iPad 3 looks to be a major bump, will likely be Apple's first LTE modem, may pack its first homemade core, too

Apple, Inc. (AAPL) announced the original iPad in January 2010, and it hit the market in April 2010.  The polished device was undeniably a game-changing product that turned an often-overlooked niche (tablets) into a booming market.   It was about this time last year that Apple sent out its occasions to a special event.  That event -- on March 1 -- turned out to be late Apple CEO and co-founder Steven P. Jobs' last major product announcement -- the iPad 2.

The iPad (first gen.) sold 15 million units in 2010.  The iPad 2 sold 40 million units in 2011 [1][2][3][4], keeping Apple far ahead of would-be Android tablet competitors.  Now excitement is mounting for the iPad 3.

I. What is Known Thus Far

The iPad 3 has been semi-confirmed to have a "Retina" display made by LG Display Comp., Ltd. (KS:034220) (sister company to LG Electronics Inc. (KS:066570)).  A report in The Korean Times quotes LG Display CEO Young Soo Kwon as confirming that Retina-display iPads are in production.  The publication writes, "[Kwon] said more smartphone manufacturers will release new models employing LG’s “Retina Display’’ that has been used in iPhones and iPads."

Retina display
The iPad 3 will finally get the LG Retina display. [Image Source: SlashGear]

The Retina display doubles the pixels, complete with a full three subpixels per pixel (the proper amount).  In an iPhone this works out to a 960x640 resolution (336 ppi).  On the new iPad 3 this will likely work out to 2048x1536 (264 ppi), assuming the aspect ratio doesn't change.

The Retina display was not an Apple idea, but wholly an LG Display idea (it's even coming to Android phones).  The idea was to create a display that was at the maximum resolution scale of the human retina at 12-inches, a common distance for smartphone use/navigation.

iPad 2 v. iPad original
iPad 2 (right) made largely cosmetic changes to Apple's popular first generation iPad (left), shrinking the packaging. [Image Source: Telecom Australia]

Despite this ambitious premise, the Retina display isn't perfect.  Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate Technologies comments claimed that the retina could resolve to 477 ppi at 12 inches (305 mm) from the eyes, or 36 arcseconds per pixel, in an interview with Wired magazine. Discover Magazine Bad Astronomy author Phil Plait clarified the situation further, stating, "If you have [better than 20/20] eyesight, then at one foot away the iPhone 4’s pixels are resolved. The picture will look pixelated. If you have average eyesight, the picture will look just fine."

For those super-vision folks rival South Korean display maker Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KS:005930) has paired with Taiwan's HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) for the HTC Rezound -- which packs a 342 ppi display, with a full 3 subpixels per pixel (Samsung calls this a "Super LCD" or "S-LCD".

Rezound vs. iPhone 4S
The HTC Rezound (right) packs a higher PPI display than LG's Retina display (seen left in the iPhone 4S). [Image Source: Wirefly]

The iPad 3 will not unseat the Rezound or even the iPhone 4.  Its display will be 264 ppi, meaning that it is about a third below the maximum resolution a user with average eyesight can see.  Still it should be a major step up for the iPad, which has trailed Android designs in screen resolution.

II. The Chips

New juicy details emerged three weeks ago when DigiTimes reported that the iPad 3 would fall under two models -- model numbers are J1 and J2 (iPad3,1 and iPad3,2).  While this is to be expected (Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi+Cell modem) the exciting news was that Apple was throwing in an LTE modem -- a first for any Apple device to date.

DigiTimes claims that Apple's final solution for LTE is simply to put in a huge battery, bumping the LTE model from 6,500 mAh to 14,000 mAh.  The publication indicates price will remain constant.

Boy Genius Report today appeared to confirm the dual-model format via leaked boot screen pictures from a "trusted source".

iPad 3 leakiPad 3 screen 2
iPad 3 screen 3iPad 3 screen 4
[Images Source: Boy Genius Report] (click any to enlarge)

The BGR piece raises a new mystery in that it unveils Apple's new CPU code -- S5L8945X (the Apple A4 model was S5L8930X and the A5 was S5L8940X).  BGR states that the CPU is quad-core and stops there.

