In the fall of 2015, Apple (AAPL 1.11%) introduced its very first very large screen tablet -- the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Alongside that device, Apple delivered a quite substantial refresh to the iPad mini, a device that the company had essentially neglected for an entire product cycle.
What many found disappointing, however, is that the company didn't update the 9.7-inch iPad Air. Although there are various plausible explanations for why the company didn't do so, the fact of the matter is that those who wanted to upgrade their iPads this holiday season didn't really get anything new to upgrade to.
I hypothesized earlier this month that Apple may be planning a fairly substantial update with the iPad Air 3, and it would seem that this will indeed be the case.
4K display coming soon?
With the launch of the iPad 3 in early 2012, Apple introduced a very high resolution (at the time) display, with 2048-by-1536 resolution. Since then, Apple has made improvements to its 9.7-inch iPad display technology, but it has kept the display resolution at 2048 by 1536 through several subsequent iterations (iPad 4, iPad Air, iPad Air 2).
According to a recent report from DIGITIMES, citing sources in the Taiwan supply chain, the next generation iPad Air, which is slated for a March 2016 unveiling, will "come equipped with a 4K resolution panel."
Although the typical 4K resolutions don't quite fit the signature 4:3 aspect ratio of the iPad Air, I do think Apple will pack enough pixels into the display to make it comparable in terms of overall pixel count to what is commonly known as a 4K display (i.e., roughly 8.3 million pixels).
To drive this 4K display...more RAM and potentially an A9X?
DIGITIMES also claims that the iPad Air 3 will have "up to 4 [gigabytes] in [sic] RAM." This suggests that Apple may include different levels of main memory in different models, potentially based on storage tier.
Additionally, in order to successfully drive a very high resolution display at good performance levels, particularly in games and other graphically intensive scenarios, I believe that Apple will use the A9X chip found in the iPad Pro rather than the A9 chip found in the iPhone 6s/6s Plus.
It will be interesting to see if the A9X inside of the iPad Air 3 (assuming that Apple indeed goes with that chip) will run at the same speeds that it did in the iPad Pro or if it will be run at lower frequencies for thermal/battery life reasons.
An iPad Air 3 that's looking as though it's worth the wait
If Apple delivers significantly better system performance with an updated processor as well as a much better/sharper display, then I'd say that is a worthwhile improvement over the aging iPad Air 2.
However, the key question is whether it will be enough to convince many of the members of the current iPad installed base -- particularly those hanging on to older generation iPads -- to finally upgrade. Indeed, data presented by my fellow Foolish colleague Evan Niu in a recent column showed that, as of October 2015, 20% of the iPad installed base is still using the early 2011 iPad 2.
A good 23% of the installed base is using either a third generation iPad or a fourth generation iPad, and 17% are using the iPad Air. 3% are still clinging on to their first generation iPads!
It's not clear what Apple can do -- if anything -- in order to get those holdouts to upgrade, but having new, interesting, and best-in-class products to sell can only help.