For years, almost a decade in fact, we've been asking for higher quality displays in notebooks. With most of our pleas left ignored for the value notebook segment, smartphone and eventually tablet makers capitalized on the opportunity. These days the $399 - $499 tablet display experience tends to be superior to the $399+ notebook experience. Things are beginning to change, but not quite fast enough. At the forefront of driving tablet display performance is Apple with its Retina Display equipped iPad. While the company has never really competed in the low-cost notebook or netbook market directly, the iPad has been Apple's solution for consumers who want a computer at a $500 - $700 price point. By focusing on areas that have been neglected by PC makers in the past (e.g. display, wireless connectivity, ease of use), Apple has managed to be quite successful in this space with the iPad.

As a big part of its overall strategy, Apple has done a good job of issuing regular updates to the iPad family since its initial unveil in 2010. Now, just seven months after the release of the 3rd generation iPad, Apple followed up with a 4th generation model. It's the relentless execution cycle in addition to focusing on the integration of high quality tangibles like the display that has made the iPad a formidable competitor in the $500 - $700 consumer computing space. The iPad remains mostly a content consumption device (with a dash of productivity), although Apple has been trying to fight that stigma as of late. Your personal balance between consumption and production of content will determine whether or not the iPad can serve as a primary computing device or if it will simply augment what you already have.

As the 4th gen iPad maintains the same price point as its predecessor, Apple simply delivered a better iPad alongside the new iPad mini earlier in the quarter. Unlike the mini where the bulk of the innovation remained in the form factor, the 4th generation iPad keeps its improvements mostly under the hood. The form factor and chassis haven't changed at all since the previous generation. Apple's 4:3 aspect ratio remains ideal for portrait mode reading, although it does fall short of newer 16:9 designs when it comes to watching movies (the latter tends to be a bit awkward for portrait use in response, tradeoffs are fun).

The size and weight of the chassis remain unchanged, which does mean that the iPad continues to be very portable at under 1.5 lbs (652g) but it's too heavy for comfortable one handed operation for extended periods of time.

iPad Specification Comparison
  Apple iPad mini Apple iPad 4 Apple iPad 3 Apple iPad 2 Apple iPad
Dimensions 200 x 134.7 x 7.2mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm 243.0 x 190.0 x 13.4mm
Display 7.85-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS
Weight 308g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 652g (WiFi) 601g (WiFi) 680g (WiFi)
Processor 1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2)

Apple A6X (2 x Swift, PowerVR SGX 554MP4)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2) 1GHz Apple A4 (1 x Cortex A8, PowerVR SGX 535)
Connectivity WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 3G WiFi , Optional 3G
Memory 512MB 1GB 1GB 512MB 256MB
Storage 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB 16GB—64GB
Battery 16.3Wh 42.5Wh 42.5Wh 25Wh 25Wh
Starting Price $329 $499 - $399 -

Storage and wireless connectivity options also remain unchanged, with WiFi and LTE versions both available. The new iPad is really just a silicon upgrade over the previous generation model.

A Matter of Cost and Timing

When the 3rd generation iPad launched earlier this year, I was surprised to find what Apple had done when it came to its mobile SoC. For the first time since the iPad's introduction, the 3rd generation model included a significantly larger SoC compared to what was used in the latest iPhone at the time (the 4S). In order to drive its 2048 x 1536 Retina Display at reasonable frame rates, Apple needed much more memory bandwidth than the standard A5 SoC could provide. The solution was, at the time, the world's highest bandwidth memory controller for a mobile ARM based SoC. With four 32-bit LPDDR2 channels paired up with LPDDR2-800 DRAM, the iPad 3's A5X SoC was capable of a theoretical 12.8GB/s of memory bandwidth. That's not much by high-end PC standards, but unheard of in an ARM based mobile device.

Die size is partially constrained by the amount of IO around the perimeter of the die. In the case of the A5X, the wider memory interface was paired up with a doubling in the compute resources on the GPU side. Apple didn't increase CPU hardware at all, but the A5X CPU cores did enjoy a 25% higher clock frequency than in the iPhone 4S' A5 counterpart.


iPad 4 Motherboard via iFixit

The other big surprise with the 3rd gen iPad was that Apple built its biggest SoC on Samsung's 45nm LP process. Picking a process node for a new chip isn't a trivial matter. You have to balance wafer costs, yields, die size, power/performance and volume requirements that all need to be balanced. In the case of the A5X, wafer cost and volume requirements won out over die size and power/performance concerns. The result was a power hungry SoC paired with a power hungry display, both of which necessitated an increase in battery capacity.

