We knew back in January what it would look like—virtually identical to the iPad 2—yet the key guts of Apple’s next-generation iPad remain at least somewhat mysterious a week before its debut. Certain assumptions can be made with some certainty right now, but there are also a number of questions that remain unanswered. These are some of the things our editors have been discussing in the lead up to the new iPad’s release, and what we will be focusing on in the immediate future.
(1) The Retina Display. It’s a given at this point that Apple has quadrupled the iPad 2’s resolution for the new iPad—four pixels wherever there used to be one—and the results should be remarkable: it would be downright shocking if an iPad Retina Display wasn’t every bit as detailed and colorful as the ones on the iPhone and iPod touch. Whereas a 9.7” 2048×1536 screen was a thing of fantasy only two years ago, it’s now a reality, and should be capable of displaying even full 1080p videos without dropping pixels.
On the other hand, the screen Apple’s using is brand new, so no one’s quite sure yet about factors such as its color gamut, brightness, and viewing angles. It would be great if the new iPad improved upon its predecessor in these regards, but there are no guarantees due to the novelty of the display, and Apple may have had to compromise a little when sourcing the part. If it has, the new iPad’s suitability for certain applications—photo editing, to name just one—might suffer. It’s also unclear whether Apple will change the coatings on the front glass to reduce fingerprint oils and reflectivity, or improve the screen’s visibility outdoors, all issues that remained from iPad to iPad 2.
(2) The Chips. The performance leap between the first two iPads was non-trivial—the iPad 2’s dual-core A5 CPU and 7-9X more powerful graphics processor took iOS gaming to new heights, enabling developers to improve the polygon counts, textures, and shading of 3-D objects. And the extra speed also made AirPlay Screen Mirroring possible with the Apple TV. It was such a big jump, seemingly out of nowhere, that the one-year-old iPad soon looked underpowered.
No conclusive evidence has yet established whether Apple will use a modestly modified A5 or a considerably upgraded A6 chip in the next iPad, but unlike last year’s model, a big jump in performance will be necessary just to power the new display—and even after that jump, users might actually see frame rate dips in Retina Display-ready games. Arguably more important than whether the new iPad will be dual-core or quad-core is how comfortably Apple has equipped the new iPad with RAM; game developers have often knocked past platforms for picking the right CPU and GPU, then starving them for memory to make proper use of the hardware. We have our fingers crossed that Apple has made the same sort of smart choices here as it has with its prior iOS devices, but with a new screen, all bets are off.
(3) Pricing. Apple’s $499/$599/$699 price points for the iPad and iPad 2—along with premiums for 3G versions—have been hard for rivals to match with even nearly equivalent products, and it’s highly unlikely that the company will completely abandon a pricing matrix that’s been working so well since 2010. If anything, Apple will try to drop the entry price of the iPad family further, undercutting competitors with a more affordable iPad 2, just as it has done with the iPhone family.
That said, rumors have suggested that Apple may increase the price of the new iPad to offset its costs in sourcing improved components—and possibly higher labor costs at its contract manufacturers. While we would normally consider a higher price impossible, it would be very easy for Apple to justify by forking the family into “low-end iPad 2” and “high-end iPad 3” versions. iPads could “start at $399” and become more expensive from there; if you want the hot new technology, you have to pay a little more for it.
(4) Siri. The addition of Siri to the iPhone 4S was one of several signature features that people have hoped would trickle down to all of Apple’s other devices. But it mightn’t, at least this year. Apple conspicuously left Siri’s predecessor “Voice Control” completely out of the iPad and iPad 2, despite including it within everything from the iPhone 3GS to the iPod touch.
Siri relies on dual-microphone noise-canceling technology to properly understand voices, and as we’ve noticed through testing, begins to fall in accuracy when used over Bluetooth. Additionally, Siri requires an “always on” Internet connection, which iPhones have but iPads do not. Apple may have improved the microphone and related hardware inside the new iPad; it might also be comfortable enough with Siri’s robotic and now well-known “can’t access the Internet right now” apologies that it won’t limit the feature solely to iPhones. However, no leaks of a Siri interface for the iPad have appeared, and we’ve seen no evidence of a second microphone hole like the one on the iPhone 4/4S, which make this one pretty iffy.
