What the iPad needs next

Apple's 2014 iPad will undoubtedly debut soon, but will it really change the formula enough to make people want a new one? Here's a wish list of what could help the most.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
5 min read
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Apple's next event is coming soon, and it should be all about Macs and iPads. And yet, this year, all of a sudden, the iPad just doesn't seem all that exciting.

Why? Because the iPad really hasn't been changing all that much. It's firmly entered "evolutionary, not revolutionary" territory. And maybe that's why iPad sales have slowed.

To be sure, the iPad Air and Retina iPad Mini released in 2013 were highly polished products -- the best iPads ever, and near-perfect tablets that both earned enthusiastic CNET Editors' Choice awards. But they also weren't all that significantly different from iPads of the past. The Air's biggest differences were size and a new processor; for the Mini, it was a new processor and a higher-resolution display.

By comparison, look at the iPhone . Year-over-year changes have included larger screens, better cameras, processors, and features like Touch ID and Apple Pay. The iPhone still feels like a product in evolution. If you owned an iPhone from two years ago, you might be tempted to upgrade. And even now, the iPhone still has room to grow; battery life, in particular, could still use a boost.

Meanwhile, those who have an iPad from 2012 are probably doing just fine. The processors have gotten better, but the basic concept of the iPad remains the same: a tablet running a mobile-oriented, very iPhone-like operating system with ample, largely unchanged battery life and a huge app library.

But iPads haven't crossed the threshold to being the one thing I'd like them to be: true PC alternatives. I still work on PCs to get my mission-critical work done. Why? Input, and versatility. By input, I mean trackpad and keyboard. And versatility? I'm referring to multiple windows, richer web use, and real file storage.

Here's what we're expecting to see from the iPad next week: an A8 processor, a Touch ID home button for fingerprint login and some possible Apple Pay features, and maybe a thinner design with an optional gold color. What does the iPad actually need? Not that much. Unless, of course, you want the iPad to be something more than the tablet it is.

So, at the risk of repeating myself, here's what I'd like to see.

Continuity: arriving with Mac OS X Yosemite. Apple

Continued evolution of iOS for iPad

The iPad has tons of great apps optimized for its large screen. Its iOS operating system, however, isn't nearly as optimized.

There will be some welcome changes via iOS 8 (already available) and Mac OS X Yosemite (coming soon): hand-off of notifications, sharing Web pages and documents between Macs, iPhones and iPads, making them feel more seamlessly connected. There's talk of split-screen app support for the iPad, too, but we probably won't see that until 2015.

But, working on an iPad still feels too much like working on a larger iPhone. The extra screen real estate could be used for something more: laying out apps and tools in a way that feels better for getting things done simultaneously. Do I need a truly Mac-like interface? No. But I'd prefer something more robust than a big-screen iPhone experience. Added apps in a stepped-up dock and easier file management. Ways to connect apps together in ways that haven't happened yet. (The latter is supported with iOS 8's extensions feature, but it doesn't feel like developers are using it to its full potential yet.)

The Surface keyboard covers work quite nicely. Sarah Tew/CNET

A keyboard cover, and some form of trackpad/gesture support

Apple may never allow trackpads or mice to work on an iPad. I've wanted it for years because it could help solve one issue with iPad productivity: editing. I can write quickly with a keyboard attached, but for complex tasks like document edits, working in Web tools like content management systems, or doing any sort of image editing, I have to revert back to finger gestures. Some work well for the tasks I'm trying to do, and others really don't.

If iPads are going to eventually step in as the evolutionary successor to MacBooks -- and I think they will -- improved input is really needed. Touch, yes, but some sort of advanced keyboard support. With a trackpad, preferably. Or, maybe, a capacitive gesture-supported keyboard like those on the Blackberry Passport and Surface Touch Cover 2: swipe across the keys to scroll or zoom.

Apple's crisp and clear iPad Mini with Retina Display (pictures)

See all photos

A beefed-up front-facing camera

I don't care about the rear camera on the iPad; if it never gets a flash, or improved resolution, that's no big deal to me. But I do care about the front one. Using FaceTime or Skype on the iPad's larger display, I'm more reminded of the camera's quality limitations. Another step towards crystal-clear video chats would really be helpful...or even clever software that tracks a participant's face for bigger-room Web conferencing.

A possible leak of the iPad Air 2's Touch ID sensor. Tinhte.vn

A peek at the larger 13-inch iPad

Lots of sources now say that the rumored 12.9-inch iPad, a possible "pro" type model, won't arrive until 2015. I still hope we get to see it next week.

Despite its well-earned "announce and ship immediately" reputation, Apple does show off some of its products early: the original iPhone, Apple TV and iPad were unveiled months before going on sale, and -- more recently -- the cylindrical Mac Pro and Apple Watch got early reveals. I think the larger iPad would be an excellent candidate for a sneak peek, too. If it is designed to do some things differently, why not show them in an early demo format now?

Twelve-plus inches sounds large at first, but if a larger-screened iPad were exactly what I was hoping for -- something that docked into its own advanced keyboard to become a type of next-gen Apple laptop -- then it might not seem weirdly sized at all.

I don't want a larger iPad if it ends up being essentially the same as the existing iPad experience. But if it feels like it's a transition into more of a computer replacement, and can include some of the features above, then maybe it would be the hybrid product while the existing iPads serve the same function as before. Even if there is a new 12-inch MacBook down the road, I'd still like to see a larger iPad close the gap with the MacBook universe just a bit more.

I bet it sounds like I'm trying to turn the iPad into a PC. I am. That's because the iPad, in its current state, is already as good as it gets. The iPad's an excellent tablet.

But I want it to be more.

Stay tuned for complete coverage of Apple's event next week.