If you’ve been following Apple’s iPads for any part of the past decade, you already know that flagship models tend to sport new processors that blow past their predecessors and rivals — a process that began with the iPad 2’s transition from Apple’s A4 chip to an A5 with nine times the graphics performance, and continued through the 2018 iPad Pro’s debut of an A12X that rivals mid-tier Intel laptops. The march has been strong and steady, enabling iPads to continuously dominate the overall tablet category, even as rivals have nipped at their heels and successfully carved out niches.
Given the nonstop bad news we’ve all been hearing over the past month, I was so excited by some good news — a new 2020 iPad Pro, actually shipping next week! — that I didn’t dwell too much on an oddity in the announcement: Apple is replacing the prior A12X with a chip called the “A12Z,” and it’s not making any bold promises about the new model’s performance compared with its predecessor.
Superficially, this might not seem to matter. But based on Apple’s track record, there are a couple of reasons that businesses looking for next-level performance might want to hold off on the 2020 iPad Pro.
Back in 2012, Apple unexpectedly released two flagship iPads during the same year: the first Retina iPad on March 16, followed by a nearly identical but twice as fast model on November 2. Apple never explained why it pivoted so quickly from the A5X-laden iPad 3 to the A6X-based iPad 4, but the iPad 3 remains the shortest-lived iOS device in history, having been discontinued after only seven months on the market, and it saw steep discounts as a result.
In retrospect, the A5X was seriously underpowered for use in the iPad 3. It was faster than the A5 found in the iPad 2, but the new model’s Retina display ate all of its extra horsepower, making the iPad 3 feel like a small step forward. When the iPad 4 arrived with the twice-as-fast A6X and some other tweaks — including a new connector port — it felt like the product Apple had really wanted to release months earlier.
Apple may have been so obsessed with staking an early claim to Retina tablet displays — or had a contract to manufacture so many A5X processors — that it was willing to push something “good enough” into the market as a stopgap measure until its holiday release was ready. Something similar could be going on with the 2020 iPad Pro’s signature feature, a new camera array with a lidar sensor, which it claims “extends the lead of iPad Pro as the world’s best device for augmented reality.” Apart from camera and microphone quality tweaks, it doesn’t seem like the 2020 iPad Pro is much different from the 2018 model.
The A12Z appears to be a stopgap processor choice. There’s never been an Apple A-series chip with a “Z” suffix before, and the designation appears to suggest that the new iPad’s processor isn’t using technologies developed for last year’s A13. A supposed Antutu benchmark for the 2020 iPad Pro — 712218 — suggests that its overall performance will be highly similar to the prior model, which scored 707606 in a test I ran last year and 716358 in a test this week. Peak graphics performance may be up thanks to an additional GPU core, but could also be offset by losses elsewhere; we’ll have a better sense of A12Z’s performance when more benchmarks are available.
My gut feeling is that Apple has another iPad Pro design waiting in the wings, with features ranging from a faster A14X processor to 5G cellular capabilities as the major internal improvements. Those components alone would enable Apple to promise the sort of two-times speed jumps it traditionally offers in iPads, though the specific timing of the new models is, as with all Apple releases, uncertain.
Rumors have circulated for nearly a year that Apple is working on an iPad with a mini LED screen, which would enable a higher-end Pro model to offer better color accuracy and higher contrast within a thinner profile. In recent days, reports from the Asian supply chain have suggested that a mini LED iPad Pro could appear later this year, and that it might sit above the just-announced models in pricing rather than replacing them. Supply chain reports have a mixed track record on both specific details and timing, but are worth considering.
In other words, there’s no way to guarantee exactly when the next iPad Pro is coming, and it’s possible that it might be more expensive than the just announced models. But it’s also possible that Apple is preparing for a replay of the 2012 holiday season, when March was just a prelude to bigger iPad improvements — including complete replacements — planned for November. Stay tuned.