Anticipating the 4th-gen iPad

When Apple stops iterating a particular product – like the the company did with the original iPod – it typically means Cupertino intends to extend and expand future device lineups.

When it comes to the iPad, a hypothetical 7” form factor is a likely candidate for a new iPad line, simply because it definitely appeals to the e-reader crowd and women, as it more easily fits inside a purse.

Currently, the best 7″ tablet on the market is the Samsung 7.7″ which boasts an OLED display with a better color saturation than the Apple Retinal display – but at a lower resolution.  

It is also quite pricey, costing (with a data plan) as much or more than the larger Apple tablet. 

But whether or not a new 7″ iPad is on the way, it is certainly interesting to consider the likely successor to Apple’s third-gen Retinal iPad. Typically, when Apple moves adopts new technology, there are “painful” tradeoffs, and in this particular case, case weight, battery life, data plan consumption, (limited data) 4G coverage and excess heat were all major casualties of the upgrade.

Some of us will undoubtedly wait for the next iteration, which is expected to address the various shortcomings associated with the New iPad – much like the complete redesign of the iPhone 4s rectified the problems with the iPhone 4.  Yes, the “s” evidently stands for safe and while the 4 had issues, the 4s is the best smartphone Apple ever made, with most ranking Cupertino as the number one vendor in quality. 

That would suggest the iPad 4th generation, or iPad 3s, or iPad “Newer” (if Apple ever gets back to some kind of naming consistency) will easily eclipse the “New” iPad. Let’s discuss some of its potential features.

Better 4G Coverage and Compliance

This isn’t exactly something Apple is fixing all by itself. Indeed, part of the reason Cupertino is being forced to provide refunds in Australia and may be forced to do the same in other parts of the world, is that 4G isn’t 4G. Rather, it is an alphabet soup of non-interoperating technologies that can vary greatly in terms of both core technology and availability. For example, in the US there are two types of 4G with one of them (HSPA+) which is arguably misrepresented. 

Over the next year, 4G roll out will increase dramatically, likely prompting Apple to adjust the next version of the iPad to address the variances in each country – so subscribers can access 4G or local 4G wherever they are. However, given the cost of roaming plans, I still question the use of this technology (right now), as Wi-Fi works almost everywhere and is more of an all-you-can-eat technology.  

So if you thought those $4K and $5K bills folks were reporting from their European trips were bad, well just wait until someone roams with the new iPad. Remember, the device is consuming data at a huge multiple because the new screen requires huge files for optimized apps served up by 4G. Meaning, a $10K or $30K cellular data bill isn’t that much of a stretch. Fortunately, current plans appear to prevent roaming, but not being able to use a key feature at all is at best, rather annoying. 

So I continue to advise avoiding 4G products in the tablet/PC segments and suggest investing in a 4G hotspot instead. That way you can use the data connectivity with anything, while leaving the hotspot at home when you travel overseas. 

Faster Charging

Lenovo recently introduced fast charging with its X1 laptop, which juices a battery to 80% in just 30 minutes. The reason it is limited to 80%? Taking a battery to peak at high speed (or at any speed for that matter) wears out the battery. Gven how hard the “new” iPad is on batteries, well, I believe we will likely start seeing battery failures before year end. Then again, an even bigger problem plaguing the “new” iPad is that it takes forever to charge, about twice as long as the previous version which means a lot of folks are likely discovering their iPads aren’t charging fully anymore.  

So I’d expect Apple to adopt something like Lenovo’s fast charge technology to get the battery juiced up more quickly, possibly even more quickly than the iPad 2 – which would shift battery charging from a disadvantage to an advantage. 

Content and a Scaler

One of the problems for the “New” iPad is a lack of optimized content for the Retina display, meaning, the older content actually looks worse on the “new” iPad than the iPad 2.  The industry experienced the same problem, and still does in many cases, with HD TVs but it was most pronounced when the TVs first came out. Scalers were subsequently introduced and built into DVD, Blu-Ray players, and TVs to correct the problem until more HD content started to show up.

We’ll likely experience a similar scenario with the next iPad in the form a scaler for older content or to conserve bandwidth (on 3G or other constrained networks or to reduce data charges or throttling), while waiting for more Retina-specific content.

Heat Control

The heat problem with the “new” iPad is likely to get worse as more and more content is created that pushes both the display and the processor, while over-taxing the battery. The thermal image, which shows a wide heat bloom (and one place not to put your hands) suggests the device, particularly the battery, is being cooked.  

Right not this mostly just happens in labs because the number of games that kick the device into overdrive mode are very limited. But once you enable such a capability, developers will inevitably leverage it and by the end of the year I expect more “New” iPad users to complain of either excess heat or related component failure.

Yes, insulating the tablet should make it feel cooler, but will also contain the heat, thereby exacerbating component failure problems. Clearly, insulation isn’t the optimal path, and Apple would do well to adopt active cooling or redesign the components generating excess heat.

Whichever path Apple takes, much like the iPhone4s was redesigned with IBM’s help to correct the battery problem, I expect the next iPad to be redesigned so that users can enjoy new content without burning out your tablet or hurting your hands. IBM is pretty good with heat dissipation as well, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Apple ask Big Blue for help yet again.

Gorilla Glass or All Glass

Apple apparently helped create gorilla glass technology. However, the company has never really this fact,  and while gorilla wasn’t used in the iPhone 4, an early version of the glass was fielded in the first iPhone. Given how often displays break, the technology has been forced improved significantly since its re-release in 2007 so I’d expect it to show up in Apple products again. With Cupertino apparently ramping up to use the glass again this year, it probably isn’t much of a stretch to predict the newest version is likely to show up in the next iPad. Of course, as some speculate, the next-gen Apple iPad could be all glass. Now wouldn’t that be cool?

Wrapping Up:  Next iPad

Much like the iPhone 3GS was a better phone – especially when you factored in price and issues with the 4 – I still believe the iPad 2 is a better choice than the iPad 3, particularly if you already own a 2. At $100 less, given data throttling, data charges, battery charging issues, and weight, it is clearly the more balanced product.

Personally, I expect the 4th-gen iPad to achieve the kind of balance the iPhone 4s now has. The next iteration of the wildly popular tablet will likely have a Retina display that makes sense in terms of content and heat dissipation, although I still wonder about the processor, as Apple may be repeating the mistake (scale) it initially made with PCs which eventually led them to x86 and Intel (Nvidia’s Tegra 4 in particular looks rather daunting).  

In any case, it’s nice to have something to look forward to. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks who love their new iPads, but I’m going to skip it and hold out for the next, more balanced product.