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Rumor: Foxconn building prototypes of larger iPads, iPhones

updated 07:52 pm EST, Tue December 3, 2013

Repeated reports may be an 'echo chamber' effect, or mirror actual trials

Rumors and other unconfirmed reports about Apple products -- particularly those that are only in an experimental prototype or testing phase -- are difficult to sort out. Readers who see similar reports on multiple sites or in various print and online outlets have a tendency to believe them after a while, even if the reports are just echoing each other. New reports have emerged recently from different sources claiming that Apple is at least probing the idea of larger iPad and iPhone models, but a healthy dose of skepticism is often required.

A Chinese publication called PadNews reported on Tuesday that Foxconn has built a handful of 12.9-inch iPad models for Apple testing, and the news follows a similar report two weeks ago from the Korea Times. That report was echoed by the Wall Street Journal, which predicted the larger iPad to debut in late 2014. The PadNews report adds to the previous rumors that the prototypes sport either 2K (2048x1080) or 4K "UltraHD" (3840x2160, slightly short of true 4K but an emerging standard on 4K televisions) resolution.

Mock-up of 12.9-inch "iPad Pro"
Mock-up of 12.9-inch "iPad Pro"


Considering that a move to standard "2K video" resolution would actually be a step down from the third-, fourth- and Retina iPad models (the Air and the new Retina Mini, all of which are set at 2048x1536 resolution), the PadNews report strains credibility and is more likely just an educated guess that Apple will someday move to a 4K-esque resolution, though it is difficult to imagine it happening anytime soon (4K televisions are only just starting to hit the North American market and have not yet caught on, mostly due to a scarcity of content and broadcast support).

Even the idea that an iPad or iPhone needs to offer ever-increasing resolutions reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Retina displays. Just as the human eye cannot distinguish individual images projected faster than 24 frames per second, the idea behind "Retina" tablets is not one of resolution but of practical use: at a given typical-use distance, "Retina" displays reach a point where the typical human eye can no longer distinguish individual pixels. This is why Retina iPhones have a different resolution to Retina iPads or MacBooks, but all have the same consistently smooth-yet-sharp appearance.

The idea that Apple might produce a larger iPad is certainly possible, but still a bit of a head-scratcher considering the efforts the company has made to get the weight down in its present models compared to previous generations. The large Windows-based "convertible" hybrid ultrabook-tablets (such as Dell's XPS-18, which Electronista has been testing) haven't seen any mainstream traction (and have often been mocked for their weight and poor battery life), and Samsung's slightly-larger 10.1-inch iPad knockoff Galaxy Tab hasn't proven to be any sort of sales threat either.

Apple is under no pressure or obvious demand to produce a physically-larger tablet, at least in the foreseeable future or barring some revolutionary developments in battery and display technology -- in point of fact, the smaller iPad mini is widely thought to outsell the full-size Retina iPad models.

A new report by Bloomberg over the weekend once again reiterated rumors that Apple is testing iPhone models with larger displays. While still likely in the realm of "educated guesses," such reports are far more likely to come true, as Apple is genuinely under some market pressure to address the "phablet" fad and the "greater-than-four-inch" phone market, which has primarily been used as a selling point for some Android models.

Remember the "iPhone Math?"
Remember the "iPhone Math?"


Large-screen phones offer a compromise between tablets and smaller smartphones that appeals to both budget-minded consumers who don't feel they can afford both as well as those who use such phones primarily as replacements for notebook or desktop computers as much as possible.

The new Bloomberg report claims that Apple will launch at least two new iPhone designs next year -- a widely-speculated 4.7- or 4.8-inch "iPhone 6" model and an all-new "iPhablet" type design that could sport a 5.5-inch or possibly up to six-inch display in an effort to compete with products like the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. The latter seems less likely, as Apple has repeatedly said some screen sizes require too many compromises to the experience to work well for their priorities (which are somewhat different than those of rivals).

The Bloomberg report makes further claims, including that the 2014 models will have curved glass overlaying the displays, pressure-sensitive screen technology (more likely to show up on iPads before iPhones). Other sources have made similar speculative claims, ranging from six-inch displays to 1080p resolutions to Apple adding Near-Field Communication (NFC) capability and more. Most such reports simply take whatever the latest announcement of new technology and speculate on what an iPhone with said technology would be like, often failing to take into account that Apple is less feature-centric and more overall-experience oriented.

Curved iPhone screen concept
Curved iPhone screen concept


That said, the company is likely to experiment with alternative options for its iOS devices -- but as with most of its patents, precious few will ever see release to the general market. Competitors like Samsung like to stuff devices with every imaginable feature and boast that it out-specs Apple's products -- but history has already shown (starting with the iPod line) that execution and integration of features, rather than just a long list of them, tends to win a wider and more sophisticated audience.

Is Apple experimenting with features some buyers would like to see and which might open up new markets? Undoubtedly. But as with the iPad mini, Apple has consistently refused to add in a feature or new technology to its hardware until it can be reasonably certain that the result will impress customers -- even those who have already seen the feature, service or technology employed elsewhere. Just look at the impact the iPad had in an existing tablet market, or how quickly the burgeoning "netbook" market collapsed when the MacBook Air (and subsequent "ultrabook" models) came along.

We may see this effect once again if and when Apple comes out with the speculated "iWatch" wearable device. A number of similar products have already come to market, but none have really succeeded. Apple, with its craftsman-like interest in both technology and quality, has a feature most rivals -- and particularly pundits -- seem to completely lack: the patience to wait until a given addition is truly complementary to the goal of a product.




by MacNN Staff

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