the exact (or nearly the same) display resolution as the iPad Air, the New iPad and iPad 3 that preceded it, at around 2560x1536 pixels.

However, the important changes in this display are going to occur in switching to a different display manufacturing process, referred to as Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide, or IGZO, for short.

IGZO technology was developed by Japanese electronics giant SHARP along with Semiconductor Energy Laboratories. The zinc oxide replaces the silicon used in the amorphous layer in existing TFT displays and has a number of advantages, including a vast increase in electron mobility (over 40 times that of amorphous silicon) resulting in a higher reaction speed over previous technologies.

Moving to IGZO also would mean an even thinner sandwich for the LCD panel and also translating into less weight, as well as improved luminosity and increased power efficiency.

Why do we think Apple is going to IGZO? Because SHARP has announced that as of April of 2012, it would be producing 10" 2560x1600 and 7" 1280x800 IGZO panels in large quantities.

So it would seem iPad Air and iPad mini with Retina Display are both (eventually) getting an IGZO boost.

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Cameras: Increased Megapixel front and rear iSight, with True Tone Flash

It goes without saying that Apple is likely to use a higher-megapixel CMOS in the rear and forward iSight cameras. It would not surprise me to see 8MP in the rear and 2MP in the front, particularly for newer augmented-reality apps as well as high-definition Facetime and possible facial gesture recognition and security enhancements to Siri and iOS 7.x.

Additionally, I expect some improvements in the lens elements to allow for improved image capture in lower-light scenarios, as well as improved image stabilization software and incorporation of the iPhone 5s's True Tone flash.

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System on a Chip: A8

The A7's 64-bit architecture as introduced with the iPhone 5s and the iPad Air was a real shocker, and it leads us to beleive that Apple is heading down a path of platform convergence with their computing products.

However, with Apple facing a lot of competition now from Samsung's home-grown high-performance Exynos 5 processor used in the Nexus 10 and the Galaxy S 4 smartphone, we're likely to even more disruptive improvements in Apple's own silicon with the introduction of the A8.

While the use of a Quad-core SoC design in the iPad Air 2 is likely, we may very well see the A8 conceived as a "hybridized" chip using custom silicon, which might utilize a combination of two  higher-clocked 64-bit cores and two or more smaller, lower-power and slower 64-bit cores, so that applications will run on a "cluster" of cores best suited to their workload, thus making the SoC more energy-efficient.


This hybrid core technology, known as big.LITTLE and licensed by ARM Holdings, could very well make it's way into the A8 in the iPad Air 2 and iPhone 6. Samsung has already announced its own big.LITTLE chip in the form of the Exynos Octa which is used in some international carrier (GSM) versions of the Galaxy S 4.

It also goes without saying that we are also likely to see a 2x or more boost in GPU processor power over the A7, increasingly moving the needle closer to the capabilities of their PC and console counterparts and enabling the most demanding games on tablet hardware. An 8-core GPU design using PowerVR Series 6 technology is not out of the question. 

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Networking: Dual-band 5Ghz 802.11ac / Low-power World Band LTE and Bluetooth 4

The iPad Air saw an improvement over the built-in wireless networking capabilities of the New iPad, the iPad 3 and iPad 2 with a dual spatial stream, dual antenna 802.11a/b/g/n transceiver. This effectively doubles the previous generation's wireless networking speeds from 65Mbps up to 150Mbps, provided the Wi-Fi infrastructure and broadband connection supports it.

We expect that Apple will eventually move to Qualcomm's latest WCN3680 Atheros 80211ac-compatible chipset which will allow the iPad and presumably the next version of the iPhone and Apple TV to communicate using anywhere between two and four spatial streams, enabling the device to transmit and receive data up to 300Mbps to 450Mbps, and with longer range and less power consumption than its predecessors.

802.11ac capability would of course require upgrading to an 802.11ac-compatible wireless router as well as updated Airplay-compatible devices in order to fully take advantage of the new chipset, so presumably a new 4th-generation Apple TV and a new version of the Airport Extreme is also in the offing.

The upside of this increased speed will be much smoother playback of 720p and 1080p streamed Airplay content from the device as well as more responsive, higher-fidelity screen mirroring.

An updated Qualcomm Atheros chipset in the iPad Air 2/iPad mini with Retina Display 2 and iPhone 6 would also mean updated, more power-efficient world phone + multicarrier LTE capability as well as an updated, more power-efficient Bluetooth 4.0 implementation as well.

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Power: Lightning and Magnetic Induction

With the introduction of the iPhone 5, iPad 4 and iPad mini, Apple moved to the new "Lightning" connector and phased out the old 30-pin dock connector, much to the chagrin of many folks with older-style accessories.

But the new Lightning connector has many advantages, such as the ability to charge at higher than 10 Watts, as well as electronic inversion for goof-free insertion. 

Apple introduced a 12-Watt charger with the iPad 4 for faster charging. The iPad Air includes the same charger. It's possible we may see even a higher wattage charger with the iPad Air 2, such as 15 watts, if Apple has made refinements to the technology.

Additionally, it is possible that we may finally see the introduction of Apple's own proprietary magnetic induction charging, incorporated in the form of an updated smart cover accessory, based on recent USPTO patent publication of filings from September 2011, shown in the illustration above.

8 of 8 Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Operating System: iOS 7.x

It's a given that with any major improvement in the iPad, we're going to see improvement in the base operating system.

Given the most recent highly transformational upgrade to iOS 7, it is likely that iOS 7.x or iOS 8 will have incremental but important changes and tweaks introduced in the next-generation iPad and iPhone.

iOS 7 saw introduction of badly-needed changes to the aging, although still-useful and user-friendly UX paradigm along with an updated, cleaner look and feel that eliminatinated of all vestiges of skeumorphism from the OS, as a side-effect of the exit of former iOS chief Scott Forstall from the company back in October of 2012, who was a major proponent of the skeumorph UX ideology.

However, reaction to the new iOS 7 has been a mixed bag, with veteran users in some cases being totally bewildered by the changes. I don't expect Apple to return to their previous skeumorphic design, but some UX refinements based on the customer feedback we've seen over the last few months are likely ito be implemented in order to make the experience less jarring and confusing.

Ever since the release of iOS 6, Apple's competitors have been releasing new and innovative features in their operating systems, such as the advanced multi-tasking and social feeds in BlackBerry OS 10, as well as numerous incremental UI improvements in Android 4.x, and not to mention quick-glance information telemetry with the "Live Tiles" implemented in Microsoft's Modern UI as part of Windows RT, Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8.

Will Apple incorporate any of these ideas from their competitors? It's hard to tell. But Steve Jobs was noted for saying "Good artists copy, Great artists steal."

Read more about what features could appear in the iPad Air 2 here.

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