Analyst pumps Tuesday's iPad reveal as 'most important upgrade' since 2010

Expect shortages if Mini goes Retina, but how tight it'll be remains uncertain until Apple reveals price

Apple's expected unveiling tomorrow of new iPads will be the "most important upgrade since the original," a bullish Wall Street analyst contended today.

The Cupertino, Calif. consumer electronics company will host an event Tuesday starting at 10 a.m. PT, where it will introduce new tablets, according to virtually every analyst and pundit.

They expect Apple to reveal a fifth-generation 9.7-in. iPad to replace the year-old model introduced last year at this time, and to refresh the 7.9-in. iPad Mini, as well. On the latter, however, opinion is mixed whether Apple will trot out a new tablet with a high-resolution screen, dubbed "Retina" by the company.

Brian White, of Cantor Fitzgerald & Co., is one of those who believes Apple will not unveil a Retina iPad Mini tomorrow. But he's still bullish on the impact of Tuesday's event.

"We believe the retrofitted iPad 5 will prove to be the most important iPad upgrade since the first iPad went on sale on April 4, 2010," said White in a note to clients today.

White based that assertion on his swing through China and Taiwan last week, when he met with numerous component suppliers. After those conversations, said White, the consensus was that the new iPad would be about 15% thinner, 7-10% narrower, and between 20% and 30% lighter than its predecessor; pack a variant of the 64-bit A7 SoC (system-on-a-chip) that debuted last month in the flagship iPhone 5S; and be available in the same four storage capacities as last year's model -- 16GB, 32GB, 64GB and 128GB -- at the current prices of between $499 and $799.

Apple began selling the 128GB model in January.

White also said the new full-sized iPad would be sold in the same colors as the iPhone 5S, including the golden hue that has been the most popular so far. "Essentially, we believe the iPad 5 will take on some of the form factor characteristics of the iPad Mini but with a 9.7-inch display," White said, by reducing the case thickness and shrinking the bezel on the front of the tablet to closer to the screen's actual dimensions.

On the iPad Mini, White told clients he doesn't expect to see a Retina-equipped model tomorrow, a contrarian viewpoint: Most analysts have decided that Apple will launch a high-resolution Mini, and keep the current model as a lower-priced option, just as it's done with the iPhone and the 9.7-in. iPad.

"Our research suggests that the iPad Mini 2 form factor will remain similar to the original," said White. "In fact, we only expect incremental upgrades to the iPad Mini 2, including a faster application processor with an A6X chip (vs. the dual-core A5 of the first iPad Mini), a new color scheme that is similar to the iPhone 5S, an improved camera and other modest improvements."

If White's wrong, warned others -- such as Gartner's Carolina Milanesi last week -- the Retina iPad Mini will certainly be in short supply. But then so was last year's original 7.9-in. Mini.

Within hours of Apple opening online pre-orders for the iPad Mini last year, it ran through its supply of white tablets, followed soon after by the black model. Shipping delays quickly climbed to between two and three weeks, not shortening to one week until mid-December.

It's impossible to make an informed guess on possible shortages of a pixel-dense iPad Mini without knowing the demand, said Richard Shim, senior analyst with NPD DisplaySearch, in a Monday interview. And demand can't be estimated without a price point, something Apple won't reveal until Tuesday.

"The displays should be there," said Shim of suppliers' efforts. According to Shim, display manufacturers started to churn out higher-resolution screens this quarter, which started Oct. 1.

On the plus side, Apple wouldn't be the first to put a high-resolution screen into a smaller tablet: Google beat its rival to that milestone with the latest Nexus 7, which launched in July. The question, though, is if there are enough pixel-dense displays coming off factory lines to satisfy Apple's needs.

And like always, Shim stressed, the challenge by display makers is to not only meet major vendors' volume requirements, but at a high enough yield to be cost effective. "It's always a challenge early on" during a product cycle, said Shim, referring to a possible new Retina iPad Mini.

Apple continues to acquire its tablet screens from LG Display (LGD), Samsung and the newest supplier, AU Optronics (AUO), a Taiwanese company best known for making notebook displays, said Shim. Apple first turned to AUO last year for its iPad Mini screens, but whether it will manage the transition to higher-resolution screens was uncertain, Shim cautioned.

"The all say they can do it," said Shim, noting that with the slump in notebook sales over the last 18 months, every display manufacturer is hustling hard for business from tablet sellers. "But Apple pushes these guys."

Apple's event will be held in San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the location of several Apple product introductions, including the September 2012 roll-out of the iPhone 5, and six months earlier, the third-generation iPad, the first to sport a Retina-quality display.

If the company sticks to the timetable it used in 2012, the new iPads will be available for pre-order on Friday, Oct. 25, and reach retail on Nov. 1.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at  @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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