The Future of Tablet Technology

Apple practically created the modern tablet market with the iPad, and appropriately until very recently they have been enjoying almost complete dominance. With the release of competitive Android tablets such as the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and Asus Transformer though, Apple’s market share has slipped from 82% in 2010 (just after the launch of the iPad 2) to 65% in 2011, according to numbers from Canaccord Genuity.

That’s projected to fall to 57% in 2012, as more competitive Android tablets continue to be released. It seems likely that Apple will eventually be overcome by the glut of lower-priced Android tablets in every niche, much as they did in the smartphone market. They’re not giving up though — the next iteration of the iPad line, the iPad 3, is expected to be a strong contender for ‘best tablet yet.’

We already know from many component suppliers that Apple has been buying up a large stock of high resolution 10″ displays for use in the next generation iPad. This has been confirmed by recent findings in iOS 5 to references to a new iPad, with a listed resolution of 2048 x 1536.

This would be double the pixel density of the current generation iPad, which sits at 1024 x 768. It’s roughly equivalent to the Retina display of the iPhone 4 and 4S, which comes in at 326 pixels per inch.

The new iPad is also rumoured to come with an upgraded processor. As the iPhone 4S made the jump from single core to dual core, the iPad 3 will make the jump from dual core to quad core.

According to eminent Japanese newspaper Nikkei, Samsung has been asked to produce ever increasing numbers of the new quad core A6 chips. Whilst Samsung and Apple have been at each other’s throats in the courts, they still hold a strong relationship, with Apple being Samsung’s largest client.

So like I mentioned earlier — this new iPad 3 is looking quite scary. While Apple’s quad-core processor has already been already equalled or surpassed by Nvidia’s Tegra 3, the better-than-HD screen will be more of an issue. If suppliers really have sold all of their stock to Apple, then it may be some time before an Android tablet with a comparable pixel density can be launched, and that could hurt Android’s market share until the problem is rectified.

One option available to Android tablet-makers is the possibility of screens of different dimensions. Whilst 10″ has become a popular standard thanks to the iPad, slightly larger or smaller screens could be equally appealing. It’s for this reason that some suppliers are beginning to push 8.9″ screens, as a compromise between full size 10″ displays and smaller 7″ screens.

On the computing power front, it’s a closer battle. Tegra 3, the new quad-core chipset from Nvidia, includes a number of interesting features which could give it the edge over Apple’s A6.

Perhaps the most interesting is the companion core, an energy efficient but slow processor core that automatically takes over during low-intensity operations like watching a video or listening to music. This unique arrangement could allow Tegra-3-powered Android tablets gain a battery life on Apple, which typically leads in this area.

Nvidia’s Tegra 3 has already been used to great effect in the Asus Transformer Prime, which is seeing excellent reviews from major tech sites. The quad-core system-on-chip is also expected to be used in tablets from Acer and Lenovo, and likely quite a few others.

The final piece of the Android argument is the new version 4 of the Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. The tasty snack combines the phone-centric Gingerbread and Tablet-centric Honeycomb into a single unified OS, and has already proven very popular in the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the first ICS phone.

Where previous Android iterations felt a bit stale compared to the svelte look and feel of iOS, Ice Cream Sandwich represents a genuine competitor for the first time. It offers an equally stylish look and a comparably easy to use user experience, on top of Android’s traditional strength in functionality and customisability. Once more applications have been updated to take advantage of the OS, including platform mainstay Flash, Ice Cream Sandwich will be a key weapon in the fight against Apple.

And what a war it will be — if the iPad 3 launches in late Q1 or early Q2 as expected, it will arrive right in the midst of the first quad-core devices from the big Android manufacturers.

Who will win? It’s impossible to know, but my vote goes towards the consumer. With the advancements in tablet technology and increased price pressure from low-cost tablets like the Kindle Fire and HP Touchpad, 2012 is sure to be an excellent time to pick up a new tablet.


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