Apple's next generation iPad 3 will almost certainly be announced on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, California. Everything else about it, however, is still up in the air. That's nothing new. The road to every Apple product release is paved and pot-holed with rumors true and fake - and this one is no different.
Still, while Apple is secretive they do tend to follow patterns. What they've done in the past can indicate what they may do in the future. That's what we're going to look at here -- sift through all the recent rumors and try to figure out what makes sense.
Product names are ultimately marketing decisions and regardless of specs, chronological or model generation, or any other factor, Apple can call any of their products anything they like, whenever they like. The 2010 iPad was simply "iPad" and the 2011 iPad was simply "iPad 2", so there's a good chance the next one will be simply "iPad 3".
The internal Apple model number seems to be iPad 3,1, but that doesn't always translate to marketing name. (iPhone 1,2 was released as iPhone 3G, and iPhone 2,1 was released as iPhone 3GS). Could Apple go with an iPad 2S name like iPhone 4S? Given the presumed Retina display (see below) and processor bump, it seems unlikely. So do things like iPad Pro or iPad HD. The former seems more fitting of the Mac line, the latter unlike anything Apple has used for a flagship products in the past.
So, for purposes of this article, we'll stick with iPad 3.
Apple will no doubt announce the release date for the iPad 3 during the March 7, 2012 event. We've heard a couple of dates, the most frequent of which is Friday, March 30, 2012.
That fits with previous releases, which were also on Fridays. It is a long time between announcement and release, however. If they go earlier, March 16 or March 23 are both good targets.
Until we hear otherwise, however, March 30 is likely.
Because Apple doesn't manufacture their own hardware, there are often leaks that come from the factories that do the assembly, or accessory makers who manage to sneak a peak at the assembly. However, Apple also tests and produces different prototypes, so leaks might not always be for the final production model.
When looking at rumors, one thing to consider is component availability and costs. Apple will need to keep component costs down to maintain price points and margins. They're in the hardware business and they don't price their products to be at or near the break-even price point. The iPad 3 has to make money, and that helps reduce the likelihood of some of the more extravagant possibilities.
Rumors about the iPad 3 processor are split right down the middle. iMore heard Apple is going quad-core with the iPad 3. Others have heard they're sticking with dual-core, albeit supercharging it with much better graphics. 9to5Mac discovered references to both a quad-core and a dual-core chipset in the iOS software, so it's possible Apple is testing both and will decide based on factors like battery life. It's also possible dual-core and quad-core will each be deployed in different devices, an Apple A6 quad-core processor for the iPad 3 and an Apple A5X processor for something with lower requirements, like an Apple TV 3.
For the most part , it won't matter much. Since Apple controls the iPad 3 from atoms to bits, they can optimize dual-core to do specific tasks better and smoother than many non-integrated quad-core devices. And either way, it sounds like iPad 3 will be a monster gaming machine.
While there haven't been many specific RAM rumors about the iPad 3, BGR obtained an alleged iPad 3 iBoot log, and developer Will Strafach spotted a reference in it that suggests there will be 1GB will be on board.
Again, because Apple can optimize iOS for the exact hardware they're releasing, they can usually get by with less RAM than competitors. More pixels (in a presumed Retina display, see below), and more power might just demand more memory, however.
Storage rumors have been all but non-existant this time around. iPad 2 came in 16, 32, and 64GB models, as did the iPhone 4S. 24nm NAND Flash chips have been announced, making 128GB a technical possibility. Whether it's a cost-effective one remains the question.
If 1080p content becomes a reality (see below), the extra storage will certainly come in handy, but if iCloud really is Apple's future, they may consider streaming far more important than storage. Apple can buy in flabbergasting volumes, but even at iPad numbers, 128GB still seems like a very expensive option.
Quad-core Apple A6 with 1GB of RAM and 16, 32, and 64GB of storage sound most likely at this point.
We heard that Apple was going 4G LTE this year, but weren't certain if it would start with the iPad 3. The WSJ claims it will. What we're still not certain about, however, is where LTE will be available.
LTE isn't a standard and different carriers around the world use a wide range of different bands to support it. There are so many variations, in fact, our friend and LTE expert, Mickey Papillon thinks Apple would need two different LTE models -- one to support North American, and another to support Europe, Australia, and Asia.
It's possible Apple restricts LTE to North America only, or to the U.S. only for AT&T and Verizon. Verizon needs it the most -- their current CDMA/EVDO Rev. A iPads are almost crippled at 2-3mbps.
There are also newer, faster and more flexible Wi-Fi technologies on the horizon, and Apple was an early adopter of 802.11n. Is it possible Apple will add 802.11ac Gigabit Wi-Fi, or Wi-Fi Direct to the iPad 3? 802.11ac may still be a ways off, and AirPlay and AirPrint are doing a lot of direct Wi-Fi transfers now, though not via Wi-Fi Direct. So neither seem imminent at this point.
Both the iPhone and Mac have gone Bluetooth 4.0 however, and it makes sense for the iPhone to follow suit. That will allow for low-power accessories, and likely speed up the iPad (and other iOS devices) becoming interfaces for all sorts of accessories, from household appliances to cars to healthcare products and everything in between.
