Apple's iPad 2: Pre-event predictions (and post-event analysis) for you
As I type these words, Apple’s ‘Come see what 2011 will be the year of’ event is set to start in less than two hours, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts:
Alas, I didn’t receive an invitation; Apple PR long ago seemingly stopped trying to seduce me with attendance requests, presumably because they saw that the Reality Distortion Field wasn’t having its desired effect. As such, I’ll be monitoring (and reality-translating) the liveblogs generated by the ‘chosen few‘; Ars Technica, Engadget, etc. And here’s what I expect to see (and not see); check back post-event for my critique of my prognostications, along with a review of what was actually announced:
Perhaps obviously, from the above graphic, a next-generation tablet will receive front-and-center attention. Apple’s first-generation iPad has dramatically exceeded all previously tablet form factor devices’ popularity as measured by consumer embrace (i.e. sales), but it’s not a perfect product; thickness and weight were both regularly cited as excessive in reviews. I expect Apple to make positive moves in both areas, in part by migrating to a thinner LED-backlit LCD display, and in part by slimming down the form factor of the embedded battery (in conjunction with, perhaps, internal circuitry power consumption improvements that enable the battery to be less storage capacity-formidable than was previously necessary). And, taking a nod from the recent MacBook Air redesign, I suspect that the iPad 2 will be more angular than its predecessor, as well.
One other ‘knock’ on the first-generation iPad from developers and end users alike was its system memory deficit; at 256 MBytes, it’s the same amount as in the Apple A4 CPU-fueled latest-generation iPod touch, even though the iPad’s screen size is 28% larger from a pixel count standpoint (1024×768, versus the iPod touch’s 960×640 pixel ‘Retina Display‘). The A4-powered iPhone 4 migrated to 512 MBytes of SDRAM, and I suspect the iPad 2 will do the same, which (among other things) will improve the device’s multitasking capabilities.
Clues to the likely iPad-to-iPad 2 transition can also come from a perusal of already-concluded evolutions elsewhere in Apple’s product line. Judging from the fact that the iPhone 4 has both front- and rear-facing cameras (versus rear-only in the iPhone 3GS predecessor), as does the fourth-generation iPod touch, along with Apple’s heavy promotion of FaceTime video conferencing (and not to mention the fact that a single-camera configuration was seemingly originally planned for the third-generation iPod touch), I anticipate that the iPad 2 will embed at least one (front-facing) camera, and will probably go down an iPhone 4-mimicking two-camera path. The rear-located camera will be of limited practical utility, given the form factor differentiation between the iPad and a single-hand-holdable alternative device, but the front-based image sensor will give FaceTime a further popularity boost.
And although it may already be intuitively obvious given Verizon’s recent adoption of the iPhone 4, I suspect that the iPad 2 will come not only in a cost-optimized Wi-Fi-only version as before but also in both CDMA and GSM cellular data variants. After all, the first-generation iPad added GSM cellular capabilities via an optional add-in module, whose electrical interface and system real estate at least one enterprising hacker alternatively employed to embed a Verizon MiFi unit. However, I hope that this time Apple puts the GPS circuitry on the main board versus the cellular add-on, so that Wi-Fi-only users are also able to tap into geolocation-cognizant apps. And I’ll be curious to see if Apple also augments the existing accelerometer and silicon compass (aka magnetometer) with a gyroscope.
Next, we transition to the ‘maybe’ category. The Intrinsity-aided A4 CPU found in the first-generation iPad is getting somewhat long in the tooth at this point, at least when its feature set (single-core ARM Cortex-A8, PowerVR SGX 535 GPU) is compared in a relative standpoint with the dual-core Cortex-A9 (and Scorpion-approximation) SoCs now on the scene from competitors such as Nvidia (Tegra 2), Qualcomm (Snapdragon), and Texas Instruments (OMAP 4). Pragmatically, however, I’ve heard little complaining in an absolute sense about the A4’s performance (aside from a few particularly demanding games), no matter that I could rationalize a notable boost given AirPlay, from-iOS printing, and other functions that Apple’s now pushing. And it frankly makes little sense for Apple to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ purely for competitive-pace reasons, if the apps aren’t also demanding it. As such, while I suspect the A4’s CPU and GPU will get at least a minor clock speed uptick, I’m not sure if a more substantial processor evolution will take place this or next time, likely commensurate with a display pixel boost (more on that later).