(5) Camera Resolutions. It’s probably no coincidence that the camera lens hole on the new iPad’s back is the same size as the iPhone 4S’s—at a bare minimum, Apple is improving the rear camera by letting it gather more light. But there’s no guarantee that it will use the same 8-Megapixel sensor as the iPhone 4S, particularly given that Apple has previously picked disappointingly poor cameras for iPod touches and iPads. Apart from user complaints, the single biggest factor that will push Apple to improve iPad front and rear camera performance is how poor low-resolution images and videos will look on the new Retina Display; FaceTime HD (720p) on the front and 1080p video recording on the rear seem to be a lock.
(6) Capacities. Higher-resolution screens demand higher-resolution art and videos, which demand higher storage capacities. Yet Apple has not always obliged this need with higher-capacity devices right away. It took until the release of the iPhone 4S for Apple to introduce a 64GB model—18 months after it shipped the first iPhone with a Retina Display—so it’s unclear whether a 128GB iPad is coming soon. On the other side of the spectrum, Apple has shown a willingness to sell very capacity-restricted devices at low prices, and could release an 8GB iPad 2 at an entry level price. We suspect that 16GB is going to remain the capacity floor for iPads, and possibly will be restricted to the iPad 2, but we wouldn’t put money on this.
(7) Battery Power. Apple can easily shrink almost any device from generation to generation just by reducing the size of its battery, so it’s very telling that the new iPad is slightly thicker than its predecessor. Only time will tell whether the battery has gotten bigger or remains the same—crowded by other new components, such as the screen. Our suspicion is that Apple was unwilling to compromise the iPad’s 10-hour battery life for the sake of slimness, however, a lot will depend on how power-hungry the CPU and GPU are this time, as well as the cellular hardware Apple has selected for 4G/LTE support.
(8) Bluetooth 4 + NFC. While the addition of a Bluetooth 4 / Bluetooth Smart chip is a near-certainty, given that it has appeared in newer Macs and the iPhone 4S, near-field communication hardware is a big question mark. Rumors have suggested for more than a year that Apple was working on ways to let its devices be used for wireless payments at stores, but it’s remained unclear as to which devices—if any—would get the feature. The iPhone is a natural, but the iPad would be a modest stretch for NFC to make its debut. This isn’t to say it’s not going to happen.
(9) 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The next big wireless standard is 802.11ac, and as high-definition video bandwidth continues to grow, the demand for more powerful routers and devices will, too. Unlike pocket devices, which will be challenged to add the antennas and other hardware necessary to support 802.11ac, the new iPad could pull this off. That said, while it’s not impossible, we think it’s unlikely, given that 802.11ac chips are still in very early production at this point. Our best guess is that this will wait for the fourth-generation iPad next year.
(10) Full HD AirPlay Screen Mirroring. One of the bigger surprises in Apple’s developer preview of OS X Mountain Lion was that Apple conspicuously announced AirPlay Screen Mirroring with 720p resolution—a restriction that has been okay for the sub-720p iPad 2 and iPhone 4S, but might not work as well for higher-resolution Macs, say nothing of the next iPad’s 2048×1536 apps. Since there’s no HDTV on the market that can display all of those pixels, Apple’s definitely going to have to downsample the new iPad’s screen to share it on common televisions, but is it going to fall back to 720p, or try for a more powerful—and bandwidth-hungry—1080p stream? We’ll have to see, but based on the best information we’ve gathered, a 1080p-ready third-generation Apple TV should be available very soon.
Several Questions We Don’t Have: Things That Are Basically Guaranteed
(1) Home Button Changes. The Home Button was one of the first iPad 3 parts to leak out of factories. There’s a hole in the glass for a Home Button. It’s going to be there, and basically indistinguishable from its predecessors.
(2) New Dock Connector. Changes to the universal 30-pin connector for iPads, iPhones, and iPods have been rumored for years. They’re not going to start with the new iPad.
(3) Unified Wi-Fi/3G Models. We’ve been hoping that Apple would get the costs down for 3G hardware enough that it could just switch to a single iPad model with cellular service as an option. But there’s a high likelihood that the new iPad will launch with LTE support, and we’ve already seen leaked shells for separate Wi-Fi-only and cellular models. 3G/4G will continue to sell at a premium for the time being.
(4) Color Choices. There will still be white and black versions to choose from.
(5) Smart Covers. They’ll still work with the iPad 3, and match the unchanged dimensions of the front glass.
Do you have next-generation iPad questions that remain unresolved in your mind? We’d like to read them—feel free to share them in the comments section below!