Tech Focus: iPad Mini and the Fourth Gen iPad

Digital Foundry's take on the latest brace of Apple tablets

We were expecting just one new tablet launch, but in the event, we got two - one of which came out of nowhere. The reveal of the iPad Mini surprised nobody, but the unveiling of a fourth generation iPad just seven months after the reveal of its predecessor managed to escape the notice of the usually well-informed Apple rumour mill. As it happens, both launches proved to be rather controversial, each in their own way.

Pricing and positioning of the new iPad mini is curious to say the least. Just over a month ago in reaction to Apple's last event, I wondered whatever happened to the iPad Mini, suggesting that the £249/$299 iPod Touch was an excellent addition to a range that included the £329/$399 iPad 2 and the £399/$499 new iPad. Surely Apple wouldn't launch against itself with the iPad mini?

"iPad mini will undoubtedly expand Apple's market but it makes the new iPod Touch look even more pricey and the older more expensive iPad 2 now looks totally irrelevant. Meanwhile the Nexus 7 is still £80 cheaper"

In essence, that is exactly what it has done. At £269/$329, the gap between the new tablet and the fifth gen Touch is wafer-thin, and while Apple was keen to point out the advantages the mini has over the Nexus 7 during its conference, the fact is that it's £80 more expensive (£100 if you're happy with an 8GB Android). The iPad mini looks to be the superior product for all the reasons Apple came up with at the event, but the bottom line is that in acknowledging the cheap 7-inch tablets with their own version, the firm may well have helped to emphasise just how inexpensive they are in comparison - and how pricey the iPod Touch is too.

The fact that Apple is still selling the iPad 2 at £329/$399 when they have a more refined, more portable version that's significantly cheaper is equally mystifying. Looking at the specs for the new Mini, it is essentially identical to the iPad 2 in almost every way - specifically in its 1024x768 resolution display, driven by a dual-core A5 processor. Battery life is still at the signature iPad ten-hour level, storage is identical, and it features a number of other features that actually improve upon its older, more expensive counterpart - specifically the provision of the new Lightning connector and the option of a 4G LTE modem.

It's an interesting turn of events: we have a new launch that's too expensive compared to its competitors but diminishes the value proposition of the iPod touch, while at the same time it is cheap enough to condemn the old iPad 2 to irrelevancy, bearing in mind that the overall functionality of the device is effectively identical.

At least it's good news for game developers though. The range of commonalities the iPad mini has with the iPad 2 mean that existing apps will gain a new audience as more devices enter the iOS ecosphere. In addition to that, game-makers won't have to put in any R&D effort into getting to know the capabilities of the new hardware - it's very much a known quantity. There's no new resolution to support either - always a concern for game-makers whenever a new Apple device comes along. In terms of gaming power, the dual-core ARM Cortex A9s in concert with the PowerVR SGX543MP2 graphics core still commands a decent advantage over the majority of Android tablets and smartphones out there, and while it's two CPU processor cores down compared to the Nexus 7, IMG's graphics technology was so far ahead of its time when the iPad 2 launched that as a games machine, all the A5 devices - including the fifth gen iPod touch - remain competitive in demanding 3D applications.

"iPad Mini is essentially a downsized iPad 2 - good news for customers looking for a cheaper Apple tablet and excellent for developers who already know the hardware inside-out"

While the iPad Mini was the star of the show, we shouldn't forget that a second iPad was also unveiled - a fourth gen version of the classic 9.7-inch design that will be released just over seven months after its predecessor. Much as I admire the achievements in display technology found in the third gen Retina iPad, I wasn't so impressed with the compromises Apple had to make to rush the product out. A 45nm A5X processor sucked a lot of juice and got uncomfortably warm at times, and the increased battery load also required larger cells - bigger and more powerful than the batteries in the 11-inch Macbook Air. Although almost identical visually to the iPad 2, its successor was actually thicker and heavier too. It was a machine at odds with Apple's usual philosophy in providing generational leaps in mobile technology while at the same time making their devices smaller, thinner and easier to hold in the hand.