So LTE, but perhaps North America only, and Bluetooth 4.0 are good bets, but 802.11ac and Wi-Fi direct probably aren't.
The iPad 2 cameras are... terrible. There are reports from NextMedia that we might see a better rear camera in the iPad 3, anywhere from 5 to 8 megapixels, the latter of which would match the excellent iPhone 4S camera. The size and quality of the lens, however, is limited by the depth of the device, so a better camera would either need a slightly thicker device or be positioned at a thicker point in the device. Both are possibilities, given other rumors.
Likewise, Apple has introduced "FaceTime HD" cameras in the Mac, but not in the iPhone 4S. With a Retina display rumored for iPad 3 (see below), the current, incredibly low resolution front facing camera in iOS devices would make my eyes bleed. It seems logical Apple would give it a bump, even if only into the very low megapixel range.
Frankly, any camera improvement would be welcome at this point, so anything 5mp or above on the rear, and FaceTime HD on the front would be huge wins.
As for speakers, Apple hasn't shown any interest to date in augmenting them for their iOS devices. They let the headphones handle the heavy listening. Even though competitors have implemented technology like Beats, there have been no rumors suggesting a speaker improvement is in the cards.
Apple has said they don't think smaller tablets are as usable or allow for the quality of apps they want on the iPad. However, Apple has famously derided products and features they later went on to release themselves. Even so, and even though rumors of iPads in sizes from 7- to 8-inches have floated around for a while, there's absolutely no reason to think the iPad 3 will change screen sizes any time soon. Especially not with so many apps in the App Store designed for the current screen size. (Shrinking apps, even if you keep the same resolution, makes touch targets small and hurts usability.)
Likewise, while 16:9 aspect ratio tablets are better for 16:9 video (which is mostly HDTV -- movies tend to vary more), they're terrible for portrait use. Apple needs a device that's okay for both landscape and portrait, and that means sticking with 4:3.
A 2048x1536 Retina display seems like the closest thing to a sure bet. Apple has reportedly been working on it since before the iPad 2 launch, and if parts leaks from MacRumors are to be believed, they can finally produce them cheaply enough, and in sufficient quantities to make them affordable and viable.
To put the display in context, 2048x1536 (and it really couldn't be anything else without trashing existing apps) is a higher resolution than many computer displays, and higher than a 1080p television (1920x1080) -- in a 9.7-inch screen.
The idea is that it makes pixels so small they disappear - all you notice is the content. Everything from ebooks to web pages to videos should look almost as good as they do on the iPhone 4S. The density isn't quite as high, but since the screen is bigger you'll probably hold it slightly further away, making the relative quality close to the same.
So yeah, 9.7-inch, 3:4 Retina display at 2048x1536.
Apple's iPad event invitation (see above) didn't show a Home button, leading to rampant speculation that Apple might be ditching the click and going exclusively to multitouch gestures, as introduced in iOS 5.
Gestures aren't as discoverable as buttons, however, and the iPad is a decidedly mainstream device. The introduction of the Fast App Switcher has put more strain on the Home button than ever before, but with the iPhone 4S Apple has begun making them stronger and longer lasting.
There have been rumors from Boy Genius Report about Apple dumping the Home button in the past. There have also been parts leaks showing an unchanged front-panel layout, including the Home button spot.
It could be something Apple's working on obsoleting, but not any time soon.
No glowing Apple logo. No additional hardware buttons. No AMOLED screen, super or otherwise.
Software is harder to predict than hardware. With the exception of the beta process for developers, and carrier testing for network compatibility, Apple gets to keep it completely in house. Leaks happen when people discover hidden strings and images, but Apple almost always keeps the most exciting, most demonstrable new features completely out of the software until event day. That makes new apps and many new functions much harder to guess before hand. Still, there are some things to consider.
New versions of iOS have traditionally come with new models of iPhone, and while the incremental x.1 version of iOS has traditionally come with new models of iPod touch, there wasn't one last year (not really) and so iOS 5.1 falls to the iPad 3.
iOS 3.2 was a major new version, bringing iOS to the big screen, tablet style user interface for the first time. iOS 4.2 was fairly big, re-unifying the platform and bringing all the iOS 4 features like multitasking and folders to the iPad for the first time.
The iPad got iOS 5 day and date with the iPhone back in October, however, so we're probably not looking at anything nearly as profound as the last two years.
iOS 5.1 has yet to go Gold Master (GM), but that will probably happen at the March 7 iPad event, with release to follow a couple of days before the iPad 3 hits stores.
In addition to some small changes already seen in the iOS 5.1 betas, like the ability to delete Photo Stream photos, faster fast camera access, and fixes to some privacy bugs, there are still a few cards left for Apple to play.
Apple's intelligent virtual assistant, Siri is the headline feature of the iPhone 4S and hasn't been made available to any previous iOS devices. Apple was also careful to point out that Siri is still in beta, with limited language support for now. The beta was, in part, to allow Siri access to far more voice data than it could ever get locked up inside Apple’s private test bubble. Although Siri was plagued with server problems early on, it's largely more stable (though certainly not perfect) now.
