Thursday, June 20, 2024

iPad 3: Facts vs. Rumors

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The iPad 3 is coming, and as with all new Apple releases, the anticipation is at fever pitch. There’s crazy levels of hype and speculation leading up to the official unveiling.

Apple has finally sent out invites to the iPad 3 unveiling, at which point we will be formally introduced to the next-generation Apple tablet. However, in the meantime there’s more than enough rumor and speculation to keep us going.

With probably a little more than a week to go before we actually know what the iPad 3 will bring, let’s take some time to look at the rumors (some sensible, some crazy) that have been making the rounds over the past few weeks.

Retina display

The iPhone has had a ‘retina display’ since the release of the iPhone 4, so it is now expected that the iPad will get its own pixel bump. Most of the rumors indicate a two-fold increase in the pixel density of the LCD panel, from the current 1024 x 768 to 2048 x 1536.

Note: Apple calls the iPhone 4 and 4S screen ‘retina display‘ because the pixel density is so high your eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels.

This rumor’s been around for a while. In fact it’s been making the rounds since before the iPad 2 launched. Some pundits were so convinced that the iPad 2 would have a retina display that when it was released without one the rumor then morphed into speculating that Apple would go ahead and release the iPad 3 before the end of 2011 (this didn’t happen).

While this is probably the most compelling iPad 3 rumor circulating, I have problems accepting it as real. First, while an upscaled 2048 x 1536 panel would certainly be nice to look at, it’s an incredibly high pixel density for what is still a small LCD panel. That creates a number of problems.

One problem it would introduce is that 1080 HD video would be displayed in a restricted letterbox format that wouldn’t even fill the whole screen. Standard definition video would be even worse unless it was upscaled. A retina display panel could be made to work, but it would be ugly and in some cases would actually result in a worse end user experience than the current iPad offers.

Another problem is power. Doubling the number of pixels the system has to juggle would demand a much beefier GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) than currently in the iPad 2. And a beefier GPU means a greater demand placed on the battery.

Combine this with the heaver power demands of a retina display screen and it could have a very significant negative impact on overall battery life. Apple would need to either significantly increase the power density of the iPad’s current battery pack, or bite the bullet and cram a bigger battery into the unit (possibly by making it thicker).

There are also cost and supply chain issues to take into consideration. Can Apple get high density panels in at a price that will not significantly affect profit margins? And can the supply chain keep up with the inevitable heavy demand for panels (especially given that the higher the density of the panel, the higher failure rate when manufacturing)?

I’m not convinced that the iPad 3 will ship with a retina display screen, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Quad core processor

More CPU cores are better, right? So it makes sense that the iPad 3 will have a quad-core processor, especially since the first-generation iPad had a single-core processor, and the iPad 2 was fitted with dual-core silicon.

A quad-core CPU would certainly give developers more power to play with, but in order to be able to make full effect of this, existing apps would need to be rewritten. Depending on how well Apple puts together its SDK (Software Development Kit) then this could be simple or complex.

But the real issue related to a quad-core CPU isn’t related to the apps. Instead, it’s down to having to run off of a finite power source.

There’s also no doubt that a beefier CPU would put a significant dent in battery life, so once again Apple is in a position where it is having to balance making the iPad more powerful against keeping battery life at an acceptable level. Both the first-generation iPad and the iPad 2 had a battery rated for 10 hours of usage. So I’d be surprised if Apple deviated from this figure with the iPad 3.

This means that the boffins at Apple are going to have to find more precious Watts from somewhere. Components that are more efficient will no doubt help, but it’s hard to see how a quad-core CPU (especially if combined with a retina display screen and a more powerful GPU) won’t need to be backed up by a bigger battery.

Then last week the rumors relating to the iPad 3’s processor took an interesting twist when a photo surfaced on the Chinese forum WeiPhone purporting to be the new main board showing a processor (or more accurately, an SoC or System on a Chip) with A5X markings.

Most of the rumors relating to a quad-core part had suggested it would be called A6. A5X suggested a revised A5 processor rather than new part. If the photo was real (and I still have my doubts about it) then it seemed that the iPad 3 wasn’t going to have a quad-core CPU after all.

Another rumor to the rescue … this time in the form of code snippets from the iOS 5.1 beta, which suggested that Apple has added support for two new processors, codenamed S5L8945X and S5L8950X. The original A4 chip in the iPad was called codenamed  S5L8930X, while the A5 chip in the iPad 2 was S5L8940X.

This suggests that the S5L8945X could be an updated A5 processor, and that the S5L8950X is the new A6. Does this indicate for sure that Apple has two new iPad 3 processors in the pipeline?

No, it doesn’t. In fact, there are a number of reasons why Apple might do this. Apple might indeed be planning to release two flavors of iPad, each with different processors. But maybe these references are for development purposes, or maybe these codes don’t refer to iPad processors at all, but instead they’re for other devices that can run iOS.

