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Does a 4K Display Make Sense for Apple Inc.'s iPad Air 3?

By Ashraf Eassa - Feb 27, 2016 at 8:30AM

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Though initially a bit far-fetched, this rumor could actually make sense.

A report from Digitimes some time ago suggested that Apple's (AAPL 1.62%) next-generation iPad Air, known as the iPad Air 3, will feature a display with a "4K resolution panel." Some believe that this report isn't accurate, as a "4K" resolution panel on the iPad Air 3 would result in a display with substantially greater pixel density than even the display on the recently launched iPad Pro.

I submit that this argument doesn't really hold up. Here's why.

The iPad Mini has a sharper display than the Air ...
The iPad Mini, which is a smaller (and cheaper) device than the iPad Air, packs a display with the same exact resolution as the iPad Air -- 2048-by-1536. That means the iPad Mini's display features a pixel density of 324 pixels per inch, noticeably greater than that of the iPad Air or the iPad Pro, both of which come in at just 264 pixels per inch.

So just going by historical precedent, there's nothing here that suggests that Apple's larger devices must have higher pixel density and thus sharper displays than their smaller, cheaper counterparts.

The iPad Pro is actually pretty "old"
The iPad Pro was originally supposed to launch in the spring of 2015, according to an article published by Bloomberg Business, and was delayed because "elements of the hardware, software, and accompanying stylus" weren't ready in time for a spring launch.

That means that everything about it -- save for, perhaps, the A9X chip that was pulled into the device (and I suspect that Apple just used the iPad Air 3 motherboard for the iPad Pro) -- was designed around a spring 2015 launch.

The iPad Air 3, on the other hand, is a device that was apparently scheduled to launch in the spring of 2016 this whole time. This means that the company -- and its suppliers -- had the luxury of extra development time to get the technologies, including the display, just right for the launch.

Hey, a sharper display is a cool selling point
Apple's iPad faces a couple of issues in the marketplace. On one hand, larger-screen phones are eating away at the traditional tablet market. To convince owners of large-screen phones that there's value in owning an even larger-screen tablet, Apple needs to include some interesting new features.

In addition to the competition that iPad faces from the iPhone, Apple faces competition from the iPads it sold people in prior years. Many people view their older iPads as "good enough," so the improvements Apple brings to newer devices need to be so compelling that even if people don't upgrade out of need, they'll upgrade out of want for a dramatically better device.

Apple is trying, but don't count on iPad to be a growth superstar
I believe that Apple will do a phenomenal job with the iPad Air 3; it should be a substantial upgrade from the iPad Air 2, and for iPad enthusiasts, I'd imagine it'll be something of a "no-brainer" buy.

Unfortunately for Apple, most people aren't iPad enthusiasts.

At some point, iPad sales have to bottom out -- and I believe they'll bottom out at a point well above zero, particularly as users holding on to older iPads eventually upgrade. When those people so, Apple looks like it'll be ready to serve them with solid products. 

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