If Apple really wants to push Siri as part of their user interface going forward, they'll have to bring it to more devices... eventually. iPads aren't as mobile as iPhones, however. They aren't as ubiquitously connected to the internet either (there are Wi-Fi only models, after all). You likely won't need to dictate iMessage replies on your iPad while driving.
But even now, when I'm using my iPad 2, I keep trying to hit the Dictate button so I can use Siri.
It will likely require better mics, like the iPhone 4S has, but Siri seems like a good bet for iPad 3. If it's not there, the absence will be notable.
With a Retina display screen, the iPad 3 will have a higher pixel count than a 1080p television -- 2048x1536 vs. 1920x1080. With a faster processor, regardless of whether it's dual- or quad-core, it'll be able to handle video better than ever before. 1080p content just seems like a natural fit, and a great way for Apple to show off that new display and all that new power.
Whether iTunes begins to offer 1080p content, and how much they can offer, how soon, and in how many regions is another question. In some areas, ISP bandwidth caps may prove prohibitive even to an average amount of 1080p content. Likewise, even with 4G LTE, the ability to stream 1080p would likely be extremely limited if not blocked outright.
But having even simple support for local 1080p -- however you get it on the device -- sounds absolutely reasonable.
Apple launched iMovie for iPad alongside the iPad 2, but it's since been overtaken by Avid Studio which offers better support and more features. Again, given the Retina display, it feels like Apple is going to want to show off a little and give iMovie an update.
Given the recent iMovie-style makeover of Final Cut Pro X, there's been some speculation Apple may start porting their pro apps to iPad, but that seems less likely. There are still limitations to mobile devices and multitouch that professional level software doesn't face on the desktop.
If Apple goes back to video for the iPad 3 launch, a version of iMovie that supports 1080p and overtakes Avid Studio in features seems more likely.
iOS 5 added rudimentary retouching tools to the Photos app, but it's nowhere near the desktop iPhoto in feature set or functionality, never mind the professional power of Aperture. Again, a Retina display seems to demand great Apple software to go along with it, and iPhoto feels like it fits that bill.
Aperture, like FCPX, is a pro tool and probably wouldn't fit with demands of mobile and multitouch, but iPhoto would. Photography professionals are already drooling over the idea of a Retina iPad for carrying around their portfolios. Give them -- and us -- even good quality consumer tools for editing them, and it will be a huge win. (Especially if, given the native code and Apple UI acumen, it proves more useful than the often-frustrating Adobe Photoshop Touch.
If Apple goes with a FaceTime HD camera in front, an better chipset inside, and a Retina display on the panel,
one of the best demos they could do alongside it would be a A FaceTime conference. Showing gandma the grandkids and talking to a colleague across country is one thing, connecting several members of a family or a team scattered across the globe is quite another.
It would make for a great commercial. Allowing it to work over 4G LTE, if available, would just be a bonus.
Given the recent developer preview of OS X Mountain Lion, it's obvious that there a lot of other interesting stuff Apple's working on. And as much as iPad interface an experience elements have been brought "Back to the Mac", it'd be great to see some of the Mountain Lion stuff brought Back to the iPad as well. But that's probably more likely in iOS 6 than it is for the iPad 3.
In addition to the iPad 3, there are rumors suggesting other products might also make an appearance at the next Apple event on March 7. Some Apple events, like the fall music events, typically showed off numerous iTunes-related products. Apple's famous "One more thing..." has also been used to highlight additional products, including the original MacBook Air, during largely unrelated events.
There are rumors, many from 9to5Mac, that Apple's getting ready to announce an updated Apple TV 3 as well. Given the Apple TV wasn't updated last year, it makes sense they'd want to get it on the new hardware platform eventually.
Would they take attention off the iPad 3 launch with an Apple TV 3 introduction? Sure, they split the original iPhone launch with the original Apple TV launch back at Macworld 2007. If the Apple TV 3 is positioned as having cool new features that enhance what Apple shows off for the iPad 3 -- especially 1080p -- then it's easily something we could see.
Like Apple TV and the rest of the iPod lineup, the iPod touch received no significant update last year, which makes it feel like it's due. However, the lack of any leaks surrounding a new iPod touch make it seem like it's not a priority right now and probably won't happen for a while still.
(Georgia thinks the "And touch." in the iPad event invitation might hint at it.)
It's been roughly a year since Steve Jobs took the stage to launch the iPad 2. This year, Tim Cook, Phil Schiller, Scott Forstall, Eddy Cue, Jony Ive, or some combination thereof will show us what Apple has in store for iOS for the first part of 2012.
Regardless of which rumors ultimately prove true, and what surprises may or may not be in store, one thing's for certain -- it'll be one hell of a show.
Join us next Wednesday, March 7, at 10am PT/1pm ET/6pm GMT for iMore's usual commentary, color, and analysis. And until then, give us your best predictions in the comments below!