I think that a faster processor in the iPad 3 is a given, and if Apple can squeeze in quad-core silicon, so much the better.


One of the key selling points of the iPhone 4S has been the built-in Siri voice assistant that lets you ask her (or him, depending on your country) all sorts of cool things. For instance, what the weather’s going to be like, details about upcoming appointment or even for suggestions on where to hide a dead body.

Given the popularity of Siri on the iPhone 4S, I think that it’s a no-brainer to suggest that the iPad 3 will come equipped with Siri. It’s just too good of a feature to pass up.

Better camera

There are a couple of rumors floating around with respect to the cameras on the iPad 3. One says that the camera will be upgraded to be 1080p capable, like the camera on the iPhone 4S, and another says we can expect the camera to feature image stabilization (again, an iPhone 4S feature).

I think there’s no doubt that the iPad 3 will have a camera that’s just as good as the current iPhone 4S.

LTE support

LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and it’s the next-generation of high-speed data wireless communication for mobile phones. In theory LTE sounds great – after all, faster is better, right? Problem is, it has two significant drawbacks.

The first comes down once again to power consumption. While LTE modems have become more power efficient, LTE is still a massive power hog, and adding it to the iPad 3 would put even more pressure on the battery pack.

Even if Apple manages to get its hands on a power-efficient LTE chipset, it’s still not that much of a compelling sell. LTE might be the latest buzzword among the carriers and handset makers, but the technology is only available to a small percentage of users. And for many of them it’s no faster than current generation technologies.

What’s the point of paying for technology that you can’t take advantage of?

Redesigned case

I’ve come across all sorts of iPad 3 case rumors. Some say it will be thinner, others more curved, and others say Apple is going to make it fatter in order to be able to fit in a bigger battery.

Case rumors always seem to be way off the mark, partly because case makers who are being sold fake blanks themselves in order to make molds are fueling the rumor mill.

Redesigned dock connector

We’ve established that if Apple adds more features to the iPad (and for that matter, the iPhone), the battery is somehow going to have to get bigger. One way to do this without affecting the overall size of the device is to miniaturize the components. Problem is, most of them are about as small as they’re going to get already.

However, there is one component that could be miniaturized – the dock connector.

The only real drawback of miniaturizing the dock connector would be that all current accessories would be dead in the water (unless they could be made to work via some kind of adaptor). This might seem like a deal breaker until you realize that you can never guarantee that an accessory built for one iOS device will work on new devices anyway.

It might make it harder for manufacturers to who make things like docks because they’re have to somehow cater for two different connectors, but again that’s not an insurmountable problem.

That said, I still think that the next-generation iPad will have the standard dock connector.

NFC support

There have been rumors that both the iPhone and the iPad were going to be NFC-capable for some time now. Many see NFC as revolutionizing contactless payments and authentication, and claim that iDevices are being left behind if they don’t have this feature baked into them.

Problem is, NFC, or at least the idea behind NFC, isn’t new. It’s the latest in a long line of ideas that never really took off. The problem with contactless technologies like NFC is that they really don’t make life any easier. How is it any easier to whip out your smartphone than it is to whip out a credit card or ID?

The overall advantage that NFC offers is small, and because of this, I find it unlikely that Apple will add NFC to the iPad 3 (or for that matter the iPhone 5).

iPad Mini

Rumors abound that Apple has plans for a mini iPad, perhaps with a 7- or 8-inch screen. These rumors claim that this move is in response to the overwhelming success of Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet.

Setting aside the fact that Apple rarely does anything as a reaction to what another company does, the biggest problem with small screened tablets is that they … well … suck, and offer a disappointingly poor user experience.

Not only are they more prone to tap errors because the UI (user interface) elements are smaller, but they also suffer because content for mobile devices is optimized for either smartphones or tablets with screens in the region of 10-inches.

I think that it is highly unlikely that Apple will release an iPad Mini.

3D display

Another nonsense rumor.

Would Apple want to shove a 3D display into a tablet? Everyone dabbling with 3D ends up losing money because consumers don’t want 3D, especially the crazy, magic-eye sort of 3D that’s on devices like Nintendo 3DS.

Also, while it is possible to pull off a pseudo-3D effect on a device with a small screen, doing the same thing on a tablet would present huge challenges with little in the way of benefit.

No, not going to happen.

The bottom line

So, what’s the bottom line here?

Well, there’s a lot of rumor and speculation about might be in the iPad 3, but we have very little in the way of concrete ideas. I think a faster processor is pretty much guaranteed, as is the addition of Siri, but beyond that only Apple really knows what the iPad 3 will bring … and right now it’s keeping it well under wraps!

Roll on the official announcement so we can all start speculating about the iPhone 5!

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