Macotakara recently reported some details about Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) long-rumored iPad Pro. The report appears to claim (at least if I'm reading the translation correctly) that this next-generation iPad will feature a 12.2-inch LCD panel, come in thicker than Apple's just-released iPad Air 2, and potentially feature stereo audio. The report also appears to state that this new iPad Pro could launch in the third quarter of 2015.
While this isn't much to go on, I think that it's worth exploring the potential performance characteristics of whatever chip Apple puts into this purported iPad Pro.
Understanding the usage model of such a device
The Macotakara report suggests the supposed iPad Pro will compete with the Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Surface Pro 3. While it's important not to read too much into that, a device that "competes" with the Surface Pro 3 would loosely fit this description: a device that offers a compelling "traditional" PC (or, in Apple's case, Mac) experience, as well as a strong tablet experience.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has criticized Microsoft's strategy of trying to turn "tablets into PCs and PCs into tablets." This means that if Apple is actually pursuing this iPad Pro, it has fundamentally devised a way to offer the best of both worlds without the compromises that convertible devices have brought.
For example, a common complaint that users seem to have with respect to the Surface Pro is that placing the device on one's lap and trying to type is difficult. For Yoga-like devices, the "tablet" mode is often viewed as unwieldy since the resulting "tablet" is much thicker than traditional iPad-like devices.
It begins with the choice of microprocessor
While I could write endless reams of copy trying to speculate what Apple might do with the iPad Pro, I'm probably not going to correctly guess the exact functionality and usage model the company might be gunning for with this rumored device. So I'm not going to try.
However, I do follow the world of mobile system-on-chip products quite closely, which emboldens me to guess at what a system-on-chip designed specifically for an iPad Pro would look like.
A bigger, bolder chip might be required
An iPad Pro would almost certainly cost more than an iPad Air. This means Apple would have more freedom to use a higher-quality display than what is found on the iPad Air, and its chip teams would likely have the freedom to pursue larger, more complex processors.
Furthermore, given that the usage model for such an iPad Pro is likely to be significantly more sophisticated than what the iPad mini and iPad Air family of tablets enable, Apple might do a custom system-on-chip for the iPad Pro rather than reuse the chip that goes into the next iPad Air.
What would an iPad Pro focused chip look like?
Note carefully the timing cited by Macotakara: a third-quarter 2015 launch. If all goes well for Apple, it might be able to build its next-generation family of processors on a 14- or 16-nanometer process from either Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF) or Taiwan Semiconductor (NYSE:TSM), respectively. If not, next year's A-chips might end up being new designs on this year's familiar 20-nanometer manufacturing process.
At any rate, based on what Apple did with the A8 and the A8X systems-on-chip this year, Apple apparently put in two CPU cores and Imagination Technologies' (NASDAQOTH:IGNMF) second-most powerful graphics IP into the iPhone-focused chip. The iPad-focused chip now gets three CPU cores and Imagination's best graphics processor. Assuming next year's iPhone chip is called A9, and the iPad chip is A9X, Apple could do one of three things:
- Faster A9X: Apple could simply take the A9X and run the CPU and graphics cores at higher frequencies. This would consume more power, but the iPad Pro would likely feature a larger battery than what is found inside the iPad Air.
- A9X+: Apple could put together a custom chip for the iPad Pro and call it A9X+. This could feature an even larger graphics block, particularly as Imagination has implied that future PowerVR GPUs will feature a broader range of performance levels. Apple could also, in this case, throw in a fourth CPU core.
- Do nothing: Apple could just reuse the A9X as-is with no changes from the variant deployed in the next-generation iPad Air.
If I had to guess, I would say that option 1 is the most likely, followed by 2 and then 3. Option 1 would give Apple more leverage from the design work that it got with the A9X, particularly as Apple seems uninterested in putting its top-of-the-line A-chips inside the iPad mini. Option 2 would likely yield the optimal product solution, but it would be the most expensive.
Option 3 is obviously the cheapest, but Apple would run the risk of not providing enough extra over the iPad Air to offer a compelling value proposition.
We don't actually know whether Apple's iPad Pro is even coming, or if it is, what will be inside. However, I think that if Apple does release an iPad Pro, processor performance will be critical to enabling the best user experience. To that end, I hope Apple builds a custom chip for the device, but expect that, for cost reasons, the company will use a higher-clocked variant of the chip it puts into the next iPad Air.