Simply addressing moving the SoC to 32nm wouldn't be enough to slim up the iPad. The Retina Display and associated backlight will both ensure a larger battery and thus thicker chassis for some time to come. There may be some room for improving the form factor, but in the near term I wouldn't expect a return to the iPad 2 thickness/weight levels.

Apple SoC Comparison
  A5 A5r2 A5X A6 A6X
Manufacturing Process Samsung 45nm LP Samsung 32nm LP HK+MG Samsung 45nm LP Samsung 32nm LP HK+MG Samsung 32nm LP HK+MG
Die Size 122.6mm2 71.1mm2 165mm2 96.7mm2 123mm2

The quick transition to a 4th generation iPad makes sense from a supply chain standpoint. While the 45nm A5X SoC could deliver the pricing and volume targets that Apple had at the time, the company has since shifted over to using Samsung's 32nm LP process exclusively in its iOS devices. I suspect cost, yields and available production finally tilted in favor of 32nm in the giant cost spreadsheet. The A6X is now roughly the same size as the original A5. Although wafer costs are likely higher, this is probably a more comfortable target than the A5X's 165mm2 die. Given the new iPad's static starting price point and increase in cost of many parts involved (Retina Display stack, larger SoC), any ability to reduce cost is likely a good thing.

The iPad 4 also adopts Apple's new Lightning connector. In the iPhone 5 and iPad mini, the move to the Lightning connector was done in pursuit of a thinner form factor. With the iPad 4 this obviously isn't true, but that isn't to say there aren't other benefits. I suspect moving all new production away from 30-pin dock cables and over to Lightning cables is also good for the bottom line (and for bringing Apple's cost of Lightning cables down).

The quick release of the iPad 4 wasn't all about bringing costs down however. Apple also used it as an opportunity to continue to drive performance. Similar to the A5/A5X divide, the 4th generation iPad features an A6X SoC - a larger, upgraded version of the A6 SoC used in the iPhone 5.

Display Analysis
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  • seapeople - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    How late would this review have had to be for you not to post that comment? In fact, I bet I you typed that comment up the moment you heard about the Ipad release, saved it in a Word document, and patiently waited to post it on the Ipad review that would obviously be coming.

    The fact that Anand is practically the last tech site on the planet to actually post a review of the new Ipad makes it extremely ironic that you use this action to insinuate that Apple is paying Anand off.

    Oh well, it makes sense considering you can't even spell your own name right.
    Reply
  • bplewis24 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    It would be great to see the same image/resolution/detail comparisons that you did with the iPad iterations done with the iPad4 vs the Nexus 10 when it's ready. Reply
  • Zink - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    I agree. You don't need to do it with every new tablet but it is a good opportunity to do some really in depth head to head iOS vs Android on 10" tablets. We all know this iPad is basically like the last one. What is harder to understand and get data on is completely different products. Reply
  • daar - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    Would be nice to see in future reviews, can help get an idea of quality control and calibration, despite what Apple guarantees. Reply
  • Zink - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    "I no longer have a 45nm iPad 2 so forgive me for the incomplete dataset here (it's safe to say that the iPad 2 would at least equal the iPad 4 in battery life, if not exceed it)"

    That doesn't seem safe at all from the numbers you gave. The 45nm iPad 2 only hits 10.1 hours in the 4th gen battery rundown and it is going to take a big drop with the new test. The iPad 3 sees a 12% hit to battery life with the switch to the new smartphone web browsing battery life test. Both tests should use the same screen settings so the increased energy consumption is coming from the 45nm silicon and radio. Screen res and GPU energy consumption does not significant contribute to this decrease in runtime because it is a browser test. The iPad 4 is also able to improve on the newer test despite its high res. Crunching the numbers, the iPad 3 is using 600 mW more to run the new test. The iPad 2 uses a bit older tech inside so I would assume it needs a similar increase in energy, putting the 45nm iPad 2’s performance in the new battery life test at around 8.2 hours, possible worse.
    Reply
  • Zink - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    I didn't see you had the iPad mini numbers there too. Even it sees a small hit on the new test so the iPad 3 GPU isn't what is hitting battery life the hardest. I would be surprised if the 45nm iPad 2 can do even 8.5 hours, assuming these battery rundown tests are fairly accurate. Reply
  • Velius - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Author states, "I've viewed the divide there as a line separating a computing device from an appliance. There's overlap in capabilities, but the overall experience tends to fall along those lines for me."

