Yesterday Apple unveiled its third generation iPad, simply called the new iPad, at an event in San Francisco. The form factor remains mostly unchanged with a 9.7-inch display, however the new device is thicker at 9.4mm vs. 8.8mm for its predecessor. The added thickness was necessary to support the iPad's new 2048 x 1536 Retina Display.

Tablet Specification Comparison
  ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity Apple's new iPad (2012) Apple iPad 2
Dimensions 263 x 180.8 x 8.5mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 9.4mm 241.2 x 185.7 x 8.8mm
Display 10.1-inch 1920 x 1200 Super IPS+ 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS 9.7-inch 1024 x 768 IPS
Weight (WiFi) 586g 652g 601g
Weight (4G LTE) 586g 662g 601g
Processor (WiFi)

1.6GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 T33 (4 x Cortex A9)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2)
Processor (4G LTE) 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 (2 x Krait)

Apple A5X (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX 543MP4)

1GHz Apple A5 (2 x Cortex A9, PowerVR SGX543MP2)
Connectivity WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 4G LTE WiFi , Optional 3G
Memory 1GB 1GB 512MB
Storage 16GB - 64GB 16GB - 64GB 16GB
Battery 25Whr 42.5Whr 25Whr
Pricing $599 - $799 est $499 - $829 $399, $529

Driving the new display is Apple's A5X SoC. Apple hasn't been too specific about what's inside the A5X other than to say it features "quad-core graphics". Upon further prodding Apple did confirm that there are two CPU cores inside the SoC. It's safe to assume that there are still a pair of Cortex A9s in the A5X but now paired with a PowerVR SGX543MP4 instead of the 543MP2 used in the iPad 2. The chart below gives us an indication of the performance Apple expects to see from the A5X's GPU vs what's in the A5:

Apple ran the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 in its A5 SoC at around 250MHz, which puts it at 16 GFLOPS of peak theoretical compute horsepower. NVIDIA claims the GPU in Tegra 3 is clocked higher than Tegra 2, which was around 300MHz. In practice, Tegra 3 GPU clocks range from 333MHz on the low end for smartphones and reach as high as 500MHz on the high end for tablets. If we assume a 333MHz GPU clock in Tegra 3, that puts NVIDIA at roughly 8 GFLOPS, which rationalizes the 2x advantage Apple claims in the chart above. The real world performance gap isn't anywhere near that large of course - particularly if you run on a device with a ~500MHz GPU clock (12 GFLOPS):

GLBenchmark 2.1.1 - Egypt - Offscreen (720p)

GLBenchmark 2.1.1's Egypt offscreen test pegs the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 advantage at just over 30%, at least at 1280 x 720. Based on the raw FP numbers for a 500MHz Tegra 3 GPU vs. a 250MHz PowerVR SGX 543MP2, around a 30% performance advantage is what you'd expect from a mostly compute limited workload. It's possible that the gap could grow at higher resolutions or with a different workload. For example, look at the older GLBenchmark PRO results and you will see a 2x gap in graphics performance:

GLBenchmark 2.1.1 - PRO - Offscreen (720p)

For most real world gaming workloads I do believe that the A5 is faster than Tegra 3, but the advantage is unlikely to be 2x at non-retinadisplay resolutions. The same applies to the A5X vs. Tegra 3 comparison. I fully expect there to be a significant performance gap at the same resolution, but I doubt it is 4x in a game.

Mobile SoC GPU Comparison
  Apple A4 Apple A5 Apple A5X Tegra 3 (max) Tegra 3 (min) Intel Z2580
GPU PowerVR SGX 535 PowerVR SGX 543MP2 PowerVR SGX 543MP4 GeForce GeForce PowerVR SGX 544MP2
MADs per Clock 4 32 64 12 12 32
Clock Speed 250MHz 250MHz 250MHz 500MHz 333MHz 533MHz
Peak Compute 2.0 GFLOPS 16.0 GFLOPS 32.0 GFLOPS 12.0 GFLOPS 8.0 GFLOPS 34.1 GFLOPS

The A5X doubles GPU execution resources compared to the A5. Imagination Technologies' PowerVR SGX 543 is modular - you can expand by simply increasing "core" count. Apple tells us all we need to know about clock speed in the chart above: with 2x the execution resources and 2x the performance of the A5, Apple hasn't changed the GPU clock of the A5X.

Assuming perfect scaling, I'd expect around a 2x performance gain over Tegra 3 in GLBenchmark (Egypt) at 720p. Again, not 4x but at the same time, hardly insignificant. It can take multiple generations of GPUs to deliver that sort of a performance advantage at a similar price point. Granted Apple has no problems eating the cost of a larger, more expensive die, but that doesn't change the fact that the GPU advantage Apple will hold thanks to the A5X is generational.

I'd also point out that the theoretical GPU performance of the A5X is identical to what Intel is promising with its Atom Z2580 SoC. Apple arrives there with four SGX 543 cores, while Intel gets there with two SGX 544 cores running at ~2x the frequency (533MHz vs. 250MHz).

With the new iPad's Retina Display delivering 4x the pixels of the iPad 2, a 2x increase in GPU horsepower isn't enough to maintain performance. If you remember back to our iPad 2 review however, the PowerVR SGX 543MP2 used in it was largely overkill for the 1024 x 768 display. It's likely that a 4x increase in GPU horsepower wasn't necessary to deliver a similar experience on games. Also keep in mind that memory bandwidth limitations will keep many titles from running at the new iPad's native resolution. Remember that we need huge GPUs with 100s of GB/s of memory bandwidth to deliver a high frame rate on 3 - 4MP PC displays. I'd expect many games to render at lower resolutions and possibly scale up to fit the panel.

