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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  • s44 - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    First pixel density is everything, now color calibration... Coincidentally when Apple starts promoting their selling point. Reply
  • zanon - Thursday, December 06, 2012 - link

    None of this is new stuff kid. Pixel density has been something that a lot of us have wanted for a long time, it just somehow never was a priority for anyone. I can easily remember being awed by the IBM T220 (a 22" 3840×2400 [WQUXGA] screen) back in 2001. It used multiple dual link DVI, and the launch price was around $18k, dropping to around $8.5k a year or two later. I hoped back then that it would rapidly proliferate and descend at least to the mere "high end" level, rather then "stratospheric", but it was not to be. Similarly, color has also always mattered for a lot of us. I'm sitting in front of an NEC display built with that in mind, but there has been a whole market of higher end displays and calibration hardware since practically the dawn of color.

    Just because it's only now that, at long last, the industry is moving out of its previous equilibrium doesn't mean there's some conspiracy or "moving targets" or whatever other stupid BS you think of. It would have been nice to see this getting pushed harder and wider literally 10 years ago. Better late then never though. Excellent color and density should be the standard, not the exception, and I'm delighted to see everything suddenly leaping forward again. Density came first, as the most obvious, lowest hanging fruit. Color is next, first with tighter filters, hopefully next year with IGZO and quantum dot films. 120 Hz becoming standard everywhere would be nice too. Whoever helps make that happen gets a hearty thanks from me, even if I never buy any of their stuff directly.
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    You are so right here! The introduction of the LCD set us back at least a decade, in terms of color quality, refresh rate, and pixel density.

    I'm not a great fan of Apple the company, but some things they do right, and do better than the PC industry. Displays in portable devices is one of those things. I'm not in the market for anyone's tablet, but I am tempted by the Retina Display notebooks.

    PC portable computer manufacturers take notice: even a somewhat anti-Apple person is considering buying Apple over your junk displays. Time for you to step up your game!
    Reply
  • Arbee - Friday, December 07, 2012 - link

    I would kill for a 20" or 25" 4:3 LCD panel with something like 2048x1536 resolution on a good quality IPS panel with decent color fidelity.

    Heck, at this point I'd like to see any new LCD display that's 4:3 other than what's in the iPad. 4:3 is still preferable for a lot of actual work on computers (programming, word processing, spreadsheets, etc) but the industry decided unilaterally we were all just content consumers and we need a screen optimized only for movies.
    Reply
  • tim851 - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    This is the "logic" of the anti 16:x crowd that I don't get.

    So you would kill for a 25" 4:3 panel with 2048x1536 pixels.

    Why?

    You are aware that a 30" 16:10 panel with 2560x1600px is
    1) physically higher by almost an inch
    2) has 64 more vertical pixels

    Why the dislike for an extra 512 horizontal pixels?

    Also, if you are willing to accept a 20" 4:3 screen: a 27" 2560x1440 screen that sells from 300$ on ebay is also physically higher (by more than 1 inch) and only has 94 viewer vertical pixels (6%)...
    Reply
  • londiste - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    who said anything about dislike for horizontal pixels? it is dislike for lack of vertical pixels.

    anandtech site we're on fits just fine into half of my 1920 horizontal pixels, but the 120 extra vertical pixels that my 1920x1200 screen has over 1080p are extremely useful.
    Reply
  • tim851 - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    The guy I responded to would "kill" for a display with 2048x1536 pixels.

    I wonder why, when he could have bought a display with 2560x1600 years ago.

    That is MORE VERTICAL PIXELS and MORE PHYSICAL SCREEN HEIGHT.

    Also, Anandtech is a very vertical site, I don't see how 120 extra pixels is helping you much there. Is scrolling 10 screens down instead of 9 really bothering you?

    I use Firefox with the tree-style tab addon which puts the tabs in the sidebar, freeing up vertical space and practically using horizontal space. A lot of applications these days are optimized to use horizontal space.
    Had a 21" 4:3 CRT until three years ago and let me tell you I gladly accepted a 16:9 24" LCD.

    I for one prefer using two 'shallow' windows side-by-side instead of once very deep window.
    Reply
  • Olaf van der Spek - Saturday, December 08, 2012 - link

    1600p being 5x as expensive as 1080p is the real problem.

    Yes, more vertical pixels really matter in some cases. It's a bit like running out of memory and having to use swap, it's much slower.
    Reply
  • Arbee - Monday, December 10, 2012 - link

    I don't dislike the extra horizontal pixels, I just want more vertical pixels to go with it. I am a programmer; it is a *substantial* productivity boost to be able to see an entire function on the screen at once. Seeing more width is comparably of very limited benefit.

    And a $300 27" anything is unlikely to have a good-quality panel in it. I am so done with screens that go purple if you don't keep your head perfectly still (that on a $1800 Toshiba laptop) or have a weird tint to them that you can't get rid of.
    Reply
  • xyzzy1 - Wednesday, December 12, 2012 - link

    Much like Digital/CD set back musical reproduction. Digital is still trying exceed what top end analugue playback achieved! Off topic but couold not resist.... Reply

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