Apple tablet iRoundup: The good, the bad, the ugly

We scope out some of the best and some of the worst rumors leading up to Wednesday's expected Apple tablet release.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
7 min read

In a few hours, the jig will be up. Apple will have unveiled its latest and greatest gadget, which is widely expected to (and better) be a tablet. For months, the tech world has been swarming over a steady stream of purported leaks, rumors, and strategically planned business moves by Apple that have pointed in a number of directions. Let's break a few of the big ones down by quality.

The good

The tablet idea

U.S. PTO (via AppleInsider)

Rumors of Apple offering a tablet device have been swirling for close to a decade, though things really started to heat up when Apple released the iPhone and iPod Touch. After several very successful generations of these touch-screen devices, along with the acquisition of PA Semi and touch-gesture company Fingerworks, it seemed almost inevitable that Apple was cooking up something bigger.

The real proof, however came in the form of a patent application from 2008 that gave a very clear idea of how Apple imagined users interacting with such a device. Many of the ideas and principles that are detailed in that patent seem to mirror Apple's user design ethos for the iPhone and iPod Touch, which has led to speculation (and even more rumors) that the tablet will have a similar OS to what's found on the iPhone and iPod.

The name game
The rumored name of Apple's tablet has gone under two main monikers: the "iSlate" and the "iPad."

Blog Mac Rumors discovered historical evidence that Apple has owned the iSlate.com domain since 2007. The day after that discovery, blog TechCrunch found that the iSlate name was a registered trademark of Slate Computing, which turned out to be a company owned by Apple. The connection was confirmed by Mac Rumors, which found the signature of Apple's senior trademark specialist on the iSlate trademark application.

The lesser of the two names is "iPad," which despite being just one letter off from "iPod" is in far shakier legal ground. Tech company Fujitsu has held a trademark for the word iPad since 2003. This is on top of the company having shipped Microsoft Windows CE-based devices called the iPad, which were sold to retail stores to let customers look up prices and navigate around the store.

The only reason this became a lead in the tablet name sniffing case, was because Apple filed three separate extension requests with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to lengthen the amount of time it had to file for an opposition to Fujitsu's claim.

In either case, both are perfectly reasonable names for the tablet. But more importantly, there's enough of a legal shuffle behind the scenes to suggest that Apple is at least trying to cover its bases in a similar fashion to what it did prior to releasing the iPhone.

Lots of partners
It's a sure bet Apple is rolling out its tablet with a handful of companies in tow. Apple has a good track record of approaching certain parties ahead of a release to help write software for it. This was the case with the iPhone, where Apple worked with Google and Yahoo to get both Web technology from both companies to work right out of the box.

As for the tablet, this was all but confirmed Tuesday afternoon by McGraw-Hill CEO Terry McGraw, who announced on live television that his company's textbooks would be available on the unreleased device.

Lesser rumors surfaced in late-December when blog Silicon Alley Insider reported that Apple had approached a handful of top game and app developers to create versions of their software for a device with a larger resolution.

PA Semi inside

Will the tablet be running on an Intel chip? Probably not. Despite Intel's advances in miniaturization, low power consumption, and heat control, Apple has been in the chip-making business since 2008 when it picked up PA Semi. And in that two years it's gotten its x86 chips exclusively from Intel.

A report from VentureBeat this past summer claimed that the PA's efforts were forked after Apple's purchase. While one part of PA was busy making ARM chips to power Apple's portables, another group was working on the chip that will power the tablet.

Is this a good rumor? You bet it is. If one thing has been made clear over the years, it's that Apple likes to have complete control. And when it comes to building hardware, and Apple's business at large--a good way to keep leaks at bay is to keep the entire operation in-house.

The bad

The price
One of the hardest things to guess in Apple rumors can be price. The iPhone was sold at a higher price than most were expecting, which led to a $200 price drop just two months after its release.

The problem with a tablet is that it's a whole new product category that's somewhere in the middle of being an iPod Touch and a full-fledge laptop. Another difficulty is that nobody seems to know for sure what kind of components will be included, as well as whether there will be subsidies if cellular data plans come attached to it. Both of these would at least help to provide a ballpark figure.

