So there is probably an iPad Mini of some sort coming next month. But while what it will look like is still anyone's guess, we may have just gotten a pretty big clue about its insides—and they're more familiar than you might think.
Last night, Instapaper developer Marco Arment wrote about two new iPad 2 models showing up in his usage logs—iPad2,5 and iPad2,6. Those names seemed to indicate new models using the iPad 2's A5 chip, which Arment probably correctly argues makes more sense as an iPad Mini. That sounds about right.
Arment rightly pointed out that using the die-shrunk 32nm A5 to the iPad Mini would continue Apple's (and especially Tim Cook's) time-tested strategy of extending the life of already-developed technology by continuing to sell it, just cheaper. Filling in a product lineup with a new product built around that old tech is just a natural extension of the idea.
And Apple really gets every last drop out of its engineering. Consider: It's still got the iPhone 3GS in production, even though it was released in June 2009. The super efficient 32nm A5 was just pushed out this year. It makes total sense that Apple would be willing to use it as the foundation for a brand new product.
And considering an iPad Mini wouldn't have to push the massive amount of pixels of the iPad 3—probably not even a retina-level of pixels for its 7.85-inch screen—a drop back to 512MB of RAM wouldn't be the end of the world. Sure, the Nexus 7 has 1GB, but so did basically every Android phone when Apple ran out the 512MB 4S. And don't be surprised if price-conscious Amazon foregoes 1GB of RAM for less (and cheaper). The Fire's custom Android interface was actually really smooth, and it's probably not going to get that much of an overhaul. So an iPad with 512MB of RAM might not be as outgunned as you'd think. And it would help Apple be cost competitive with the cutthroat Nexus 7.
Well, yes and no. We've taken a crack at imagining what an iPad Mini might look like. Others disagreed. But those are all ergonomics, not guts. In fact, almost all of the discussion about the Mini thus far has been about its size, and how that would be held, or if iOS could scale to that size and remain usable. No one's talked all that much about internals.
But maybe that's a mistake. How Apple decides to spec an iPad Mini is deeply interesting, because it's got to keep up with the high-octane Nexus 7, as well as a soon-to-be-updated Kindle Fire. But here's the thing: The A5 is actually still really good! It mostly held its own against the A5X (iPad 3) and the Tegra 3 in benchmarking, and the 32nm version improves battery life to boot.
The one hiccup to the A5 theory is that it may not be powerful enough to support an iPad Mini retina display, and it's strange to think of a major Apple product being released without one. Sure, Apple has concerned itself with the lower end of the market more lately, with stuff like the free iPhone 3GS and the $50 iPhone 4. But it's been a long time since we've seen a brand new Apple product without all of Cupertino's considerable weaponry at its disposal.
It might make sense this time, though, to forego retina. For one, the iPad had to get fatter and heavier and hotter in order to accommodate the battery its retina screen required. The smaller a device, the less surface area it has to cram in battery. A fat, sweaty, stumpy iPad Mini is no one's idea of a good time.
Plus, an inexpensive iPad Mini that sets the precedent for a one-and-a-half-cycle-old chipset to be used, in order to keep cost down, would fit perfectly into Apple's pricing structure.
Still, points of differentiation on 7-inch tablets are small as it is. The Nexus 7 with Jellybean is smooth as a tub of Project Butter, and the Kindle Fire has already proven its worth. Without a retina screen to blast the competition away, it risks looking average. But with it, all these reasonable, inexpensive guts look less realistic.