There was also the sense that the third gen iPad was simply not as well balanced as its predecessor. The GPU was twice as powerful as that found in the iPad 2, but it simply didn't have the power to run demanding games at four times the resolution level of its stable-mate, resulting in many games running at sub-native resolutions or else cutting back on effects work or operating with lower frame-rates.

The fourth gen iPad appears to address some of these issues. The new A6X processor promises to double CPU and graphics performance over the current model and should now match and probably even exceed the GPU resource vs. pixel ratio of the iPad 2. With iPhone 5, Apple has demonstrated just how much power and efficiency it can extract through its bespoke architecture fabricated via Samsung's 32nm process, so there should be no problem with the new tablet retaining the exceptional battery life that has defined the product. It is a bit of a shame that Apple's presser didn't concentrate on what the new A6X hardware is capable of though. Assuming the claims are true, a 2x graphics boost over the third-gen iPad makes the A6X by far the most powerful mobile graphics processor on the market - easily out-pacing iPhone 5 - and I'd like to have seen that fact highlighted and some grand new apps revealed to showcase that.

Perhaps the reason we didn't see the firm dwell too much on the fourth-gen iPad is down to the fact that it's arrived way too soon. We've been conditioned to accept that our devices will be upgraded annually, something that's already difficult to swallow when you're dealing with £400-£600 pieces of hardware. With so many mobile telephones replaced on contract, it's easier to absorb the pain with the iPhone across monthly payments, but iPad is a completely different story. For Apple to have replaced - and indeed discontinued - the third gen model in mere months is going to be very difficult for many customers to accept. Many people will be asking why Apple has risked invoking consumer wrath in this manner - a couple of explanations spring to mind.

"If the annual product refresh has now been reset to September/October, we can assume that iPhone gets the new processing tech first, with a customised tablet variant arriving very soon after"

The obvious conclusion is that we're looking at the company moving across to a new engineering strategy. Previously, iPad would be the first product to receive Apple's latest processor, with the new iPhone receiving a downclocked version of the same chip six months later. Now it is clear that the emphasis has changed: if the annual refresh has now been reset to September/October, we can assume that iPhone gets the new processing tech first, with a customised tablet variant arriving very soon after.

The extent of that customisation is intriguing: in terms of raw GPU power, iPhone 5 manages to outperform the third gen iPad, but it's a close battle. For the new tablet to offer so much more graphical power than its predecessor strongly suggests that A6X offers more GPU cores and perhaps a boost to clock speed too in comparison to the iPhone 5. Perhaps it's an acceptance from Apple of the reality that running a 2048x1536 display requires far more processing power than that allocated to the 1136x640 screen found in iPhone 5.

Resetting the annual refresh clock also affords Apple some breathing space in preparing for the arrival of the mobile parts designed with 28nm fabrication in mind. The A6 and presumably the A6X both feature customised ARM Cortex A9 CPU cores with PowerVR SGX543 graphics - but the future is all about ARM's A15 core and PowerVR Rogue, which if well-informed sources are to be believed, will finally see Xbox 360-level GPU power make its way to mobile platforms. Rogue was originally planned to debut in SoCs arriving in Q4 this year - Sony's new NovaThor platform for one - but it now seems far more likely that it will arrive towards the end of H1 in 2013. Bearing in mind the millions of units Apple has to fabricate to accommodate both iPhone and iPad, moving the tablet into line with the phone's launch window in Q4 makes a whole lot of sense - not to mention allowing it to capitalise more effectively on the holiday season spending season.

It's an effective, logical business decision for Apple, but at the same time the fact that the third gen iPad was released at all demonstrates clearly that the company's products are now profit, rather than design-focused. The A6 and A6X would have been completed from an engineering perspective back in March: Apple launched the "new iPad" knowing that its A5X processor wasn't entirely up to the task, and that the A6X would be available soon after. It launched a product for £399/$499 that was merely "good enough" but obviously not the best that it could possibly be. Bearing in mind Steve Jobs' obsessive quest for the very best user-experience, it's hard to believe that he would have allowed this to happen on his watch.

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Latest comments (22)

Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
More of the same for a new high price...