What About the Display?

Performance specs aside, the iPad's Retina Display does look amazing. The 1024 x 768 panel in the older models was simply getting long in the tooth and the Retina Display ensures Apple won't need to increase screen resolution for a very long time. Apple also increased color gamut by 44% with the panel, but the increase in resolution alone is worth the upgrade for anyone who spends a lot of time reading on their iPad. The photos below give you an idea of just how sharp text and graphics are on the new display compared to its predecessor (iPad 2, left vs. new iPad, right):

The improvement is dramatic in these macro shots but I do believe that it's just as significant in normal use. 

Apple continues to invest heavily in the aspects of its devices that users interact with the most frequently. Spending a significant amount of money on the display makes a lot of sense. Kudos to Apple for pushing the industry forward here. The only downside is supply of these greater-than-HD panels is apparently very limited as a result of Apple buying up most of the production from as many as three different panel vendors. It will be a while before we see Android tablets with comparable resolutions, although we will see 1920 x 1200 Android tablets shipping in this half.

The CPU & More
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  • Confusador - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    "It really is great to see Apple pushing display technology so aggressively and at reasonable price points. I do hope it's only a matter of time before we see a similar trend on the Mac side."

    I have to agree with this sentiment, as I've been hoping for higher resolution monitors for some time. Not that I use a Mac, but still it would be nice to see pressure coming from somewhere - I certainly expect to benefit from the pressures this display will put on Android tablets.
  • antef - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    It matters a lot less on a desktop monitor that you're probably sitting a good couple feet away from. During normal usage of my 1920x1200 24" display I don't really feel like it needs extra resolution or sharpness. And yes there's an iPhone 4S in my household so I have that to compare to.
  • ZeDestructor - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    I have used 1920x1200 displays (not mine), and I'd quite like a boost. Text in partcular doesn't render properly at small sizes, and as someone who deals a lot with text (IRC, code), finding that one font-size that's small enough to show a lot of code but big enough to render properly is annoying. Especially if you like having smooth edges.
  • WaltFrench - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    I don't imagine that many people will buy an iPad for coding, even if it gives more visual bandwidth.

    But I'm a bit surprised that you don't find acceptable fonts for such high-pixel-count screens. Maybe it's a rendering issue???
  • chemist1 - Sunday, March 11, 2012 - link

    "Especially if you like having smooth edges."

    Yes, I think that's precisely what it comes down to. I use my 24" Dell 2408WFP Ultrasharp, 1920x1200, principally for text, and I'm happy with the resolution (94 ppi) -- because, on my Mac, I defeat as much of the text smoothing as possible (for coding, I find unsmoothed Monaco is the sharpest-looking in Terminal). OTOH, even with the higher-res 129 ppi screen on my notebook, anti-aliased fonts look blurry to me. I don't know what pixel density would be necessary to make them look sharp -- I suspect even doubling the res. of the 24" display would not be sufficient. Laser printer output looks sharp enough to me, but I understand that is 600 -1800 dpi.
  • dasgetier - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    As an enthusiast hobby photographer and developer, I would definitely love to see 24" or 27" monitors with 4K resolutions at 16:10 aspect ratios.
  • B3an - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    I'd love 4K res on a 30" monitor. That would be so perfect for image editing... and playing games of course.

    And as for the iPad 3, totally not interested. Waiting for Windows 8 tablets. Preferably one with a keyboard dock, because then it will also replace my laptop. A dockable Win 8 tablet is pretty much the ultimate portable device and i've no idea why anyone would buy an iPad once these things are out later this year.
  • french toast - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    Yes i totally agree with you, wp7 Mango is already as slick and fast as ios 5.1... on far less powerfull hardware.

    W8 will bring the same level of slickness on comparable hardware..just with the added benefit of more freedom and more power....Microsoft is back in the game baby.
  • Michiel - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    Dreams are good, dreams are fun, dreams are interesting.

    Keep on dreaming.

    Microsoft is down and out !
  • WaltFrench - Friday, March 9, 2012 - link

    Microsoft has a great opportunity in the Enterprise, because companies are already on board with management tools, development tools, training and the like.

    That's not what moves phones, nor is it what moves consumer products. Win8 doesn't seem to offer desktop users much of anything they don't already have, and the tablet-specific stuff comes with a bunch of new limitations (no Flash in the mobile IE; no legacy apps in Windows on ARM) that will require careful attention to deployment plans over the next couple of years. With PC sales on the wane in the developed world, and zero presence in the consumer space, the very nice and useful Win8 features are not likely to result in a lot of sales at least thru the first half of 2013.

    By which time it wouldn't be surprising to see “the new iPad (4th generation; early 2013” together with even better tools to exploit Apple's expansion into business. And their so-far total domination of the non-subsidized tablet business. And their continuing success with consumer handsets.

    Microsoft is more than capable of first-class software development. Its mistakes in the phone area alone are enough that I'm surprised Ballmer still has his job. They have their work cut out to communicate to individuals what Win8 ARM/X86 tablets and multiple phone brands will do for consumers that THEY want to do.

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