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Clarifying Display Issues On The New iPad

Apple announced on Wednesday the next generation of its iPad tablet. The new iPad will start at $499 for the 16GB version and $629 with high-speed cellular connectivity starting March 16. The new iPad has several new noteworthy features including an A5X processor, iSight 5-megapixel camera (similar to the one used in the iPhone 4S), voice-dictation capability, 4G LTE cellular connectivity and, as expected, a high-resolution display. The new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2 (9.4 vs. 8.8 mm and 1.4 vs. 1.33 pounds, respectively).

The highlighted and most expected feature is the display, which at 2,048 by 1,536 pixels has a pixel density of 264 ppi, twice that of the iPad 2. While Apple is calling this a “retina display,” the pixel density is significantly less than that of the iPhone 4 “retina display,” which is 326 ppi. But since “retina display” is a marketing term with no specific definition, Apple is able to use it how it wants. Another term Apple seems to use loosely is “IPS,” which stands for in-plane switching, a wide viewing angle architecture. However, it is likely that some of its suppliers are using fringe field switching (FFS) rather than IPS. So, perhaps “retina display” really means “high performance display.”

The display has been a challenge to manufacture. According to our research, Sharp, Samsung, and LG Display are all suppliers of the new display. The situation at Sharp has been a major source of speculation ever since the company announced a new strategy for producing oxide TFT displays last April. Our understanding is that Sharp has been producing samples of the iPad 3 display using IGZO TFTs, but it is not clear whether the quality or manufacturing yields are acceptable to Apple and Sharp. There has been speculation that Sharp has switched back to a-Si TFT production while they work on the IGZO process; meanwhile, our research indicates that Samsung and LG Display are producing the new panels using a-Si TFT. It has been a challenge using this technology, as 264 ppi is believed to be the upper limit of pixel density for a-Si TFT.

Regardless of the TFT technology, the doubling of the pixel density means a significantly smaller aperture ratio, which means that a brighter backlight is needed. Our research indicates that the iPad 3 panel has at least twice as many LEDs than the iPad 2, which had 36. Even allowing for increases in LED efficiency, this most likely means a significant increase in power consumption for the panel. The slightly larger and heavier case as compared to the iPad 2 suggests Apple is using a larger battery in order to accommodate the new A5X processor with its upgraded GPU, and the high resolution display without decreasing battery life.

Apple does an exceptional job of making technology relevant to consumers, so it will be interesting to see if consumers get excited about the higher image quality on the new iPad. If so, it could be difficult for Apple to secure an adequate supply of panels, given the manufacturing challenges. The company finally achieved supply/demand parity for iPad 2 shipments in the second half of last year. How quickly panel suppliers are able to ramp-up production will be the ultimate determining factor in terms of meeting the typical surge in demand associated with new Apple products.