Teardown: iPad 2017 tablet computer
Apple plunders an older design for its first budget tablet.
Most teardowns look to detect novel and innovative engineering choices. This is an exception. The important thing about the design of the new iPad, launched by Apple in March, is its similarity to a predecessor, the iPad Air 1.
In marketing and construction - two areas long conjoined at Apple - the simply-named iPad illustrates the challenges facing the worldwide tablet computing market.
The company is pushing its new product particularly in the educational market, but it is available to all. Apple believes that this iPad offers the right combination of price and performance to entice any cost-conscious user who wants a 9.7in tablet rather than phablet-sized display.
It has therefore been priced at £282 (all prices ex VAT) in its basic 32GB, Wi-Fi-only form, rising to £464 for the largest 128GB, Wi-Fi/cellular configuration.
The range for identical iPad Pro configurations is £457 to £632 (the 9.7in iPad Pro also comes in more expensive 256GB editions). However, a number of probably greater significance is the current average selling price for all tablets, as estimated by analyst group IDC: £336.
Apple is not known for actively chasing the mid-market, but in the tablet space it now appears to have little choice.
Its iPad unit shipments halved from a peak of 26 million around Christmas 2014 to 13 million during last year’s holiday, according to IDC. That was not just because of increasing competition from cheaper rivals. The same analyst says that total tablet shipments fell by 15.6 per cent in 2016 alone, to 174.8 million. Saturation is also a big concern.
Moreover, Apple has almost certainly become a victim of its own success. Customer satisfaction with the iPad remains high, but that seems to be manifesting itself in many owners not feeling any pressing need to replace their hardware. According to Fiksu, an advertising research group, iPads sold between 2010 and 2012 still account for just over 45 per cent of active usage. Compare that to the typical 18-month refresh cycle for mobile phones.
The problem is not new. Apple has already had two goes at reseeding the tablet market, although these sought to maintain its traditional aggression on margins. First, there was the iPad mini with its 7.9in display, starting at £350. Then, the company introduced the professional-grade iPad Pro in the price range mentioned earlier.
Yet unit sales continued to fall. So, the company has turned to the budget playbook. It has developed a tablet to lure consumers who may have long hankered after one of its products but considered them too expensive. At the same time, it has lowered the barrier-to-replacement for existing users whom it aims to attract with an improved 2048×1536px Retina display and the extra features in the iOS 10 operating system.
The most obvious evidence of cost control is the applications processor. The new iPad runs Apple’s in-house A9 generation silicon, rather than the A10 Fusion device launched last year on the iPhone 7. The A9 made its debut in September 2015 on the iPhone 6S.
Other budget design choices include a return to a mechanical as opposed to solid-state home button (albeit with a fingerprint sensor) and the absence of an anti-reflective film. Both upgrades feature on the iPad Pro.
However, arguably the biggest design decision appears when you prise open this iPad- if you can. As the side-by-side comparison shows, there is little noticeable physical difference between the new iPad and the innards of 2013’s first generation iPad Air.
The iFixit Teardown team found that even some of the connectors - particularly for the LCD and digitiser - have simply been carried across. And remember, Apple has hitherto enjoyed swapping in new proprietary parts with progressive generations of its products to frustrate outsiders who dare to poke around inside.
Meanwhile, the batteries in both the old and new models have the same capacity, 32.9Wh, and weight, 469g.
Nevertheless, the new iPad remains hard to repair - scored by iFixit at only 2 out of 10 on that count. Great awkward gobs of adhesive and sticky tape abound - so nothing new there.
Still, with Apple arguably playing ‘third-time lucky’ with its iPad line, this move slightly-down-the-market does not seem that bad an idea. NRE (non-recurring engineering) and component costs have been tightly managed yet the result is still a more powerful product than those it is primarily seeking to replace.
That begs an obvious question, though. What about encouraging replacement of more recent iPads? Well, Cupertino corridor rumour has it that there may be more to come in the autumn. But for now, reuse is king.
iPad 2017 tablet computer
1 Outer front frame
2 Display assembly
3 Main chassis including battery, motherboard and home button daughterboard
4 Wi-Fi module, Apple
5 Touch controller, Broadcom
6 USB charging IC, NXP Semiconductors
7 Proprietary IC, Apple
8 Applications processor, Apple
9 NFC controller, NXP Semiconductors
10 Flash memory, SK Hynix
11 Proprietary IC, Apple