The iPAD Mini makes the iPOD touch look REALLY REALLY expensive,

And for those who went out and bought an iPAD3.... >>>> SUCKS TO BE YOU... SUPER SUCKS

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Rick Lopez on 24th October 2012 4:18pm

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Heheh. I have a iPad 3. It works ok but reading the article above, I feel post Steve jobs the proverbial I-ball has dropped..a lot, and it might be all just one giant white religion of chanching instead of true bleeding edge innovation per iteration

So yeah it sucks :)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Dr. Chee Ming Wong on 24th October 2012 1:22pm

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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
will finally see Xbox 360-level GPU power make its way to mobile platforms
The next person with a tech background that says this should be fired on the spot.
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Show all comments (22)
Adam Campbell Product Manager, Azoomee7 years ago
Agree with Jim Webb, we're not even close and people keep saying this every time there's a new device out that still has nowhere near the 360's power. The Playstation Vita 'just about' competes with the original Xbox on raw performance and that's a particularly souped up mobile device...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Adam Campbell on 24th October 2012 2:35pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
Xbox 360-level GPU power .
Actually, that is exactly the performance PowerVR hopes to achieve with the Series 6 (so called Rogue). To put it in perspective, the gpu in the 360 is a 7 year old tech.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Keresztes on 24th October 2012 2:50pm

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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
a particularly souped up mobile device
Just like the iPhone5 or the Ipad 4th gen.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
I have to say I was a little puzzled by the we are superior jibe against nexus 7. While the iPad Mini is thinner, it's also got LESS not more screen. 1024 vs 1280. The web page display at the start in portrait clearly showed the page displayed fully on the N7 but not quite fitting to the mini's supposedly bigger screen. The later tablet optimised apps were all correct in that android doesn't yet have that. I can't see how I would ever justify double the nexus price just to have lte. Especially as (If what we all suspect is true) a 32gb 3g version of the nexus will materialise as soon as next week and probably for the same money as the lowest end mini with wifi.

I just don't get what apple is doing. We all know that next year we will miraculously see a retina display mini for the same price. In fact I'm pretty sure the only reason it's not here yet is because apple haven't worked out how to get more than about 4 hours battery out of a tablet that thin with an A6 and a retina display.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
The share price went down on the announcements, which is strange.
The next, next iPad has annoyed a lot of loyal Apple customers, but they will get over it and shell out. Selling their old machine on eBay means the upgrade cost isn't that great.
The mini is just fabulous and know exactly what they are doing.
And for those who haven't realised that means maximising shareholder return using obsolescence marketing in a marketing driven company that uses technology as a marketing tool.
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 7 years ago
XBOX 360 level power? That was cool 6 years ago...

Do these people even play games?
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Bruce Kennedy BAhons Creative Director, Kennedy Monk Limited7 years ago
The iPad 4 is just a spec bump. For other previous apple hardware, this sort of single spec change wouldn't even merit an event or announcement. It's as much about bring it in line with the lightning connector as any thing else. Nice tidy product line-up etc. Has the iPad 3 suddenly become useless? Of course not, it's still amazing. Feeling 'shat-on' by Apple is a) irrational and b) the norm. You get used to it believe me!
The iPad mini was far too long coming, but thank heavens it's finally here. I'm certain history will repeat itself - the "to touch it is to want it" phenomenon - just watch a bazillon of these little critters fill up christmas stockings around the world.
And lack of retina... bah, who cares. Sure it's gorgeous to have, but to me it's a perc, a bragging right even, rather than an essential. I have an old old iPad 1 and I never look at the screen and think: "oh damn, that's hideous!!" - People seem obsessed with pixels - to me it's not the amount of pixels, it's what they're doing.

