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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  • darkcrayon - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    "Can you run full OS VMs in iOS? "

    Well iOS is perfectly capable of running emulators if that's what you mean. I start up Windows 3.1 on mine every once in a while for a laugh ;)

    If you mean run at some metal-level virtualization then no, but then that wouldn't really be running on Android so much as on the hardware of the device.
    Reply
  • antef - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    If you think Android is just as appliance-like as iOS then I feel there are major things about the platform that you are uninformed about. Not saying that in a demeaning way, just saying perhaps you never discovered these aspects of the system.

    iOS cannot be considered a true "computing platform" when you can only get apps via the App Store, they can only do what Apple approves of, and they can't truly run in the background, instead being able to only do certain things when not in the foreground. It's a large set of restrictions limiting what can be done with the device, thus it's an appliance, regardless of what functionality apps may or may not provide. It's no different from a set-top box or any other CE device, except it offers way more apps.

    Android, on the other hand, even without rooting or messing with custom ROMs, lets you install any app, from any source, that does anything the developer wishes it to do. You don't have to use any app store or pay Google any fees if you don't want to. Apps can touch almost any part of the system or replace any part of the system. Apps can do absolutely anything in the background with almost no restriction. You can browse and manage files like on a PC. The list goes on and on.

    Same thing regarding customization. Without rooting Android, you can change its keyboard, default browser, default mail handler, and the entirely of its home screen (icons, dock, app drawer, all can be replaced with alternate launcher).

    Android has very few restrictions above and beyond what a typical desktop platform like Windows has. It's essentially Linux with a special app container format and custom UI, that ships without su by default. Yeah, maybe the typical user just using web, texting, and Facebook will think both platforms are equally appliance-like, but that doesn't change the fact of what Android can do. I believe Anand's analysis is spot on.
    Reply
  • darkcrayon - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    It seems Android can only do "certain things" in the background as well. Or maybe you can tell me how to play youtube audio from the browser while Chrome is suspended (You can do this in Safari on iOS).

    iOS is a true computing platform - it's your definition of "computing" that is the problem. You *can* enter code and run software on it that did not originate on the App Store (not that if you couldn't, it would somehow cease to be a "computing platform".)

    It's certainly easier to do more "mucking around" with Android - iOS just has a more security oriented approach while Android has more versatility. Of course for 99% of users for either platform, none of that matters in the slightest as they buy the device to browse the web, play media, and find useful software to run.
    Reply
  • Velius - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    First, I have to thank everyone who responded to my original post. I was shaking my head afterward submitting my post since the way it was originally written was definitely flamebait. Kudos for being respectful and *helpful* in your responses, when I most certainly deserved an ass-kicking.

    These are all good points (especially antef with respect to my original points) and well expressed. You are right, there are more things that can be customized in Android, but I think you can do it in iOS too - just have to jailbreak it first. The difference, IMO, is that with Android, you *have* to replace most of the defaults because the defaults are really not good. When I used my SGS3, the default keyboard was horrendously slow. SwiftKey 3 rectified that to a large extent, but was a paid app. Why should I have to pay to have a usable keyboard?

    Same with the music player - I disagree, first of all, that Poweramp is better than the iOS music player. I found Poweramp to be underwhelming, with player buttons and icons that look like really badly designed bitmaps. Along these lines, any music player on Android lacks the fine-grained seek capabilities that iOS has (which is called "scrubbing" there). I really missed the ability to seek with greater or lesser granularity, going down to the second. You can't do that in Android - the seeks are all giant leaps. Similar story with volume control. There are only 15 settings on the SGS3 (and I assume Android in general). Most of the time, the music I would listen to would be ideally loud between, say, 12 and 13, but I could never set it to that. If I set the volume to 12, it would be too soft, and if I set it to 13, too loud. In iOS, there is very fine control over volume. And let's not even get to transitions between tracks. There is always a gap in the default SGS3 music player between tracks - this would perhaps have been understandable in 1995, but is completely unacceptable today!

    These little things add up substantially - the list goes on and on - making iOS just more polished. Even the basic OS responsiveness is a deal-breaker. On my SGS3, if I reboot the phone and go to type something up, say in a text message, it takes about 10 seconds before it even registers my keyboard presses. This is mind-boggling, and I truly wonder how many people on online forums say Android is "faster" - it is not, at least definitely not with the OS interface. I really do believe that people who claim Android is faster just haven't used iOS. Once you do, you just can't go back. :3

    Getting back to the original topic, I also don't fully agree that iOS is an appliance. The reason Apple vets software before allowing it to go on the App Store is mostly for quality control. Just search Google for "android apps insecure", and read pages with titles like, "Research says Android users at high risk of installing insecure apps", "Researchers find 1,000 insecure Android apps", and "One in five Android apps is insecure". Yes, you can sideload apps onto your Android phone, but it's a double-edged sword: the Android software ecosystem is a true wild west, with all the attendant issues: buggy or plain crappy software, crashes, malware, insecure apps, etc. I'm not saying Apple's App Store is immune to this, but it's definitely far less prone to it.

    In all, I stand by my original claim: "iOS is an appliance, Android is a true computing experience" is a completely bogus and harmful meme. Why harmful? Because millions of people are buying Android phones in the belief that it's better than iOS, when it just isn't. They are thus robbing themselves of a truly polished, wonderfully designed mobile hardware+software computing platform (iOS on iPhone) that is still the top in its class.

    Peace.
    Reply
  • Velius - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    Just to clarify, the point I made about Android's responsiveness - and examples I gave from my experience - were all based on Jelly Bean 4.1 stock ROM from Samsung. The "project butter" benefits were only really seen when scrolling between pages (and even then, it got choppy as the SGS3 was loading some widgets). Otherwise, when you open a browser or basically any app, and try to scroll, it is noticeably less smooth. It's like it only scrolls in jumps of 20 pixels at a time. Reducing animation times and forcing GPU rendering in the options alleviated this somewhat, but not entirely.

    Again, it boggles the mind how such a powerful device (from the hardware standpoint) can be so slow in its user interface - arguably the most important factor in usability!
    Reply
  • DeciusStrabo - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    for its power, the App selection, the looks, the lightning connector (yes, except the price it's really a great connector), Airplay etc.

    However, I don't like it nearly as much holding it in my hands than my Nexus 10. It's cold, slippery, heavy. You can't really hold it in one hand easily and if you use your body to prop it up if you lie on your couch the edge tends to get really uncomfortable (less than with the iPad 2 but still far too much). As nice as the aluminium looks I prefer the cheaper looking coated plastic of the Nexus 10. Also, speakers on the front > speakers on the back, usually where you tend to hold the thing, even if the one on the iPad is better than the two on the Nexus soundwise.
    Reply
  • maximumGPU - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    what's more concerning is how exactly do you have use for 2 same sized tablets?! Reply
  • eallan - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    Sometimes we like to waste money on toys! Reply
  • seapeople - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    2 people = use for 2 tablets? Perhaps the guy is married? Otherwise, I agree, he's insane. It would be like the most colossal waste of money on the planet to buy multiple tablets within a five year period. I mean, that's like half a thousand dollars... for each! Only a very select few fat cats in our society make thousands of dollars that they can just spend on stuff. Reply
  • mavere - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    I honestly can't decide whether the latter half of your post is sarcasm. Reply

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