Part of the iPad upgrade/new model puzzle is now in place. Yesterday, as KGI Securities financial services group analyst Ming-Chi Kuo last summer predicted they would, Apple released a new low-cost 9.7-inch iPad model called simply “iPad,” selling for a very friendly $329 for a WiFi unit with 32GB of storage memory. A more practical (recommended if you can afford it) upgrade to 128 GB storage is an extra hundred bucks at $429, and Cellular support will be another $130 at $459 or $529 depending on memory spec. chosen, but that’s still quite a deal considering that the new iPad is essentially a speed bump and replacement of the holdover from 2015 iPad Air 2 that has reportedly been Apple’s best-selling iPad model of late starting at $399. With 32 GB of memory, the basic $329 model will be plenty adequate for the sort of light-duty service many tablet buyers use their devices for.
The iPad shares the Air 2’s footprint, but is 1.5mm thicker (commendable if the extra space is being used for more battery capacity) and weighs just over rather than just under one pound in weight. It is powered by an Apple A9 system-on-chip (just a thin cut below the A9X SoC used in the iPad Pro) compared with the Air 2’s A8X silicon. Apple claims 10-hour battery life, and the Air 2’s 2048 x 1536 resolution Retina display, 8 MP rear-facing, and FaceTime HD cameras, and Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Like the Air 2, the iPad is available in silver, gold and space gray livery, but not rose gold, which is reserved for the Pro models.
Another iPad question answered by Apple in its Tuesday press release was the immediate fate of the iPad.mini. There had been rumors of an iPad mini 5 or even a mini Pro, but what we’re getting is a carryover of the iPad mini 4, available in silver, gold and space gray, but offering more memory capacity for the same price starting at $399 for the 128GB Wi-Fi model and $529 for the 128GB Wi-Fi + Cellular model. A disappointment to some, but I’m happy that the iPad mini survives for now at least.
What hasn’t been clarified is what’s coming with the overdue iPad Air upgrades, of which Apple said nothing in its March 21 announcements.
Taiwanese industry-watcher site Digitimes’ Siu Han and Steve Shen reported in mid-March that unnamed insider sources at Taiwan-based supply chain subcontractors had informed them that Apple had bumped production startup for a new 10.5-inch iPad to March, moving it ahead of a previously scheduled May-June production ramp-up. Consequently Han and Shen deduced that the new form factor iPad’s public unveiling could be anticipated to take place at an early April special event marking the opening of Apple’s new headquarters at Cupertino.
Han and Shen say the 10.5-inch iPad is anticipated to target education and enterprise users, and along with an upgraded 12.9-inch iPad Pro will be promoted as Apple’s mainstream tablet computer products for the mid-tier to high-end tablet market in 2017. The production schedule for an upgraded 12.9-inch iPad Pro 2 remained unclear, but their sources speculate that volume production of a new revision of the big iPad may kick off in May-June.
Conversely, Daring Fireball’s formidable John Gruber leans toward updates to the existing iPad Pro models, and no 10.5-inch model introduction until late this year or early in 2018.
However, last week Japanese Apple-watcher site Macotakara, acknowledging the Digitimes report and other scuttlebutt in the Apple-oriented media, suggested that some Japanese analysts are predicting that the first new iPad release we’ll see will be a 9.7-inch iPad Pro 2.
Others had been predicting that what could be coming is a wholesale revision of the entire iPad lineup that would include the rumored new 10.5-inch machine, revisions for both the 9.7-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models, possibly also a lower-priced non-Pro version of the 9.7-incher, now a reality, and an iPad mini 5 or iPad mini Pro model which alas will not be forthcoming.
Aforementioned KGI Securities financial services group analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who is widely regarded as “The Most Accurate Apple Analyst in the World,” last summer predicted that Apple would debut a 10.5-inch iPad in 2017 aimed at helping them attract more iPad buyers in the commercial and enterprise markets, along with an updated 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the aforementioned lower-cost 9.7-inch iPad. In a research note to KGI investors 16/08/15/kuo-10-5-ipad-pro-2017/ cited by MacRumors, Kuo suggested that the 12.9” iPad Pro 2 and 10.5” iPad Pro would be powered by Apple’s TSMC sourced 10mm technology A10X system-on-chip fabricated using 10nm process technology.
At the time, Kuo looked even farther into the future to what he called a “Revolutionary iPad model likely to be introduced in 2018 at the earliest, with radical changes in form factor design & user behavior on adoption of flexible AMOLED panel. We believe iPad will follow in the footsteps of the iPhone by adopting AMOLED panel in 2018F at the earliest. If Apple can truly tap the potential of a flexible AMOLED panel, we believe the new iPad model will offer new selling points through radical form factor design and user behavior changes, which could benefit shipments.”
I expect it could. Too bad we’ll probably have to wait another year, till sometime after Apple rolls out its flexible AMOLED panel technology on the iPhone 8 next fall, marking the Apple handset’s 10th anniversary. The iPhone is also expected to be Apple’s preferred platform for introducing its A11 series SoC, which will consequently not likely be seen in iPads until some time in 2018.
What isn’t a matter of dispute is that Apple’s Pro iPads are overdue for a substantial update. The 9.7-inch iPad Pro waas released a year ago, also pretty much a body double for the original iPad Air, iPad Air 2, and the new iPad form factor wise. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro hasn’t been updated since it waas introduced in the fall of 2015, so somewhat awkwardly it has lagged behind its smaller sibling in several engineering specs., including camera resolution and panel technology, for a year. Something to be straightened out with presumed forthcoming iPad Pro revisions.
New and revised iPads can be safely assumed to be in the works, so the current operative questions are whether Apple will opt to roll new iPad Pros models together or release it one or two models at a time, and whether there will be a 9.7-inch iPad Pro 2 or it it to be replaced by the rumored 10.5-inch model. That may not turn out to be a completely preferential issue, as factors like component supply volume, especially of displays, could partly determine what can be released and when.
I speculatively lean toward Mr. Kuo’s scenario of new 10.5-inch and revised 12.9-inch iPads as being a virtual given. I’m skeptical that Apple would offer both 9.7-inch and 10.5-inch iPad Pro models, so the future of the 9.7-inch model poses a bit of a conundrum, even though, as Studio Neat’s Dan Provost has explained, the seemingly small difference in screen size could be a lot more significant in practical terms than it seems in casual consideration, such as a rumored increase in screen resolution to 2,224-by-1,668 compared to the current 9.7-inch models’ 2,048-by-1,536, but with the machine’s external dimensions remaining the same thanks to a narrower margin screen bezel.
Personally, I’m still very satisfied with the performance of my iPad Air 2, And while it would be great to have the iPad Pro’s performance upgrades, I haven’t found them compelling. The 10.5-inch iPad Pro sounds interesting, but I have misgivings about its elimination of the analog Home button. With any software function, it’s reassuring to have a hardware backup option.
Mr. Kuo’s “radical form factor design and user behavior changes” potential for the iPad in 2008 sounds even more intriguing, but that’s something to think about for next year. And I predict, quite safely I think, that Apple is going to sell boatloads of $329 9.7-inch iPads, which represent a tremendous value for the many users who don’t require Pro features like Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard support. Maybe enough to arrest or even reverse the iPad’s long sales decline.