Here's where it gets interesting.  Two trusted sources -- one close to ARM Holdings plc, and the other an ex-Apple low-level manager/executive, provided information that indicates that Apple is preparing to build its own custom ARM core for the first time.

I first spoke to the ex-Apple source, who told me that the firm was "building its own quad-core CPU."

At the time I was reticent of the source's claims.  After all -- this same person was the source of my Apple internet television report.  While other sources have since corroborated that an Apple internet TV is indeed a top secret R&D project at Apple, my source's timeframe of a probable fall launch, possible 2012 launch  -- while still possibly accurate -- seems suspect.  In other words, the source did seem to have some high level information, but seemed to be a bit behind/incorrect on a couple of the important details.

But a second source at CES 2012, close to ARM Holdings offered further credibility to this notion, commenting that Apple had reportedly obtained a full ARM instruction set license -- joining only a handful of companies like Marvell Technology Group, Ltd. (MRVLand Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) who license the instruction set for use in custom designs.

Apple or its chipmaking subsidiaries -- P.A. Semi and Intrinsity -- do not officially acknowledge holding ARM licenses.  However Intrinsity was on ARM's list of public licensees as recently as 2010 [thanks, WayBack Machine!], though this was presumably an IP-core related license.

For the A4, most of the work was done by Samsung, but Apple devoted its Intrinsity staff to souping up the homely Cortex-A8, allowing it to run at faster clock speed.  Hence the "Hummingbird" core -- found on the iPhone 4 and the Galaxy S -- was launched.  For the Apple A5, it worked with Samsung on a similar approach, taking ARM Holding's Cortex-A9 core, souping it up, and sourcing the finished SoC to Samsung for production.

But Apple -- likely via the combined talents of Intrinsity -- a logic block maker -- and P.A. Semi -- who was founded by StrongARM creator Daniel W. Dobberpuhl (now retired) -- reportedly is now building a brand new core, which will not be a mere modification of an ARM Holdings IP Core.

CPU Baking with Kanye
Apple is reportedly baking its own GPUs in a bid to get better chips, woo more tablet customers. [Original Image Source: The Onion (modfications: Dailytech/ Jason Mick] 

What this means for performance, battery life, etc. remains to be seen.  If Apple indeed does opt to take this R&D design to production, the results should be interesting to witness. P.A. Semi reportedly suffered a lot of attrition -- both in retirements and defections -- after the Apple acquisition.  It remains to be seen if the combined P.A. Semi and Intrinsity teams (along with Apple's recent hires) have the experience necessary to make a core for the world's best-selling tablet.

Apple is a savvy competitor and it likely won't drop this chip until its ready.  So don't be surprised if the A6 is not a fully custom design, yet, though its equally possible that it will be.

It also remains to be seen the new chip design our sources reveal is the A6.  But it seems like the timing is certainly adding up.  Quad-core chip, check.

The humorous thing is that even if Apple is baking its own cores for the A6, it will reportedly still have to rely on Samsung for production.  Apple wants the A6 produced on the 28 nm node and was hoping to ditch Samsung -- whom it has grown to be a bitter legal [1][2][3][4] and sales rival [1][2] of.

But Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Comp., Ltd.'s (TPE:2330) 28 nm process is reportedly having some serious yield issues.  So Apple had to come crawling back to its ex (fab) -- Samsung.

Some things never change.

(The new A6 is expected to incorporate a new and slightly improved graphics core from Imagination Technologies Group Plc.'s (LON:IMG) PowerVR series on-die.)

Sources: DigiTimes, Boy Genius Report, The Korean Times

"It seems as though my state-funded math degree has failed me. Let the lashings commence." -- DailyTech Editor-in-Chief Kristopher Kubicki

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