Jus sayin'.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
XBOX 360 level power? That was cool 6 years ago...
This is a mobile chip consuming about about 5% of what the Xenon's gpu uses. Assuming, of course they dont come up with a 130W mobile gpu and the next ipad will use a miniature fusion reactor... :)
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd7 years ago
The Vita is quite a bit weaker than an Xbox 360 as well... also no, mobile GPUs are currently around high end 2003 PCs. We're a good 2 years from "Xbox 360 power" in a tablet, and even then it may not happen due to energy and cooling concerns.
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Fyzard Brown Sales Associate, VideoGameAdvantage7 years ago
They have to get past Original XBOX level graphics first. When I see Doom 3 on the IPAD or Android with the same graphics as the Original XBOX, I will acknowledge that there maybe some truth to them getting near the 360's power within 3-5 years.
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Adrian Herber7 years ago
Great article. I agree with Bruce Kennedy that one more factor in the iPad 4 announcement was that they needed to get the lightning connector standard across the range as quickly as possible.

I too was surprised to see the iPad 2 continue on. It's sitting at an awkward price point between the mini and the iPad 4, is now the only tablet with the old 30-pin connector, and the position of budget iPad has been thoroughly replaced by the mini. Perhaps Apple have some iPad2 stock to sell over Christmas then they'll quietly drop it from the range?
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago

Do you have an iPad 3 by any chance. You know the Old New iPad as it should now be called.

Jus sayin' ;)
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
@Peter Dwyer

The only Apple product I own is a very old iPod, which is gathering dust somewhere from when I got fed up with the sound quality.
However at work we have lots of Apple products.

Interestingly in the late 1970s I went to Cupertino and they offered me the UK Apple distributorship!
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
3.2Ghz PowerPC processor and an AMD 7 series graphics processor whilst fitting power footprints that are shooting at around 13 Watts
The Xenon is an in-order CPU and relatively weak floating point performance by offering around 96 nominal gflops. A5Xs offer 16 nominal, and thats on 800mhz and only two cores. Plus its not the fastest ARM on the market. I am in no way imply that mobiles/tablets will compete with consoles, but an improved ARM A15 or similar with more than 2 cores on 2.5ghz can get quite close to the Xenon. Cant say anything about the GPUs, but the progress so far seems promising.
The Xenon is an old piece by now, mainstream x86s surpassed it.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development7 years ago
The only Apple product I own is a very old iPod, which is gathering dust somewhere from when I got fed up with the sound quality.
However at work we have lots of Apple products.
You heard it here first, Bruce doesn't even own any Apple products, except for the one gathering dust. Tut tut tut.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.7 years ago
Tom, the Xenos GPU puts out 250 Gflops. This is where the "we will finally see Xbox 360-level GPU power make its way to mobile platforms" comments always make me laugh.
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 7 years ago
Xenos GPU puts out 250 Gflops
And 500 million triangles. Putting it onto perspective, the initial spec for the PowerVR Rogue6 with 4 cores is at 380M. I only have specs for the current gen PVRs, but they are only on 28.8Gflops at 200mhz. 543MP3s in the ipad run at 266mhz, so that would put that figure around 30-35. I think this already classifies as console level GPU power, even if it is not directly comparable to the Xenon in terms of features or performance. Different needs, really.
The G6230 and G6430 as products promise 1TFLOPS at no suggestion of power usage. The Xbox360 is 7+ years old, and soon going to be past generation.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tom Keresztes on 25th October 2012 2:43pm

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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 7 years ago
Actually the first and obvious problem with the statement "we will finally see Xbox 360-level GPU power make its way to mobile platforms" is that by that time we will already have had the next next generation for about a year or two. Power requirements coupled with the retina displays, that Apple and others are now putting up, pretty much guarantee that tablets will never reach the moving target of consoles until new consoles stop being made.

It's like the mistake Nintendo made by shouting to the hills that their brand new console will be "At least as good as the PS3 and 360" just as these consoles are on their way to moth balls. May as well have shouted "I'm at least as good as that old nearly dead guy over there!!" To a catwalk super model!
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 7 years ago
Peter, your argument seems to imply that the next console generation will be as big a leap over this one as this was over the last. But while in terms of specs it will, in terms of experience the gulf isn't nearly as vast.

My PC, with an i5-3450 and GTX 560, is probably somewhere around the power of the next console generation, and I quite appreciate the improvement when I compare the same game on it and my PS3. But even I see it as just a nice little improvement, not a game-changer as the PS3 was over the PS2. I expect that most consumers would barely notice the difference.
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