And what of the Thunderbolt (formerly Light Peak) I/O interface that Apple and Intel unveiled last week for the former company’s MacBooks? Here again, I’m on the fence. Adding Thunderbolt (or even the lesser-function DisplayPort and/or SD card interfaces that have also been rumoured) to the iPad design would boost the bill-of-materials cost; SD card and VGA video capabilities are already possible via the existing Apple dock connector and adapters, although the ‘analog sunset‘ may mute Apple’s continuing enthusiasm for the latter feature. And I’m not even confident that the necessary PCI Express cognizance exists in the A4 (or successor) CPU to provide a clean connection to Intel’s Thunderbolt IC, anyway.
Sooner or later, I believe, Apple’s going to need to expand its iPad form factor downward into more economical and more easily totable dimensions, such as those exemplified by Dell’s Streak 7 and Samsung’s 7″ Galaxy Tab (not to mention the rumored upcoming 8.9″ variant of the latter). But is now the time? As the Magic 8-Ball might say, ‘Reply hazy.’ When (not if, IMHO) a bezel shrink happens, I’m particularly interested to see what Apple and its display partners do from a pixel resolution standpoint, as more options mean more headaches for developers.
Finally we move to the realm of what the Magic 8-Ball might classify as ‘don’t count on it’ candidates, both again focused on LCDs. As much as I respect the opinions of longstanding display guru Dr. Raymond Soneira, I’m not in sync with his prognostication that Apple will migrate from a 4:3 aspect ratio to the 3:2 widescreen orientation…at least in the ~10″ form factor. To do so would not only increase the unit’s cost, size and heft, it’d also lend credence to the design decisions made by competitors such as Motorola with the Xoom.
Similarly, in spite of abundant rumors of recent months, I highly doubt that Apple will migrate to a higher-resolution Retina Display in the 10″ form factor, at least until the costs of doing so substantially decrease. There’s just little justification at the present time for Apple to do such a thing, aside from the ability to more crisply view high-resolution still images. Not to mention the developer difficulties that’d be incurred by the resultant requirement to support both legacy and new pixel counts, akin to the problems that resulted from the iPhone 3GS-to-4 transition.
Apple’s briefing is about to begin. Let’s see how well I forecast, shall we?
Post-briefing followup: with apologies for any perceived lack of humility on my part, I spot-on nailed the iPad 2:
- 1 GHz dual-core “A5″ CPU
- Up to 9x faster graphics (as I tweeted yesterday, I suspect that the Apple A5 is is a dual-core Cortex-A9 akin to Samsung’s Exynos, albeit with an Imagination Technologies-supplied graphics core versus ARM’s Mali GPU used in Samsung’s SoC)
- 33% thinner (now 8.8 mm)
- Lighter (from 1.5 lbs to 1.3 lbs)
- Same 10 hour battery life estimate
- Both front (VGA-resolution video)- and rear (720p video)-facing cameras
- Three-axis gyroscope included. Unfortunately, GPS remains a cellular-only portion of the feature set.
- New $39 dock adapter supports 1080p HDMI, but no DisplayPort/Thunderbold connector (or DisplayPort adapter, for that matter) or integrated SD card slot. Apple has also added both standard-definition composite (interlaced) and component (progressive-scan) video adapters. And the 1080p-capable VGA adapter remains available, which is not terribly surprising even in the ‘analog sunset’ era because, as I’ve mentioned in past Xbox 360 writeups, VGA is considered to be a ‘computer’ versus ‘consumer electronics device’ video interface and therefore benefits from a HD loophole in CSS and other DRM schemes’ specifications.
- Both AT&T and Verizon 3G network options (wonder if this’ll be via a common Qualcomm-supplied cellular transceiver?), along with a Wi-Fi-only variant. No LTE yet, but no surprise there.
- Not to mention both black and white color scheme options
- Shipping on March 11 in the US, expanding to 26 other countries on March 25th
- Same pricing as first-generation iPad for Wi-Fi-only and cellular-inclusive versions in various resident flash memory storage capacity options