What to Expect From iPad 2

Apple (s aapl) is almost certainly taking the wrapper off its next-generation iPad on Wednesday, so now is a great time to take stock of all the rumors, analyst predictions, and other info we’ve been hearing about the upcoming device. We might not have long to wait to get our hands on Apple’s newest tablet, since AppleInsider is reporting that it will be on store shelves soon after it’s unveiled. But let’s see if we can’t come up with a more realistic overall picture of what to expect.

Are You Looking at Me?

The new iPad will have FaceTime support via a front-facing camera. If it doesn’t, I will eat my hat. Apple is all about FaceTime, and I’m fairly sure the only reason the first iPad didn’t have it is because Apple wanted that to be an iPhone 4 launch feature, and the company knew full well that in a year’s time, it would become an upgrade incentive for original iPad owners. Whether the iPad will have a rear camera as well is less certain. It would help keep the device on par with Android hardware, and Mark thinks it could come in handy for business users. On the other hand, I think most users probably wouldn’t take advantage of it much, and Apple isn’t known for doing things just because everyone else is doing it.

You Look Familiar

The biggest question mark surrounding Apple’s new iPad is probably the display. Will it be double the resolution (2048×1536), as some early rumors speculated? Or will it remain exactly the same, as more recent murmurs indicate? I think the iPad 2 will have a similar screen to the original, but with quality improvements that don’t change the resolution but nevertheless affect the look of the screen. Whether it’s better contrast, brightness, viewing angle or screen depth, we’ll see something that makes the iPad 2 visually pop, but Apple won’t go Retina Display with this revision. The iPhone’s screen remained relatively the same until the iPhone 4, after all. It can afford to keep the same quality of display in place for one more year, especially if it continues to beat all others when it comes to price.

Have You Lost Weight?

The iPad 2 will be thinner than its predecessor. Apple loves to do this with its portable devices; the iPod touch is a perfect example. Apple will have refined the design of components to allow for a thinner case. We might also see a thinner bezel around the screen, allowing for a smaller overall surface area, but the screen will almost certainly remain 9.7 inches. Apple won’t reduce the size of the bezel by too much, though, because the iPad still can’t be held comfortably with one hand without putting a finger on the front of the device. Some suggest a carbon-fiber body might be on the way, but I’d wager that Apple will stick with an aluminum back for this model. BGR this morning posted what it claims might be a picture of the next iPad’s back casing. The casing pictured appears to replicate the design rumors that have been floating around, with a flat back and more prominent speaker, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is, in fact, what we get.

Have You Been Working Out?

Apple will make sure the next iPad gets improvements under the hood, even if it doesn’t go overboard and throw in dual-core processing or tremendous amounts of RAM. Recent rumors suggest that it’ll get an upgrade to a more powerful processor, an A5 to succeed Apple’s in-house designed A4, which currently powers the iPhone 4 and the iPad. At least 512MB of RAM is also pretty much a guarantee. Don’t be surprised if Apple keeps these changes relatively modest on paper, though. The key to iPad’s success is, after all, how well it performs in the hands of users, something more muscle-bound machines haven’t yet been able to match.

There’s a Certain Something About You

All of the above items are what we can pretty safely expect to see, but none of them will really bowl over customers the way Apple likes to with new iterations of its devices. FaceTime is a big addition from Apple’s perspective, but consumers at this point will be shocked only if it isn’t there. Instead, there are a number of possibilities for something new that really shakes things up.

There are three likely possible wow factors for the iPad 2 in my opinion. The first is the inclusion of a Thunderbolt port. Many early case prototypes for the new iPad feature a space for a port that’s too small to be USB, and was originally suspected to be for Mini DisplayPort. Apple showed it was serious about Thunderbolt by including it in the new MacBook Pros it introduced last Thursday. It makes sense for iPad, because it could make for ultra-fast syncing and data transfer between the iPad and new Macs, rewarding customers who embrace both of Apple’s computing platforms. And even for those who don’t, Thunderbolt on the iPad could be used for simple, single-cord A/V out to connected displays. I think this is possible for this generation, but it’s more likely Apple will wait until Thunderbolt has more presence in its Mac line before we see it go portable.

Second, Apple could introduce iOS 5 alongside the iPad, with additional, device-specific features that are only available to customers who pay for the hardware upgrade. Maybe these could be the oft-rumored NFC features many think are on their way to iOS devices, or AirDrop capabilities like those in the new OS X Lion developer preview that allow for easy, fast device-to-device direct file transfer. This seems like the most realistic wow factor candidate for this generation of hardware.

Finally, the new iPad could come with a price reduction. Apple is already leading the tablet pack when it comes to the cost to consumers, but even a $25 drop would do a lot to solidify that position and overshadow a relatively modest, evolutionary hardware update. Apple has been making the iPad for a year now, so presumably it’s been able to reduce production costs along the way.

Those are my expectations going into Wednesday’s event. What are yours?

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