This year, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) introduced the iPad Pro, which is powered by the company's new A9X processor. However, the company didn't introduce a refreshed iPad Air, instead opting to keep the A8X-powered iPad Air 2 as the company's 10-inch flagship during the holiday shopping season.
That said, according to KGI Securities' Ming-Chi Kuo, a new iPad Air 3 is coming in the first half of 2016. What Kuo has not yet revealed, though, is what applications processor will actually power this next generation iPad.
In this article, I'd like to attempt to make an educated guess as to what chip such a device will use.
Probably not the A9
According to performance tests run by Ars Technica, the A9 chip found inside of the iPhone 6s/6s Plus offers better CPU performance than the A8X chip inside of the iPad Air 2, but roughly the same graphics performance.
The improved CPU performance in the A9 relative to the A8X would certainly make it a worthy upgrade, but the unchanged graphics performance might pose a problem.
Since the iPad is a very much a "consumption" device, and games are a major "consumption" activity, it's unlikely that the company would ship an updated iPad with roughly the same graphics performance that it delivered with iPad Air 2.
I don't believe the A9 is really enough for a next generation iPad Air, particularly as Apple's release cadence for the iPad Air product family seems to have lengthened from a year to more along the lines of a year-and-a-half.
A9X seems the logical choice
The most logical choice for the iPad Air 3, then, is the A9X processor that first made its debut in the iPad Pro. However, one immediate concern is that the A9X was likely designed to accommodate the larger/thicker chassis and larger battery of the iPad Pro, which might mean that it's a bit too power hungry and/or hot to run at full throttle in a much slimmer, smaller iPad Air 3-like design.
If that winds up being the case, Apple can still include the A9X inside of the iPad Air 3 and simply run the graphics processor at a lower frequency than it does in the iPad Pro. There is a very good chance that even an A9X with graphics running at a lower speed (I don't believe the CPU would need to run at a lower speed to fit nicely in an iPad Air 3) could still be configured to run circles around the A8X/A9 in terms of graphics performance.
Supplier implications for both choices
Right now, contract chip manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (NYSE:TSM) has a good chunk of the iPad processor manufacturing business; it is believed to be sole source for the A8 chip inside of the iPad mini 4, A8X inside of the iPad Air 2, and A9X inside of the iPad Pro.
Taiwan Semi's main rival, Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF), is the sole source for the A7 applications processors found inside of the iPad Air and iPad mini 2. Right now, it is very likely that Taiwan Semi gets more iPad-chip-related revenue than Samsung does.
If the iPad Air 3 uses the A9X, then this should be an incremental positive for Taiwan Semi. In this case, I would expect the iPad Air 2 to be pushed down to where the iPad Air sits in Apple's product lineup today, giving Taiwan Semi a larger share of the Apple iPad chip manufacturing business.
If the iPad Air 3 uses the A9 -- which is split between Samsung and Taiwan Semi -- then it starts to look more positive for Samsung (Samsung loses A7 chip orders for the iPad Air as the Air is replaced by the Air 2, but gains share in the flagship Air where it previously had zero share).