This lack of information has sent price guesstimates anywhere from to $500 to $2,000. Anything lower than $500 was nixed by Apple's COO Tim Cook in an earnings call back in July. In the Q&A section of that call, Cook noted that the company would not make computers for $399 or $499 since they could would not be as high quality. This makes a lot of sense given that Apple generally does not like to cannibalize its other hardware lines. Also, something between the highest end iPod ($399) and the entry-level MacBook ($999) seems to make sense.

To further complicate matters, the price could be much higher if there are not subsidies in place from cellular data providers. Assuming this is in the same general class of design and hardware as the iPhone 3GS--which currently retails for $599 and $699 (16GB and 32GB capacities respectively) without subsidy, a larger, more powerful version could easily cost quite a bit more.

OLED display
Speaking of components, one of the rumors that began appearing late last year was that a version of the tablet would be sporting an OLED display. OLED has traditionally been more complex to produce, and harder to get in large sizes from as many manufacturers as LCD panels (although that's beginning to change). It also doesn't last anywhere near as long as LCD in terms of lifetime use. However, it makes up for it with faster response times and a dramatically better contrast ratio.

Big OLED screens like this 15" one from LG are on the way, but experts say making enough to fulfill Apple's needs could be impossible. Erica Ogg / CNET

The technology is beginning to get more prevalent in small-screen devices like cell phones and MP3 players, but it has yet to break into the mainstream notebook computer marketoutside of being featured in a few prototypes.

Could Apple do it though? Tech blog DigiTimes said so in November (subscription required), reporting that Apple had a huge order of 9.7-inch OLEDs on order and ready to be put into a tablet device. Furthermore, DigiTimes went on to say that the inclusion of OLED had been the primary reason for such a device being delayed into 2010, since the glass on the display was not strong enough to meet Apple's initial needs.

But Ars Technica wasn't buying it. Earlier this month, it got in touch with OLED Association Managing Director Barry Young, who said that OLED panels in that size range (10.1 inches to be specific) could not be made fast enough to meet Apple's needs. Furthermore, only one company--Samsung, had the kind of facilities to do it, but Young said they were backed up with other orders, leaving competitor LG up to the task. But even there the rumor loses most of its steam, since Young told Ars that LG had "10 to 15 percent of Samsung's capacity."

So who's to believe? Probably the person who's got a good idea of worldwide OLED manufacturing and is willing to go on the record about its scheduling and capacity.

The ugly

The "spy" shots
Spy pics are often fan creations and can be surprisingly elaborate in nature. The shots leading up to this event, however, have been universally debunked.

First there was these shots, dug up by blog The Mac Observer of what appears to be the front bezel of an oversize iPhone shot on top of a Mac notebook. This followed up by three spy shots from French site Be Geek that showed a person holding and using what looks like an oversize iPhone with two home buttons on the front and possibly even two cameras on the back:

Hey, let me call you back in a sec. I've got to switch hands. Be Geek / CNET

Then there were these two shots from designer Dustin Curtis, depicting a rectangular tablet device resting on top of a MacBook Pro. These shots were later debunked when a Photoshop guru ran the pics through their paces and noticed that the pixel noise was simply not matching up. Still, it was one pretty looking mock-up.

Presumed fakes can sometimes pay off though. Most recently this came to fruition with spy shots of the third- and fourth-generation iPod Nanos, which showed up online ahead of their official unveiling. The same thing happened with the chassis for the unibody MacBooks in late 2008.

In the case of the tablet, the closest that digital artists have come to re-creating what it will look like has been this shot, which AppleInsider's sources say is spot on. Considering it's been designed as a fantasy device, and not a leak, it doesn't fall into the same boat as the others.

We'll know for sure how well these rumors, and others have panned out come 10 a.m. PST. You can catch our live blog of Apple's event right here.

If you liked these, you can also catch up on some of our other Apple event rumor round-ups and analysis on these posts:

And for those who aren't enamored with tablet glamor: