Scores of new tablets have appeared in the past few months, and now that we know what the third-generation Apple iPad will offer when it ships March 16, here's the verdict: Android tablet vendors, get busy. Apple's specs blow past most rivals, whether shipping, announced, or on deck. Expect competing tablet makers to rush back to the drawing board and get a plan B in order to compete.
Check our handy chart, which pits the third-generation Apple iPad against recently announced and shipping Android 10-inch class tablets. It becomes instantly clear upon scanning this chart that Apple has a big specs advantage in its resolution its quad-core graphics engine (even though the A5X system-on-chip remains a dual-core Cortex A9-based architecture, as seen in iPad 2). For all its advances, though, Apple takes a surprising step backwards in one area, leaving a gap where Android tablets may continue to try to innovate. However, the new iPad's overall specs are so dominant leaves a Herculean challenge for Android tablets.
High-Res Displays Take Center Stage
For all the talk at CES and Mobile World Congress earlier this year of high-definition tablet displays, we saw only two models -- the Asus Transformer Pad Infinity and the Acer Iconia Tab A700, each offering a 1920-by-1200 pixel display -- playing in this space. Other tablet manufacturers say that high component prices continue to hold back the high-resolution, high pixel-per-inch tablet displays.
Now Apple launches an even higher resolution display, and at the same price as last year's model. Apple's Retina Display, at 2048 by 1536 pixels, and 264 pixels per inch, exceeds the resolutions announced so far by the Android tablet makers. And those announced tablets aren't even arriving until late spring or even early summer. The Androids may be the first to announce, but they'll be late to the party, and come with less resolution. That combination makes for an uphill battle for relevance, to be sure.
Meanwhile, some of the biggest players in the Android space haven't said "boo" about getting a high-resolution display. Yes, Amazon and Samsung, I'm looking straight at you. The year is still young, but Apple's announcement applies pressure in a big way. Amazon might pass on the more expensive high-res display this year, as the company is clearly competing on price and its content sales. But Samsung didn't reveal its high-resolution cards at Mobile World Congress last week, focusing its energies instead on unveiling the Galaxy Note 10.1 -- and pared-down second-gen versions of its Galaxy Tab 10.1 and 7.0 tablets.
Apple's Price Advantage
It's no surprise that Apple can get the volume production scale to introduce all of these new features at the same price as last year. With iPad pricing starting at $499 for 16GB, the 10-inch class Android tablets will be hard-pressed to make inroads on Apple's market share.
The Android tablets have been struggling to offer competitive prices competitive, let undercut the iPad -- and that's at the current hardware specs. The new iPad will have several months head start on its closest announced competitors, spec-wise, and the pressure is now on for Asus and Acer to deliver tablets at a lower price. After all, why sell a tablet at the same price with lesser specs; at that point, the consumer might just as well buy an iPad. Yes, I realize some users prefer an Android tablet, and therefore will still buy an Android model over iPad; but clearly, based on current tablet sales data and Apple's crushing lead over Android, these users remain in the minority. Apple's strong app ecosystem and emphasis on the experience are strong pluses in the iPad's favor, and without price as a differentiator, Android tablets will have an uphill battle in the market.
Apple updated its camera to 5 megapixels, and claims additional improvements to its lens design and image signal processing to enhance the image. This was a much needed improvement over the iPad 2; most of the Android tablets are at 5 megapixels already and can capture video at 1080p. Specs alone don't tell the capture story, though: The remaining big question is the quality of the improved camera. Android models have not exactly been stars, although the 8-megapixel Asus Transformer Prime currently leads the field. If Apple has done a good job with hardware and software optimizations, though, then it has an opportunity to jump far ahead of the others. Given its experience with a 5-megapixel camera on the iPhone 4, Apple may do just that.
Where Apple Stumbles
With all that Apple adds to the iPad -- 4G radio, Retina Display -- the tablet actually takes a couple of steps backward compared with the Android competition. Specifically, it has regressed in size and weight. The iPad is now slightly thicker, at 0.37 inches thick, than Asus Transformer Prime's 0.33 inches, as well as the 0.34-inch form factor of iPad 2 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. The Toshiba Excite 10 LE, which gets slimmest tablet honors for now, measures just 0.3 inches. But iPad is now practically the same as Samsung's unreleased Galaxy Note 10.1, which measures 0.38 inches.
While thin is chic, I'm more concerned about the iPad's heavier weight, now at 1.4 pounds. Heavier is not the right direction for tablets, and this bucks the trend of competing Android models, which keep shaving weight off of their previous heights of 1.5-plus-pound. The Toshiba's weight starts at 1.18 pounds, while the current Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 weighs 1.24 pounds; the Asus Transformer Prime and the forthcoming Galaxy Note 10.1 weigh 1.29 pounds; and the iPad 2 weighs 1.33 pounds (and 1.35 pounds for the 3G version).
The bottom line: At 1.4 pounds, the iPad's weight is a serious concern. For casual use, or toting on my back or in a tablet case, no worries; the extra bit isn't that big a deal. But for one-handed use, which this model's superior screen invites, the iPad's extra ounces are neither appreciated nor competitive.
Additional reporting by Daniel Ionescu.