    This is a false meme that keeps getting propagated. Android is just as much of a walled garden as iOS, and I'm not talking about the App Store. I mean the functionality of the OS. Android is usually touted as having a lot more customizability than iOS, but this is an illusion. Sure, there are context-sensitive menus which are nice and all, but what you can and cannot do with them are a function of the app maker. It's like having a choice between Coke and Pepsi: you think you have a choice, but your options have been severely constrained. I've used both iOS and Android, the latter mainly to see what all the hype was about (as I am a Linux geek too, though prefer OS X for day-to-day), yet was astounded and shocked when I eventually tried it (on a SGS3 which I am now selling). Where was the full customizability? Where was this amazingly flexible system with tons and tons of features, bells, whistles, and doodads? It's just a copy of iOS! You have apps, and you run one at a time. That's just about it!

    As in many other things, Apple leads, and the rest (Google, Samsung, et al.) follow. Everyone forgets that when the iPad was first rumored, speculations were rife with regards to the capabilities of its OS. Many in the tech world wanted a full-blown OS X experience on the iPad (the name wasn't revealed back then of course). Yet they got the "appliance" that iOS on the iPad is. And yet, instead of forging its own path by introducing a full-blown Linux system on a tablet or phone, Google chose to copy and reproduce the appliance aspect of iOS in Android. Only now is Canonical actually moving to port Ubuntu to phones/tablets, well it's really an Android/Ubuntu hybrid but you actually get a full desktop when you dock it. *That* I'm looking forward to.

    So Android is just as much of an appliance as iOS, and iOS is just as much of a computing device as Android, if not more so. Yes, I'm talking about the superiority of the App Store - both in terms of quantity and quality. I have never seen a "killer app" in the Play Store that is also not present in the App Store (or with a better version). But ooh boy is it the case the other way around. There are some specialized scientific apps I use for research that just plain don't exist in Android. E.g., X-Windows Phase Plane (XPP) on the iPad:

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/xpp/id433859546?mt...

    Furthermore, of the apps that do get released for both Android and iOS, they generally work better in iOS. These considerations are in fact the main reason why I stick to Apple. The Nexus 10 et al. may be sexier in terms of hardware, but without good software, they are just not as functional.

    The level of Android fanboyism on the Internet truly astounds me. The gall, to claim that Android is a "computing device", and iOS an "appliance"! Like it's Cray supercomputer vs. a toaster! How astoundingly ridiculous! Unfortunately, even though this meme is groundless, it will keep getting propagated, ironically mostly due to the tech/geek "cred" that Android fanboys confer onto themselves, failing to realize that they are not the only ones with such cred. Heck, iOS fanboys are also Linux users. (You're looking at one right here.) I wonder, though, how many Android fanboys are *really* computer savvy?

    Comments like the ones the author made, and that inspired this post, make me wonder otherwise.
    Reply
  • Velius - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Sorry about the vitriolic nature of that post. I'd erase and restart if I could.

    All I wanted to say is that modern tablets are pretty uniform in their capabilities and interfaces, so "computing device" vs "appliance" is a false distinction. Either they are all appliances, or all computing devices. (I see it as both.)

    In any case, great review. I will echo what someone else said, that it's a real treat to have a review of the iPad 4 in particular especially as it's not that different than the iPad 3.

    Keep up the good work. :)
    Reply
  • DeciusStrabo - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    What exactly are you missing in terms of customization of Android? I mean, you can go and switch out basically everything you want, Kernel, drivers, UI, functionality. You can add any software you want from any point you want (alternative App shops, your own developers, your own Linux/OS X machine). You can add your own codecs, drivers, functions. You can automate basically any part of the system if you so desire. So what are you missing exactly? Reply
  • Sufo - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    I have to agree with DeciusStrabo. You really aren't getting the most out of your android device if you can't see the distinction between iOS and Android (this coming from someone who thinks both are pretty shitty). There are many many things you can do with Android _devices_ that you can't do with an iphone. Try flashing custom roms for example. You _can_ change pretty much every aspect of an Android device - assuming you can root it. Can you run full OS VMs in iOS? I don't know, but I know you can with Android. In terms of apps, mxplayer is better than any iOS video player, and poweramp is better than any audio player - I'd say these are pretty good wins (at the same time, iOS default audio player shits on the Android default). That's not to say I disagree with you - iOS certainly has the edge often (app-wise), but your conclusions about Android are unfair and not accurate.

    So yes, a stock manufacturer Android experience is much closer to iOS than many people would like to admit (though it *is still* more of a computing device for sure). However if you know how to leverage the most out of an Android device, then there are certain powerful things it can do than an iOS device simply can't. It's essentially trading killer apps for specific device use cases, which leaves the two pretty equal overall, but with a clear favourite for most people depending on what you want out of your device.
    Reply

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