iPad 9.7-inch with Pencil

Teardown: Apple iPad 6

Image credit: Apple

Is Apple’s tablet tough enough for class?

This is yet another tablet teardown. However, Apple’s launch of the iPad 6 in March gives us a chance to look at design decisions from the point of view of an increasingly important market: educational technology.

Apple’s primary intent with the iPad 6 was made clear by its launch strategy. It chose to unveil the tablet not on the West Coast, but in Chicago, home to one of the US’s largest school systems.

Similarly, while the product is targeted at all users, students and teachers receive preferential pricing ($299 vs $329 standard retail), and a host of apps and features have been added specifically for the classroom. There are tools to help teachers set tests and direct the curriculum. Graphical and augmented reality features – including compatibility with the Apple Pencil – will let kids not just get creative but also, according to one demo, carry out tasks like dissecting frogs.

Tablet companies have long been looking to increase their share of the school market – devices based on Google’s Chrome OS and the Microsoft Surface are also popular. Competition is now intensifying, however, as mainstream consumer tablet sales slow.

According to IDC, total 2017 shipments fell by 7.9 per cent year-on-year in the all-important fourth quarter to 49.6 million, the 13th consecutive decline.

By contrast, Simba Information has reported that educational tablet shipments rose 21.7 per cent during the 2016-17 academic year to 2.8 million.

All that took place against a backdrop that saw investment across the entire edutech sector reach a new high of $9.5bn in 2017, according to Forbes.

Education, though, particularly publicly-funded education, is and always has been highly cost-sensitive.

The sector has seen wide investment in high-definition projectors and interactive whiteboards, coupled in some cases with tablets, but usually for teacher use only.

When it comes to buying tablets for student use, there are two main technological concerns: volume and durability. Not only are head teachers wary of the much greater number of units they will have to buy initially, but also the replacement cycle (and cost) given that the devices will often be placed in very young hands.

Given that, Chromebooks are currently thought to dominate the student-based market, at around 60 per cent, with entry-level pricing as low as £100. However, the first such dedicated educational tablet, the Acer Chromebook Tab 10, was itself announced only a day before the iPad 6 with an essentially identical price: $329 with a promise of volume discounts.

The two products share an attempt to push up the pricepoint based on the educational potential in features such as a stylus (provided in Acer’s case by Wacom) and AR (e.g. “Only one frog died in the development of this app”).

While we wait to see what exactly is inside Acer’s offering, we are now actually hearing about Apple’s – and it is a mixture of the good and the bad.

On one level, Apple has reused a good few key components from the iPad 5 and its other products, and the layout is almost unchanged. This has helped it constrain the bill of materials and thereby offer the lower price for teachers and pupils (or, let’s be frank, school management).

Such reuse includes the A10 Fusion processor seen in the iPhone 7, the Touch ID authentication chip supplied by NXP Semiconductors for the iPad 5 and its predecessor’s identical 32.9Wh battery. Other parts appear to be standard items from suppliers such as Toshiba and Cirrus Logic.

One difference is that the iPad 6 has an airgapped digitiser panel. According to the iFixit teardown team, “[This is] not as visually impressive as other recent iPads, but it’s much cheaper to replace cracked glass that isn’t LOCA [liquid optically-clear adhesive]-bonded to the display panel underneath.”

So there has been some consideration of ‘rugged’ classroom use, but it’s spotty.

Elsewhere, iFixit notes that the all-important Lightning port has been installed of a piece with the logic board. “[The connector is] a high-use part that will very likely break before the rest of the logic board,” the teardown team points out.

On top of that, Apple’s liberal use of adhesive beyond the digitiser makes repairs to other components and battery replacement tricky. Overall, iFixit gives the iPad 6 just two out of 10 for repairability – the same as it gave the iPad 5, although ahead of the measly one out of 10 scores given to recent editions of the Microsoft Surface.

It is hard not to find that disappointing, and it is unlikely to be overlooked. As educational technology expands, IT managers are already getting more of a say in key decisions alongside teachers. You do feel that, for all the usual Apple ‘coolness’, somebody is going to come along with a simpler designed, modular tablet that schools can maintain on site.

And, let’s not forget that the virtual reality people are sharpening their elbows to secure a place in the classroom.

So here’s today’s lesson: engineers targeting education should try to recall how quickly new computer rooms or language labs would get trashed during their own schooldays. Education can be a tough market – and you can’t help but think that the iPad 6 simply isn’t hard enough.

Key components: Apple iPad 6

Exploded view

 1.  Display

 2.  Main body/battery

 3.  Logic board

 4.  Assembly (left)

 5.  Assembly (right)

 6.  Bezel

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